TAMPA — The Lightning look lost trying to find the finish line.
Two games after clinching a berth in the postseason, Tampa Bay has hardly looked like a playoff team.
The Lightning lost a second consecutive game in uninspiring fashion, falling to Dallas 5-2 on Saturday in front of an announced sellout crowd of 19,204 at The Forum.
The Stars scored three times in the first period and then squelched the thought of a Tampa Bay comeback with an early third-period goal to put the Lightning away.
Jamie Benn scored twice and added an assist while Tyler Seguin and Vern Fiddler added a goal and an assist for the Stars. Antoine Roussel also scored while Kari Lehtonen stopped 27 shots for Dallas.
Steven Stamkos and Andrej Sustr scored for Tampa Bay while Ben Bishop allowed a season-high tying five goals on 28 shots.
Tampa Bay falls four points behind Montreal for second place in the Atlantic Division which carries home ice advantage in the first round. The Lightning have four games remaining while Montreal has three games left on the schedule and holds the first tiebreaker. Tampa Bay, however, does remain five points up on Detroit, which currently holds the top wild card spot and a matchup with Metro Division winner Pittsburgh in the opening round.
Though it might be human nature to suffer a bit of a let down after officially accomplishing the goal of reach the playoffs, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said it’s not an excuse for his team to take a breath before exhaling to get the results in the two games since clinching a postseason berth with a victory against Montreal on Tuesday.
“Montreal hasn’t taken a breath,’’ Cooper said. “They haven’t lost a game since that night and we haven’t won one.’’
For the second consecutive game, the Lightning looked flat in the opening period and were down 2-0 on two Benn goals - one 40 seconds into the game - by the 5:37 mark before even registering a shot on goal. Tampa Bay also had to kill off a five-minute major when Radko Gudas was assessed a match penalty for a hit to the head of Roussel at 7:33. Though the Lightning survived the continuous power play chance, the Stars would make it 3-0 on Seguin’s goal with 1:34 left in the first period.
“We didn’t start the game on time,’’ Stamkos said. “When you’re down 3-0 it’s pretty tough to win in this league.’’
The second period showed more of what the Lightning are capable of when on the top of their game when Stamkos scored 1:57 into the middle frame and Sustr scored his first career NHL goal at 6:44 to make it 3-2 as Tampa Bay surged and had Dallas well back on its heels for most of the period.
“We could have been tied or in the lead after the second period,’’ Cooper said. “When we are rolling, we can make them look not good.’’
But some of that momentum was stalled when Ryan Malone took a four-minute high sticking call at 12:31. Once again the Lightning penalty kill came through -Tampa Bay killed off 14 minutes of penalties in the first two periods - but it didn’t launch Tampa Bay into another surge.
Instead Dallas came out and regained a two-goal lead when Stamkos lost the puck to Fiddler in front of the Lightning net 1:26 into the third period and Roussel made it 5-2 at 7:57 to put away a Lightning team that managed just five shots on goal in the third period.
“We are coming in spurts right now, the second period was great, we dominated them and get ourselves right back in the game,’’ Stamkos said. “Then I make that costly mistake (on the Fiddler goal) and it sucks the life out of us. . . but I thought we played great in the second, and we can’t just play like that because we are down, we have to play like that from the puck drop.’’