TAMPA — The Lightning spent the past month compiling points and rising in the standings after a slow start to the season. But that might have lulled them into a false sense of security.
Even the best teams blow leads, but the way the Lightning let a two-goal, third-period cushion against the Devils slip away Saturday afternoon left everyone in the locker room frustrated.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions saw the ghosts of their underachieving past in a 5-3 loss in front of a sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena.
“You’ve just got to hope that that’s it, that game, the way we played, that’s over, because there’s going to be some bad stretches for us if that continues,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Some old bad habits crept into our game from years when we didn’t go very far in the playoffs. So it’s hopefully a quick learning experience for us.”
The Lightning (9-4-3) allowed four third-period goals after going into the second intermission up 3-1, letting the Devils tilt the ice over the final period. But Cooper said the problems cropped up before then.
“It wasn’t the third,” Cooper said. “Their team outworked us. It’s that simple. It’s the National Hockey League, and if you’re going to get outworked, you’re playing with fire. There was a sense of arrogance we had about us (Saturday) thinking we got up 3-1 and this was going to be easy. We got what we deserved.”
The loss snapped the Lightning’s three-game winning streak and nine-game point streak.
“I think we’ve had times where we’ve done a good job offensively,” said forward Pat Maroon, who had a power-play goal in the first period to break a 1-1 tie. “And then we have times when we’re really just not at all. We just have relapses that can’t … creep into our games, because then it’s going to become a habit.”
In the first 10 minutes of the third period, Tampa Bay’s two-goal lead flipped to a one-goal deficit as a young, fast Devils team refused to go away.
Devils rookie Dawson Mercer fooled Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to cut New Jersey’s deficit to 3-2, skating toward the net as if he was going to go for a wraparound, then cutting back and tucking the puck past Vasilevskiy’s left pad and into the net.
Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood stopped the final 21 Lightning shots he faced, including an impressive glove save on forward Alex Killorn’s shot on a 2-on-1 breakaway to keep it a one-goal game. Blackwood, who was pulled Thursday in the second period after allowing four goals at Florida, made 31 saves.
Devils defenseman P.K. Subban then sprung forward Jimmy Vesey with a stretch pass from his end line to the Lightning blue line, giving Vesey a breakaway that he converted with a high backhanded shot to beat Vasilevskiy glove side to tie the score.
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The Lightning gave Devils forward Yegor Sharangovich too much space in front of the net, and he made them pay with two goals, including the go-ahead score on a snap shot that beat Vasilevskiy inside the near post 9:34 into the third.
Less than a minute later, Lightning center Brayden Point was awarded a penalty shot when he was tripped by Devils defenseman Ryan Graves on a breakaway. After the trip, Point crashed into the end boards and was hunched over in pain when he returned to his feet.
Point took the penalty shot. He drew Blackwood to the ice, moving to his right, but his shot hit off the crossbar.
Cooper expressed concern about Point after the game.
“Let’s see how he feels (today),” Cooper said. “I can’t imagine he’s going to feel good. So we’ll see. Hopefully he’s okay.”
Forward Tomas Tatar’s empty-netter with 1:16 left provided the final margin for the Devils (7-5-3).
The four goals Vasilevskiy allowed — on 26 shots — were the most in his last 12 starts. He has allowed seven goals in his past two games after holding opponents to an average 1.57 goals a game in the previous seven.
The Lightning also got goals from defensemen Jan Rutta early in the first and Victor Hedman in the second for the 3-1 lead.
Defenseman Cal Foote was scratched. Cooper said Foote was unable to play.
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