TAMPA — If Monday’s 6-2 loss to the Maple Leafs at Amalie Arena truly was a measuring-stick game, the Lightning have a lot of ground to make up before the postseason begins in four weeks.
As the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champs, they know they’re getting everyone’s best each game. But Tampa Bay was overwhelmed by a Toronto team it could face in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve got to make the playoffs first,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s first and foremost. ... If you’re using (Monday) as a gauge, we’re miles apart.”
The Lightning don’t evaluate themselves on the result of one game — even a bad loss like this one — but rather on how they round into playoff form as a team. With 13 games left in the regular season, this should be the time of year they are starting to show signs of strength.
Instead, Cooper said, the way his team played made it “like a light practice” for the Maple Leafs, who received a hat trick from star forward Auston Matthews.
“We were way, way too easy to play against (Monday),” Cooper said. “It was like a light practice for them. It’s too bad. You want to see where you’re at. I thought we had kind of turned the corner a bit, and clearly we haven’t.”
The same turnovers that hurt the Lightning in Saturday’s shootout loss to Montreal haunted them again, from Pierre Engvall’s opening goal — which came following a Zach Bogosian turnover — to Alex Kerfoot’s second-period score that put the Leafs up 4-2. Kerfoot scored after beating Jan Rutta to a puck in the Tampa Bay zone.
Even more astonishing was how much space the Lightning gave the league’s leading goal-scorer.
Matthews beat Steven Stamkos to the front of the net for a redirection on his second goal, which put the Leafs ahead 3-2 in the second period. Matthews had a wide-open look from the slot on his third goal, which came just over seven minutes into the third, putting Toronto up 5-2 and sending Lightning fans to the exits.
“You can’t give a guy like him time and space the way we did,” Cooper said. “We were leaving a 50-plus goal-scorer all alone at the net. He’s walking right down Broadway, and nobody’s even touching him. It’s on us. It takes somebody to finish. He’s a world-class finisher, but we needed to make him work harder.”
Forget that the Lightning are 7-10-3 this season against the seven other teams currently in playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Dating back to March 8, they are 6-7-1 overall, despite a four-game win streak during that stretch. Furthermore, Monday’s loss, combined with Boston’s win, knocked the Lightning (43-19-7) into the conference’s first wild-card spot. Both the Lightning and Bruins have 93 points, but Boston owns the tiebreaker with more regulation wins.
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“Honestly, we did have one streak there, but that one streak didn’t feel like a win streak,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “It just feels like it’s been like a losing streak. And it’s been weird. It shouldn’t feel like that.
“So it’s on the players right now to get a handle on it. You know, (the coaches) can give us all the systems they want. They can get us all the information we need. It just comes down to just work ethic and going out there and just competing hard and enjoying the game again.”
The Lightning face two more potential playoff opponents — the Capitals Wednesday and Bruins Friday — in their next two games.
“I just think we’re doing it to ourselves right now,” Maroon said. “It’s self-inflicted. Turnovers just shot us in the foot again (Monday). We’ve just got to be better here. We got to find a way to just compete harder. ”
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