ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Tampa Bay Lightning stumbled at the finish line of a four-game road trip.
Tampa Bay dropped a 2-1 decision to Minnesota on Tuesday in front of an announced crowd of 18,454 at Xcel Energy Center.
Ben Bishop made 24 saves to try to keep the Lightning in the game, while Valtteri Filppula scored his 20th goal of the season, three short of his career high.
Dany Heatley and Nino Niederreiter scored for Minnesota while Darcy Kuemper, who allowed four goals in each of his past two starts, made 33 stops for the victory. The lost is just the sixth this season in regulation Tampa Bay has dropped to a Western Conference opponent in 20 games.
The Lightning ended the road trip 1-3 but remain three points ahead of Toronto for second place in the Atlantic Division standings with two games in hand after the Leafs lost at Florida. Tampa Bay has two games remaining before the Olympic break, both at home against divisional opponents.
“I can't sit here and say, they guys gave an effort, and we worked harder we just didn't work smarter,'' Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
Tampa Bay had issues getting through the neutral zone that stymied the transition game as the Lightning committed turnovers by trying to get through the middle zone with side-to-side passing instead of going straight forward and getting pucks into the Minnesota zone.
“In the first two periods we didn't play to our strengths, too much east-west instead of north-south,'' defenseman Victor Hedman said. “When we don't play the way we should, we are not at our best. Our game is about speed and we didn't have it in the first two'' periods.
Tampa Bay was on its heels early as the Wild had the Lightning chasing the puck early on, Niederreiter hitting the post on a backhand rebound chance and Zach Parise misfiring on a 2-on-1 to keep the game scoreless. The Lightning started to push back after the first television timeout, getting the next eight shots on goal, but Kuemper came up with a stop on a Marty St. Louis wraparound chance at 7:59, Valterri Filppula's wrist shot at 8:53 and then J.T. Brown at 9:30 to keep Tampa Bay off the board.
Parise then had a breakaway chance but Bishop came up with the stop at 15:06. But the Wild would get a power play chance shortly after when Radko Gudas was called for boarding at 15:55. It didn't take long for Minnesota to capitalize on the chance as nine seconds into the man advantage, Bishop stopped Jared Spurgeon's shot but just as he went to cover the puck with his glove, Niederreiter was able to get his stick on the puck and push it into the net at 16:04 for the 1-0 lead.
Bishop did his best to keep the Lightning in the game early in the second period, stopping Mikael Granlund all alone in front at 1:31 and followed that up with a stop on Kyle Brodziak moments later. Jason Zucker then had a breakaway chance he misfired on at 2:15.
Early in the third period, a hustling backcheck by Brown disrupted a Wild rush. But Brown tried to hand the puck off to Hedman, where it got caught up in his skates. That allowed Spurgeon to collect the puck and zip a pass across the ice to a cutting Heatley who tapped the puck past Bishop 34 seconds into the third period.
“I backchecked the puck on Spurgeon and knocked it off, and then when it came off the boards, it was sort of between both of us (Hedman),'' Brown said. “We kind of fumbled it, it hopped over a stick and (Spurgeon) picked it back up.''
And even when the Lightning did beat Kuemper, they couldn't put the puck in the net as Ondrej Palat put a rebound chance through the legs of Kuemper and had his arms ready to be raised in celebration, but defenseman Ryan Suter was in perfect position behind Kuemper to clear the puck off the line and preserve the shutout at 9:55 of the third period.
It wasn't until Filppula had a backhanded redirect of a St. Louis pass with 6:07 left in the third that Tampa Bay was finally able to put a puck past Kuemper. Johnson had an open look to tie the game in the final minute, but his rebound chance went off the post with 38 seconds remaining.
“It was kind of bang-bang play, I had net and just hit the post,'' Johnson said. “It's one of those things where more times than not I put that in, but for some reason this time it just didn't go in.''