The Lightning were handed their worst loss of the season Tuesday in Nashville, falling behind by three goals early in a 7-2 loss, and they only had themselves to blame.
With captain Steven Stamkos out, trade acquisition David Savard playing his first game and fourth-liner Mitchell Stephens playing for the first time since January, there were some players in different spots. But that was little excuse for the sloppiness the Lightning showed through the neutral zone early.
Veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh put it bluntly, calling Tuesday’s game one of the worst performances he’s seen from this group.
“If we want to get to where we want to be, we’ve got to put in the work here and get back to playing in sync, and at least starting with good effort, or halfway-decent effort,” McDonagh said. “That was not even close.”
The five-goal margin of defeat was the largest for Tampa Bay this season. The seven goals allowed also were a season high.
While the loss was certainly a gut punch, it wasn’t totally unanticipated. The Lightning are no longer the team that steamrolled through the first two months of the season. They have lost six of their last 10 games. Tuesday’s loss was their second by four goals or more in the past five games. And they’ve scored two goals or fewer in five of their last eight.
“You want to talk about getting kicked down,” McDonagh said. “There was signs of it in (the last series in) Columbus, and we got kicked pretty far down (Tuesday). I don’t really like to sit here and talk negatively about our team, or anything in general, but we know that was not anything close to where it needs to be in all areas.”
The loss came after the Lightning (28-12-2) had two days off between games — a rarity this season — and should have been energized by the acquisition of Savard.
The Predators (24-19-1), winners of 13 of their last 16, were playing their third game in four days at home.
The Lightning gifted the Predators five rushes in the first period, and Nashville scored on three of them. Trying to push the puck forward into the offensive zone, Tampa Bay too often turned the puck over in the neutral zone and found itself chasing odd-man rushes.
On two of Nashville’s first-period goals, Savard found himself defending two-on-one on his own, hardly the welcome the Lightning anticipated for their new teammate. Backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney, making his first start in two weeks, allowed three goals on seven shots in the first period, but he was hardly to blame.
“It was a tough one to watch, and not in the sense that it’s a tough score and we gave Mac zero help,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But it was like the chances we gave up. Nashville would go 12 minutes without a shot on goal and then we’d give them a 10-bell two-on-one and they buried it. That was the frustrating part, and we’re better than that and we know we’re better than that. I consider this one a one-off, but it’s unfortunate the way it played out.”
McElhinney was screened by defenseman Erik Cernak on Nashville’s first goal, as Colton Sissons rocketed a wrist shot from the left dot 6:38 into the game. Less than two minutes later, Nashville defenseman Roman Josi kept the puck on a two-on-one rush and scored on a wrister from the right circle.
As the Predators scored their first two goals, the Lightning went through a stretch of 7:24 without a shot on net.
The Predators’ third score came on another two-on-one, with Viktor Arvidsson scoring off a feed from Ryan Johanson with 6:10 left in the period.
The Lightning were lucky they weren’t trailing by more at the first intermission. Forward Mathieu Joseph, elevated to the second forward line with Stamkos out, committed two first-period turnovers that led to Nashville rushes.
Tampa Bay isn’t the best of comeback teams, just 6-6-1 when trailing after one period. It scored a power-play goal early in the second — Brayden Point’s team-high 18th goal of the season — and held the Predators to five shots in the period, but Nashville responded with a goal from Rocco Grimaldi before the end of the second.
In the third, Josi made a pinpoint pass to Arvidsson as he snuck behind Victor Hedman for a breakaway, and Arvidsson scored his second goal of the night with 10:01 left. Yanni Gourde responded with a putback of his own shot with 8:32 remaining. Nashville scored two more goals, including Tanner Jeannot’s first NHL goal with just over 5 minutes left to play.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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