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Lightning free fall picks up speed

Today, the Lightning sweats out the eve of the NHL trading deadline.

Tuesday, those who remain embark on a journey farther than any other an NHL team from Tampa Bay can make _ with stops in Edmonton, Calgary and, finally, the Pacific Northwest port of Vancouver.

And maybe it is just as well the Lightning is going as far away as it can, because after 16,843 witnessed the end of a disastrous six-game stand at the Ice Palace _ falling 3-1 to lowly Toronto on Sunday night, its fifth loss in six games _ it safe to assume hardly anyone will miss the boys for a while.

By the time you see some of them again, it could be on the back of a milk carton or in a visiting team's media guide.

"I'm going to do something," Lightning GM Phil Esposito said after this latest loss. "I guarantee you that. Whether it's (today) or Tuesday, I don't know. Because it's just like a marriage, or a divorce. It takes two to get it done."

No one knows for certain what moves Esposito will make before the 3 p.m. Tuesday trade deadline.

Suffice it to say it is reasonable to suspect neither Esposito, coach Terry Crisp nor anyone else in the front office is happy with the current bunch.

Though still on the cusp of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, Tampa Bay dropped again after Sunday's loss. Passed by Washington, a winner over Hartford on Sunday, the Lightning stands 10th, two places and three points behind Montreal, owner of the eighth and final playoff position.

To think: With just six points out of a possible 12 from this just-ended six-game homestand, rather than the two it did earn, Tampa Bay could be seventh instead of 10th.

And six points _ the value of three victories _ certainly was not too much to expect. After all, the teams Tampa Bay faced in the past 10 days are not exactly world-beaters: Phoenix, Boston, Calgary, the New York Islanders, Vancouver and Toronto _ none ranked among the league's top 10 as of Sunday, and three of them among the five worst.

Making matters worse is the way the Lightning has dropped five of six: shutout losses to Phoenix and the Islanders; a blown 4-1 lead against Boston; three games in which it allowed five or more goals; and a total of 23 goals against, nine for.

"This is pretty low, one of the lowest times. That's for sure," center Chris Gratton said. "It's frustrating. We're just not playing for each other."

The misery ended Sunday, when Toronto took a 2-0 lead into the third period despite being outshot 29-15.

Wendel Clark was first to crack Rick Tabaracci, shooting through the Lightning goalie's pads after Steve Sullivan fed him for a break down the left side just more than two minutes into the middle period.

Clark returned the favor with eight seconds left in the second. He got the puck behind the Lightning net from Sullivan, who dug it out of the corner before passing along the back boards and peeling away from Gratton. Clark then passed in front to Sullivan, who roofed a shot over the sprawled Tabaracci.

Mats Sundin made it 3-0 by redirecting a Sergei Berezin pass early in the third, and Tampa Bay's Brantt Myhres added a meaningless goal with 58.4 seconds left to ruin Felix Potvin's shutout bid.

"All we can do is go out on the ice and work hard, and we haven't done that," Lightning wing Rob Zamuner. "Maybe it is best we're going back on the road."

For the record: The Lightning does not return to Tampa until March 25, one week after the trade deadline. Who will come home remains to be seen.