The Lightning’s season has been going nowhere for a while, but Thursday’s second-period meltdown ensured a miraculous finish to the season was as realistic to hold on to as Tampa Bay with a loose puck.
Not even a hat trick in the first 30 minutes by Ryan Malone could pump life into the Lightning, who blew a trio of one-goal leads and allowed four unanswered goals in a 6-4 loss to the New Jersey Devils in front of 15,380 at the Prudential Center.
Tampa Bay could be officially eliminated from playoff contention before it takes the ice Saturday against Winnipeg, if Buffalo wins tonight against Pittsburgh. If not, any combination of the Bolts missing out on two points or the Sabres adding two points will doom their season.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher said Tampa Bay was already playing like it was eliminated.
"Obviously, right now there’s a lack of urgency because of the ultimate goal, which is the playoff (situation)," Boucher said. "But that’s something we have to manage. It does not give us any right to change our game, to be soft and to get away from what makes us successful."
Another disappointing aspect for Tampa Bay was the lack of inspiration the return of Vinny Lecavalier provided. After a strong first period, the Lightning allowed four goals in the second.
"To me, we just threw it away," Boucher said. "We played a great first, a great beginning of the second period and all of sudden we’re leading and it’s stick-handle through everybody and we turned the puck over and over at their blue line and with our zone entries. That’s what we deserved. Period."
Malone began his fourth career hat trick with a tap-in goal in the final minute of the first period to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead.
The Devils tied it 3:07 into the second when Steven Stamkos’ pass from inside the offensive zone, while on a power play, was intercepted and created a 2-on-1. It culminated with Dainius Zubrus beating goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
Malone’s second goal came from a tough angle and off the skate of Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky a few minutes later. However, the Devils tied it at 2 less than three minutes later when Eric Brewer gave the puck away in the slot and Jacob Josefson snapped a shot past Roloson.
And even after Malone finished his hat trick when he controlled the puck in front of New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur before spinning and sliding the puck into the net midway through the third period, the 3-2 lead didn’t last. Ilya Kovalchuk pounced on a loose puck and scored 2:13 later to make it 3-all.
"We weren’t very smart with the puck and we got caught out there," Malone said.
"They did a good job of wearing us down and beating us to the net and winning their battles."
The Devils finished their second-period flurry and took a 4-3 lead at the 14:37 mark when Zidlicky’s shot from the right point beat Roloson for a power-play goal.
However, even with the hat trick, Malone wasn’t without blame. When Roloson tried to clear the puck from behind his net in the third period, an unpressured Malone failed to corral it along the boards, and it resulted in Alexei Ponikarovksy scoring to give the Devils a 5-3 lead.
"We had a lot of turnovers," Lecavalier said. "We didn’t play deep. We were kind of one-and-done in their zone.
"When we got in our (defensive) zone we could have done a lot better defensively."