TAMPA — Lightning coach Jon Cooper thought his team’s chances were there in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss against the Blue Jackets.
But he and Steven Stamkos said the team gave too much away when it came to their looks on Elvis Merzlikins, who made 37 saves.
Cooper said the Lightning “did a lot of good things,” but they lost a third straight following back-to-back road losses at Dallas and Carolina.
The skid marks the first three-game losing streak for the Lightning this season. The last time the team lost at least this many in a row was Feb. 20-27, 2020, a span of four straight losses against Vegas, Arizona, Toronto and Chicago.
“It’s tough to lose this one just because I thought we had a lot of good things going,” Cooper said. “But you can’t let frustration set in. We’ve been around the block before here and you have to fight through it. This happens. We haven’t had to fight through it a ton this year, and now, it’s time.”
And while frustrations might have boiled over on the ice — Victor Hedman intentionally broke his stick after Cam Atkinson notched the third period’s empty-net goal for Columbus (14-15-8) — the Lightning (24-9-2) aren’t concerned and feel they’ve kept the frustrations at bay in the room.
“I don’t think our team gets frustrated pretty often,” Stamkos said. “At the end of the day, sometimes it feels like the sky’s falling when we lose 2-3 games. That’s just how high the standard is within this team, so there’s no panic in the locker room.”
After a scoreless first period, the Lightning faced their scariest moment of the game — and maybe the season — about five minutes into the second when they nearly lost Hedman to injury.
Last year’s Conn Smythe-winning defenseman tripped over Columbus’ Mikko Lehtonen — who was sliding backward toward the boards to disrupt Hedman’s pass — and hit hard into the boards.
Hedman struggled to get up after he fell, unable to put pressure on his right leg. Trainer Tom Mulligan and Stamkos helped him off the ice, and he proceeded down the tunnel. He returned about five minutes later, and played 15:01 over 15 shifts for the remainder of the game.
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“It’s just one of those things that you go through as a player and I was fortunate enough to come back,” Hedman said. “If I wasn’t good enough to come back, I wouldn’t have come back.”
The Lightning already were without two of their best defensemen in Ryan McDonagh (four games missed; lower-body injury) and Erik Cernak (three games; lower body). They added Jan Rutta to that list Tuesday when the defenseman left the second period with a lower-body injury and didn’t return. There wasn’t an update on his status after the game.
After Hedman’s injury, the game slipped away with Columbus’ Oliver Bjorkstrand and David Savard finding the open net on Curtis McElhinney (18 saves) in the second period.
The Lightning’s goal — a deflection that hit Mathieu Joseph off a shot from Luke Schenn — helped give the team a push during the third period, but it wasn’t enough.
Cooper said the team’s chances were there all evening with the team retaining puck possession “a lot of the night.” The issue came down to how much the Lightning allowed Columbus’ Merzlikins to “see everything.”
The team will have a chance to break the losing skid on Thursday, where it’ll see the Blue Jackets, again, on home ice.
“We’ll get back on track here,” Stamkos said.
“I have no worry about that. We played certainly good enough to win tonight and usually when that happens, things start to go your way. You start to get some bounces when you’re playing the right way, so I’m looking forward to that starting next game so we can build off some of that momentum we created even though we didn’t win.”