DETROIT — Facing a team fighting for a playoff spot offers a much different opposing desparation level than a team with players fighting for jobs next sesaon.
The space is tighter and the stakes are higher.
The Lightning saw that on Sunday against a Detroit team putting together a late season charge to get into the postseason. And after some slow starts in recent games that Tampa Bay was able to recover from, the Lightning fell behind and could not come back before falling to Detroit 3-2 in front of an announced crowd of 20,066 at Joe Louis Arena despite perhaps playing better against Detroit than the previous recent opponents.
“This was a playoff type of game for sure, there was no free space, everything you had you had to work to get your chances,’’ said center Valtteri Filppula, who scored his first goal agaisnt his former team. “We played a lot better than we have the past couple of games We didn’t turn the puck over a whole lot. I thought we played well. ... we were pretty desperate and we fought pretty hard, but they played well defensively.’’
Tampa Bay saw its stretch of consecutive games with a point end at 11 (now 7-1-4 in the past 12) and suffered its first regulation loss since March 6.
Ben Bishop, starting on back-to-back nights for the fifth time this season, finished with 27 saves to suffer his first regulation loss since March 4 in St. Louis. Sami Salo and Filppula registered goals for Tampa Bay, which scored fewer than three goals for the first just the second time in the past 12 games.
The Lightning’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot remained at six pending the outcome of Washington’s game at Nashville late Sunday.
David Legwand had a goal and assist while Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson also scored for Detroit. Jonas Gustavsson stopped 26 shots for the victory.
Tampa Bay finished the regular season series against Detroit with a 4-1 record, after having just five victories against the Red Wings in franchise history prior to the season.
As the Lightning start to close in on clinching a playoff spot for the first time since 2011, they got a taste of what that sort of hockey will be like while facing a team desperate to get into the playoff mix.
“That was a pretty good atmosphere and a pretty good pace to this game and that’s what it is going to be like from here on out,’’ captain Steven Stamkos said of the final seven games of the regular season. “We played a good hockey team that is fighting for its lives and it showed. They played desperate and I thought we answered the bell.’’
Tampa Bay has been plagued by slow starts in recent weeks, and through eight minutes of action on Sunday the Lightning were down on the shot clock 5-0 before Eric Brewer had the first attempt on goal at 8:17. But Filppula scored on the second shot for the Lightning, pouncing on a mishandled puck by Brendan Smith to wrist a shot past Jonas Gustavsson at 8:40 to extend his scoring streak to 12 games.
The Wings pulled back even when Andersson was left unchecked at the right post to put in a round off the stick of Darren Helm at 11:08 and then took the lead when Nyquist out-battled Matt Carle down the ice before finally gaining control of the puck and spin around from an tough angle near the goal line for his 27th goal of the season, 22nd in the past 27 games. Legwand would tip a puck past Bishop for a power play goal at 16:36 of the second to extend Detroit’s lead.
Salo pulled the Lightning to within a goal at 15:31 of the third, but Tampa Bay was unable to complete the comeback in what expects to be more of the normal style of hockey in the final two weeks.
“The intensity was most definitely amplified tonight,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s what we are getting from here on out. We have to be ready for that. We had a great little run here picking up points in 11 straight, but you are going into buildings every night where the other team doesn’t want to give it to you and they didn’t want to give us points tonight. We battled, but we just fell one short.’’
Tampa Bay fell to 7-3-1 in the second half of back-to-back games this season, while Bishop lost for just the second time this season when starting on consecutive nights.
“I thought we played fairly well,’’ Bishop said. “Their goalie made some big saves . . . they got a couple of fluky goals. But I thought we played well enough to win, and sometimes that happened, but I thought we played a good game.’’