TAMPA — What is the worst thing that can happen to a fragile team on an extended losing streak?
An opponent scores a soft goal to take an early lead.
What is worse? The opponent getting two.
That is what happened to the Lightning on Sunday in a 6-3 loss to the Penguins at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"That's difficult," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said, "because you have an uphill climb right away when you start the game."
Goals by Matt Gilroy, Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell in 4 minutes, 50 seconds of the third period tied the score 3-3.
But Penguins star Evgeni Malkin scored three in the third, including an empty-netter, for a five-point game that sent the Lightning (17-23-4) to its seventh straight defeat and last place in the Eastern Conference.
"It's painful," Malone said. "We lead the league in comebacks in the third period (10), but you don't want to be coming back every game by two goals."
Added Malone: "We weren't ready. The desperation has to be there right from the drop of the puck. Until we have some more pride or whatever it may be, we have to battle harder."
This is not a new lament. Tampa Bay has been outscored 54-30 in the first period and led just eight times going into the second.
It also was the second straight game a Lightning goaltender gave up two early soft goals.
This time, it was Mathieu Garon, who allowed James Neal's sharp-angle shot through his legs 2:43 into the game and Richard Park's wrist shot from the slot at 10:38.
"When you look at the replay, it's easy, but it happens so fast," Garon said. "The second one I didn't see at all. The first one just sneaked under my pads."
You could almost see the players' shoulders sag as Pittsburgh outshot Tampa Bay 17-5 in the first and 44-20 in the game.
"What's tough is it's the same story as the last game," Boucher said of Friday's 4-3 loss to the Capitals. "When you see that, it's tough because it becomes something heavier.
"If it's something that occurs once every blue moon, it's easier to manage. But it happens quite a bit, so you have to dig deeper to get rid of the negative side of starting from behind. It's mentally draining."
Still, Tampa Bay had a chance after Purcell's goal made it 3-3 6:50 into the third period.
But 48 seconds later Malkin carried the puck off the side boards and scored on a long-side backhand to make it 4-3, and Purcell's neutral-zone giveaway led to Malkin's breakaway goal at 9:27.
"That turnover killed us," Boucher said.
Tampa Bay had been wounded long before.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]
First Period—1, Pittsburgh, Neal 23 (Martin, Malkin), 2:43 (pp). 2, Pittsburgh, Park 3, 10:38. Penalties—Stamkos, TB (slashing), :46; Engelland, Pit, major (fighting), 6:24; Labrie, TB, major (fighting), 6:24; Kubina, TB (hooking), 12:07.
Second Period—None. Penalties—Downie, TB (boarding), 14:53; Downie, TB (roughing), 19:45.
Third Period—3, Pittsburgh, Neal 24 (Malkin, Sullivan), :34 (pp). 4, Tampa Bay, Gilroy 1 (Stamkos, St. Louis), 2:00. 5, Tampa Bay, Malone 9 (Lecavalier, Purcell), 4:53 (pp). 6, Tampa Bay, Purcell 9 (Lecavalier, Gervais), 6:50. 7, Pittsburgh, Malkin 19, 7:38. 8, Pittsburgh, Malkin 20 (Orpik), 9:27. 9, Pittsburgh, Malkin 21, 19:04 (en). Penalties—Engelland, Pit (high-sticking), 4:01; Malkin, Pit (roughing), 12:11; Lecavalier, TB, double minor-misconduct (roughing), 12:11; Neal, Pit, misconduct, 12:16; Kubina, TB, misconduct, 12:16. Shots on Goal—Pittsburgh 17-15-12—44. Tampa Bay 5-8-7—20. Power-play opportunities—Pittsburgh 2 of 5; Tampa Bay 1 of 1. Goalies—Pittsburgh, Fleury 21-12-2 (20 shots-17 saves). Tampa Bay, Garon 11-13-2 (43-38). A—19,204 (19,204).