TAMPA — The Lightning's playoff hopes are not officially squashed, but after Thursday night's 3-1 loss to the Maple Leafs at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, reality should be sinking in.
This was a game Tampa Bay had to win as it came off an uplifting victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins to face a Toronto team on a 2-13-2 nosedive.
Instead, the Lightning (32-31-7), losers of four of five, wasted its game in hand on the Capitals to remain 11th in the Eastern Conference, seven points behind idle Washington for the eighth and final playoff spot with 12 games to go and three teams to jump.
"It was," center Steven Stamkos said, "a lost opportunity."
"I don't think it was our effort that wasn't there," defenseman Brian Lee said, "just our smarts."
It was a bad night for Tampa Bay in all sorts of ways — much to the delight of the boisterous Leafs fans who nearly split the sellout crowd — with the bright spots being Marty St. Louis' goal with 26 seconds left and Dwayne Roloson's 18 saves in relief of Dustin Tokarski.
Other than that …
Lee's ill-advised interference penalty seven seconds into the game provided a power play on which John-Michael Liles scored at 1:09.
Tokarski got little help from his defenses but struggled and was pulled with 7:23 left in the second period after allowing three goals on 10 shots.
Coach Guy Boucher had his hand in it as well. He short-circuited a second-period power play by mouthing off to referee Eric Furlatt for missing what he believed was a trip on Stamkos that would have given the Lightning, down 2-0, a 53-second five-on-three.
Thirty-eight seconds later, Jake Gardiner scored four-on-four through Tokarski's legs to make it 3-0 after a splendid play in which he passed to himself off the side boards and went around Lee. "You get a five-on-three and it's 2-0 and get an entire minute of five-on-three, that can change everything," Boucher said. "I saw, and still believe what I saw. I spoke my mind. To me it's a clear penalty and an easy (call) to make."
Still, there was no guarantee the Lightning would have converted; it went 0-for-5 with the extra man. And when it did challenge James Reimer, the goalie was solid with 33 saves.
Bottom line, the Lightning is going down for the third time. It is 1-2-0 on a seven-game homestand that was to be the linchpin of its playoff push. It is four points from the bottom of the East and Saturday faces the Blues, the NHL's No. 1 team.
"We cannot," Lee said, "afford to lose."
First Period—1, Toronto, Liles 6 (Grabovski, Kessel), 1:09 (pp). Penalties—Lee, TB (interference), :07; Komisarek, Tor (hooking), 2:27; Stamkos, TB (holding), 13:08.
Second Period—2, Toronto, Crabb 9 (Lombardi, T.Connolly), 3:27. 3, Toronto, Gardiner 5 (Lombardi), 12:28. Penalties—Wallace, TB (hooking), 3:51; Grabovski, Tor (holding), 10:47; TB bench, served by Wallace (abusive language), 11:54; Phaneuf, Tor (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:38; Stamkos, TB (unsportsmanlike conduct, high-sticking), 19:38.
Third Period—4, TB, St. Louis 23 (Clark), 19:34. Penalties—Gunnarsson, Tor (hooking), 5:18; Phaneuf, Tor (hooking), 8:06; Hall, TB (tripping), 18:00; Phaneuf, Tor, double minor (roughing), 18:38; Stamkos, TB (roughing), 18:38. Shots —Toronto 4-10-14—28. TB 9-12-14—35. PP opportunities—Toronto 1 of 6; TB 0 of 5. Goalies—Toronto, Reimer 12-12-4 (35 shots-34 saves). TB, Tokarski 1-2-1 (10-7), Roloson (12:28 second, 18-18).