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It's desperation time as Lightning chases a playoff berth

TAMPA

Any margin for error the Lightning had left in its playoff fight was wiped away with back-to-back losses.

Tampa Bay still has a shot, two points out of the final wild-card spot in the East behind Toronto, which has a game in hand. But with just 11 games to go, the Lightning has its work cut out for it, including a challenging schedule.

The first step is not getting deflated by its first losing streak since Jan. 31-Feb. 2.

"We can't let this break us," defenseman Victor Hedman said.

This run the Lightning has been on, now 12-4-3, has been mentally and physically draining. There were four games in six nights, all done with an injury-depleted lineup filled with six rookies. That's why the two days before the next game, Tuesday against Arizona, are much-needed.

But the Lightning needs a serious run the final three weeks, having to beat out the Islanders (one point ahead) and Toronto for a postseason berth. Tampa Bay has one more head-to-head with the Maple Leafs (April 6 in Toronto).

"I don't think we can start looking at other teams hoping for them to lose," wing Alex Killorn said. "If we do that, I don't think we have a chance. We have to focus on ourselves and win games. We can't leave it in their hands."

Here's what Tampa Bay can do to make it:

Secondary scoring

Wing Nikita Kucherov has been playing like an MVP, carrying the Lightning with 23 points in his past 13 games. That includes two goals in Saturday's 5-3 home loss to the Capitals, his 33rd of the season. But Kucherov can't do it alone. His line with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat all logged 20 minutes Saturday. Alex Killorn snapped a 16-game goal drought with a first-period goal, and both he and Jonathan Drouin (12-game drought) must chip in offensively.

"We need some scoring from more guys, myself included," Killorn said. "I haven't been scoring enough, I haven't been producing enough in the last 15 games. We need a lot more from a lot of guys. We need to step up."

Tighten up defensively

A trademark of Tampa Bay's run has been its play defensively. Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed one goal or fewer in six of his first seven starts after the Ben Bishop trade. But the Lightning has given up five goals in each of the past two games. And while you can't pin it on Vasilevskiy, that's not going to get the job done. In Thursday's loss to the Maple Leafs, it was soft and sloppy play in front of the net that cost the Lightning. On Saturday, there were mental lapses at critical points.

Get healthy

The lower-body injuries to centers Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette have lingered longer than their day-to-day labels. Johnson and Paquette have missed the past five games and haven't skated with the team since March 16. Namestnikov returned Monday in New York before re-aggravating his injury, though he has skated with the team in a red noncontact jersey the past two days. Byron Froese was reassigned to AHL Syracuse on Sunday, which could be a good sign.

Then there's the wild card in captain Steven Stamkos (knee surgery), who is getting closer to a return. But he has had just one full team practice (Friday), and he likely needs a few more before playing.

A look ahead

Here's how the Lightning's remaining schedule compares with the fellow contenders for the final wild-card spot:

Lightning

Points: 77

Games remaining: 11

Home: 6 (ARZ, CHI, DET, MTL, DAL, BUF)

Away: 5 (BOS (2), DET, MTL, OTT, TOR)

vs. playoff teams: 7

Maple Leafs

Points: 79

Games remaining: 12

Home: 7 (BOS, FLA, WAS, TB, PIT, CBJ)

Away: 5 (CBJ, BUF (2), NSH, DET)

vs. playoff teams: 6

Islanders

Points: 77

Games remaining: 11

Home: 4 (BOS, NSH, NJD, OTT)

Away: 7 (NYR, PIT, PHI, BUF, NSH, CAR, NJD)

vs. playoff teams: 6

Panthers

Points: 73

Games remaining: 11

Home: 6 (CAR, ARZ, CHI, MTL, STL, BUF)

Away: 5 (BUF, TOR, BOS, MTL, WSH)

vs. playoff teams: 6

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Jsmith.

 
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