PITTSBURGH — An inch here and a save there and the Lightning might have earned a better outcome Friday night against the Penguins.
But a deflected puck that, had it gone in, would have tied the score in the third period slid along the goal line, and Tampa Bay goaltender Mike Smith admittedly could have been better during Pittsburgh's three-goal third period.
The result: a 5-1 loss in front of a sellout crowd of 18,275 at the new CONSOL Energy Center, and the feeling that Tampa Bay (8-6-2), battered by injuries and with losses in five of six games, is fraying a bit at the edges.
"We can still battle," coach Guy Boucher. "We can still keep it close."
But for a team that, with 18 points, all of a sudden is closer to the bottom of the Southeast Division than the top, that is not enough.
Consider the challenge:
Captain Vinny Lecavalier (knuckle), left wing Simon Gagne (neck strain) and right wing Steve Downie (neck strain) are sidelined. A virus made wing Dana Tyrell a late scratch, leaving a lineup of 11 forwards, including minor-league callups Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Johan Harju.
It almost puts a season-low 16 shots, five during 9:42 of power-play time, in perspective.
"It's always tough when you lose guys," center Nate Thompson said. "At the same time, a lot of teams deal with this kind of stuff. It's not like we're out of every game."
Tampa Bay was in Friday's game because it decided, given its personnel issues and in the second of back-to-back games, that shutting down the Penguins was the priority instead of playing its usual high-tempo game.
And Pittsburgh got just 20 shots, but Smith stopped just 15. His crucial whiff came with 7:48 left in the third on Maxim Talbot's shot from the left faceoff circle that made the score 3-1.
It wasn't all on Smith. Pavel Kubina's turnover led to Talbot's goal. Pouliot's turnover led to Sidney Crosby's goal that made it 4-1.
Marty St. Louis couldn't beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on a first-period breakaway. And after Steven Stamkos cut the Penguins' lead to 2-1 5:30 into the third period with his league-best 15th goal and seventh on the power play, the Lightning could not cash in on a 1:15 five-on-three
It came close. A Stamkos shot deflected off Adam Hall in front of the net. Fleury swatted at the puck, and it skirted the goal line but did not go in.
"The battle level is there. The dedication is there," Boucher said.
Three of the team's top six forwards are not.
First Period—None. Penalties—Bergenheim, TB (high-sticking), 12:07; Rupp, Pit (holding), 14:23; Harju, TB (hooking), 16:58.
Second Period—1, Pittsburgh, Dupuis 5 (Letang, Talbot), 8:01. 2, Pittsburgh, Goligoski 4 (Rupp, Letestu), 8:28. Penalties—Letang, Pit (boarding), 3:37; Stamkos, TB (hooking), 4:47; Kennedy, Pit (hooking), 5:18; Rupp, Pit (unsportsmanlike conduct), 8:28; Bergenheim, TB, double minor (high-sticking), 16:54.
Third Period—3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 15 (St. Louis, Purcell), 5:30 (pp). 4, Pittsburgh, Talbot 3, 12:12. 5, Pittsburgh, Crosby 11 (Dupuis), 16:44. 6, Pittsburgh, Engelland 1 (Crosby, Kunitz), 18:50. Penalties—Orpik, Pit, double minor (high-sticking), 2:23; Malone, TB (hooking), 3:05; Dupuis, Pit (tripping), 5:20; Cooke, Pit (boarding), 6:05. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 3-6-7—16. Pittsburgh 6-6-8—20. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 8; Pittsburgh 0 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Smith 4-3-0 (20 shots-15 saves). Pittsburgh, Fleury 2-6-0 (16-15). A—18,275 (18,087). T—2:25. Referees—Chris Rooney, Dave Jackson. Linesmen—Derek Nansen, Jonny Murray.