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LATE ILLS CAUSE TOSSING, TURNING

Lightning at a loss to explain the rash of third-period breakdowns.

If anyone believed coach John Tortorella would feel better about Tuesday's game after a good night's sleep, forget about it.

Tortorella said he didn't sleep. Instead, he stewed over another third-period meltdown that in the final five minutes turned a 5-2 snoozer against the Blues into an episode of Survivor.

That Tampa Bay won 5-4 didn't matter.

"Not at all," Tortorella said Wednesday. "It's a lack of attention to details, and I'm fed up with it."

Not only because he said his players "know better," but because rotten third periods are a main reason Tampa Bay's season hangs by a thread.

Consider that despite being 22-27-5 and last in the East, the Lightning is eight points behind Southeast-leading Capitals with one game in hand.

Then consider Tampa Bay has lost 12 games, nine in regulation, in which it entered the third period tied or ahead. That's 21 points squandered; two Saturday when Florida scored twice in the last six minutes for a 3-2 win.

"What if we win the Florida game?" Tortorella said.

You do the math.

"It's just unacceptable," he added. "It's an aggravating thing for me."

The aggravation began against the Blues nine seconds after Nick Tarnasky put the Lightning ahead 5-2 with 5:05 left.

Defenseman Dan Boyle ran into a linesman while going after a puck, a two-on-one developed when center Vinny Lecavalier was out of position and Jamal Mayers scored to make it 5-3.

With 22.1 seconds left, Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Marty St. Louis were on the wrong side of the puck, allowing a four-on-two that ended with David Perron's goal that cut the deficit to one.

On Mayers' goal, there was an extenuating circumstance, a linesman also out of position.

"I was yelling at him to get out of the way," Boyle said. "It was like it was happening in slow motion. If I went left, he went left. It was one of those pucks I would have had."

No one can pinpoint the problem. There are bad passes, bad reads and bad positioning, all of which become more prevalent as third periods progress.

Lately, the costliest mistakes are being made by top players.

"We just have to be sharper," Boyle said. "We've got to be aware of how much time is left and who you're playing against. We've got to bear down."

Tampa Bay didn't do it against the Blues or six other games since Jan. 1 in which it allowed momentum-changing, third-period goals. Perhaps tonight against the red-hot Predators.

"It's beyond me how we can't get this straightened out," Tortorella said. "It happens every freakin' game for us."

"Our situational play is very bad," St. Louis said. "It's tough on the heart sometimes."

Never mind robbing the coach of sleep.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

TONIGHT

Lightning at Predators

When/where: 8; Sommet Center, Nashville

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 620-AM

Injuries: Tampa Bay - Center Ryan Craig (knee) is out. Nashville - Wing Steve Sullivan (back), wing Jordin Tootoo (hip) are out.

Key stats: The season's only meeting. ... Tampa Bay has not played in Nashville since Feb. 5, 2004. ... The Lightning has won five straight on the road but is still the league's worst road team at 8-14-3. ... The Predators are on a 10-3-3 streak. They have won four straight and earned 15 of 18 points in their past nine at home. ... Nashville's penalty kill is 40-for-44 in its past 13 games. ... The Predators have outscored opponents 18-5 in first periods of their past 16 games. ... Nashville wing Alex Radulov has seven goals and two assists in a seven-game points streak.

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