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Opportunistic Panthers drub lethargic Lightning

Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier took a pass from Vinny Prospal and blazed a shot past Florida goalie Roberto Luongo. The crowd cheered. The horn blared. The scoreboard lit up with fireworks.

Alas, the goal merely helped the Lightning avoid what would have been one of the worst shutout losses in franchise history. What it didn't erase, what it couldn't erase, was one of the more embarrassing losses in team history.

Fresh off the 16-day Olympic break and ready to make a mad dash into the playoffs, the Lightning stumbled out of the gates and suffered a complete meltdown in an 8-2 loss Tuesday night to the lowly Florida Panthers in front of 19,805 at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"We just were awful," Lightning center Brad Richards said. "It was just one of those games."

Lightning coach John Tortorella said all week he feared how the Lightning would play considering eight of his stars were off in Italy for the Olympics and the rest spent most of the break catching rays and working on their putting.

But even in his worst-case scenario, Tortorella could not have forecasted his team would be thoroughly thumped as it was Tuesday night. It was so bad he had no words to explain it.

"I can't," Tortorella said with a shrug. "We just have to look by it."

The game wasn't even over and he had started forgetting about it.

"We're all mature enough to handle it," Tortorella said. "We're a mature enough team to understand what happened, but also mature enough team to look to get ready for our next game. With such a short time left in our season, at times you have to have amnesia."

It was, indeed, a forgettable game for the Lightning and it only took seconds to see it was going to be rough sailing. Defenseman Pavel Kubina was nabbed for holding at the 21-second mark and five seconds later, the Panthers power play started wearing out the goal light.

By period's end, the Panthers were well on their way and the Lightning's frustrations were just starting. Even Tortorella got in on the act, mouthing off a little too much to referee Mike Leggo, who slapped the Lightning coach with a two-minute unsportsmanlike penalty that gave the Panthers a five-on-three power play. The Lightning killed off the penalties, but the undisciplined tone was set.

Before the night was over, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle also picked up unsportsmanlike penalties. In fact, Richards picked up 14 minutes in penalties (two for hooking, two for unsportsmanlike conduct and a 10-minute misconduct) on one play. That was two more penalty minutes than he had received all of last season.

"Wrong," Tortorella said of his yelling at Leggo. "That has to stop. Because what I see, after that, then the players start chirping. We can't look for excuses and it has to start with me. I appreciate them killing it off because I put them in a major hole at that time of the game.

"But (the players) say, "Okay, he's yapping,' and they take some liberties. We can't go about our (last) quarter of the season (like that). We have to keep our concentration. That is on my shoulders. That will be rectified. Me and the club."

Whether the referees were good or bad and whether the Lightning deserved the unsportsmanlike penalties or not, it hardly matters when a team loses by six goals.

Goalie John Grahame, who had little help from his defense, was mercifully yanked after allowing four goals. Sean Burke gave up four, as well. The game was blown open by five second-period goals by the Panthers. Former Lightning forward Chris Gratton had two goals, as did Olli Jokinen and Joe Nieuwendyk.

Lecavalier and Ryan Craig scored in the third to make it 8-2, equaling the 8-2 loss to New Jersey on Nov. 25 as the worst losses of the season. The only good news is the Lightning (32-23-4 and sixth in the East) maintained a nine-point lead over ninth-place Toronto for the final playoff spot.

"Hey, what are you going to do?" veteran Tim Taylor said. "We didn't play well. Obviously, we know that. Forget it and move on. That's all we can do."