TAMPA — Wing Nikita Kucherov's costly, perhaps controversial, major penalty sparked the power play that led to the Lightning's 2-1 loss to Winnipeg on Saturday night.
But the roots for Tampa Bay's third loss in its past 18 home games lay much deeper than Kucherov's hit on Jets defenseman Toby Enstrom.
"We kept shooting ourselves in the foot," coach Jon Cooper said. "Eventually, if you keep doing that, you're not going to be able to walk anymore."
And that's why the Lightning (42-21-7) limped away from a sold-out Amalie Arena crowd of 19,204 two points behind the Canadiens for first in the Atlantic Division. Montreal beat the Islanders 3-1 Saturday.
Playing against a desperate Winnipeg team fighting for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference, the Lightning struggled. It mustered a season-low 16 shots, including only five in the second period, and had nearly twice as many giveaways (11-6).
"We didn't match anything they brought to the table," Cooper said.
But through the first two periods, the Jets had nothing to show for it, thanks to Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. He stopped 27 shots total, including three on one Jets power play.
"He's the only reason we were in it," Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio said.
It looked like that might be enough after Kucherov broke a scoreless tie in the third.
The 21-year-old Russian fired a shot from the right circle that flew over the glove of the Jets' Ondrej Pavelec with 15:47 left. The goal was Kucherov's 26th of the year and his third in the past five games. Defenseman Matt Carle had the secondary assist in his first game back after missing the past two months while recovering from abdominal surgery.
But the lead didn't last long.
Almost four minutes later, Kucherov slammed Enstrom into the boards. Cooper said Enstrom turned into Kucherov. Kucherov called the play an accident.
"It happened so fast," Kucherov said. "I don't think I could have done something else."
The blow knocked Enstrom to the ice and started the largest scrum in a game that had plenty of them. The Jets got a five-minute major power play with the boarding call on Kucherov, who was also given a game misconduct.
"It definitely sparked us," Jets wing Drew Stafford said.
Stafford tied the score two minutes later with the first of two Jets goals in a span of 2:44.
The second one came after one final Lightning mistake. Defenseman Victor Hedman tried to pass the puck to Anton Stralman in their zone. Winnipeg wing Blake Wheeler intercepted it, then juked Stralman to the right and blasted a shot to Vasilevskiy's stick side for the winning goal.
"I think we kind of gave up after that," Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. "That's not characteristic of our club."
Neither was the end result.
The league's highest-scoring team had been 11-2-3 when tied after two periods. It failed to add to its franchise-record 26 home victories with one of its roughest offensive nights of the season.
"On home ice, we didn't show up," Barberio said. "It's unacceptable."
First Period—None. Penalties—Slater, Wpg (hooking), 18:48.
Second Period—None. Penalties—Stralman, TB (tripping), 3:00; Brown, TB (high-sticking), 6:12; Stafford, Wpg (roughing), 13:02; Angelidis, TB (roughing), 13:02.
Third Period—1, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 26 (Drouin, Carle), 4:13. 2, Winnipeg, Stafford 14 (Stempniak, Tlusty), 10:00 (pp). 3, Winnipeg, Wheeler 20, 12:44. Penalties—Trouba, Wpg, minor-misconduct (roughing), 8:01; Johnson, TB (roughing), 8:01; Kucherov, TB, major-game misconduct (boarding), 8:01; Postma, Wpg (hooking), 11:44. Shots on Goal—Winnipeg 6-16-7—29. Tampa Bay 7-5-4—16. Power-play opportunities—Winnipeg 1 of 4; Tampa Bay 0 of 2. Goalies—Winnipeg, Pavelec 14-14-7 (16 shots-15 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 6-4-1 (29-27).