TAMPA — How important was the Lightning’s final regular-season meeting with the Hurricanes on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena?
So important that Lightning coach Jon Cooper tabbed goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to start consecutive days in the regular season for the first time in three years.
With the season winding down and the Lightning trying to make up ground on the Hurricanes and Panthers, Vasilevskiy was in net instead of backup Curtis McElhinney, who typically gets one start when the team plays back-to-back nights.
The Lightning failed to make ground, with Tuesday’s game ending in a frustrating 4-1 loss to Carolina. The Lightning (30-14-2, 60 points) fell three points behind Carolina and Florida, both have 63, with 10 games remaining in the regular season.
Vasilevskiy started consecutive days last postseason — Games 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. But Tuesday marked his first regular-season starts on two straight days since Nov. 28-29, 2017.
Asked about the decision to start Vasilevskiy, Cooper said, “It was in our plans. We did it and we’d do it again.”
Vasilevskiy, who made 32 saves Tuesday night, didn’t get much help from his teammates.
“Vasy’s been playing great and he played great again tonight, too,” said center Brayden Point, who scored the Lightning’s only goal. “We didn’t give him a ton of support. That’s a big game. It was a big game and we would have liked to have had it.”
Coming off one of their best wins of the year the previous night, a 3-2 overtime win that had a playoff feel to it, the Lightning were unable to carry the momentum into Tuesday.
“We turned too many pucks over,” Cooper said. “We didn’t break out clean. (Monday) night, we were breaking out clean, we were skating. Today we were making that extra pass. We didn’t think through the game as well as we probably could have. And we lost the battles. When you do that in this game, it’s going to be tough.
“But there’s another team out there, they’re trying to win, too. There’s a reason they have the record they have. There’s a reason we have the record we have. It’s a good litmus test for both teams.”
The Lightning allowed three second-period goals, including two within a 25-second span. They struggled to keep pace with Carolina and allowed too many point-blank scoring chances in front of the net. And once they fell behind 3-0, the Hurricanes’ relentless forecheck made it difficult to get back into the game.
The Hurricanes opened scoring when a Carolina rush ended with Nino Niederreiter beating Vasilevskiy on a wrister from the slot from a feed from Vincent Trocheck 7:48 into the second period. Jordan Staal then scored 8:14 into the period, redirecting a shot on net by defenseman Dougie Hamilton despite Lightning forward Yanni Gourde’s constant jostling trying to move Staal from in front of the net.
The Hurricanes went up 3-0 on Steven Lorentz’s goal with 3:15 left. Tampa Bay was outshot by Carolina 14-7 in the second period.
The Lightning salvaged a late second-period goal, as Point redirected Ondrej Palat’s shot on net with 2:57 to play for his team-high 20th goal of the season. That provided Tampa Bay with something to build on offensively going into the final period, but the Lightning were held to one goal.
After Jordan Martinook’s empty netter with 2.2 seconds left, Tuesday’s game marked the sixth time in the past nine they’ve allowed four goals or more. Point said it could have ben worse had it not been for Vasilevskiy.
“We showed glimpses tonight, but not consistent enough,” Point said. “We gave up too much. Vasy made some great saves. That score could have been different without him, so we’re just giving up too much.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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