Though the calendar says April, it sure looks like Groundhog Day for the Tampa Bay Lightning these days.
A familiar formula proved fatal — play well, fall behind, mount a comeback, make poor decisions/mistakes, lose the game — as the Lightning lost another close game, 3-2 to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday in front of a sellout crowd of 21,273 at Bell Centre.
Brian Gionta scored a power-play goal with 46.4 seconds left for his second goal of the night to snap Montreal's three-game losing streak. Tampa Bay's winless streak reached five (0-3-2) while it was officially eliminated from playoff contention earlier in the night with a victory by the New York Rangers.
Richard Panik and Vinny Lecavalier scored for Tampa Bay, while Ben Bishop finished with 33 saves to take the hard-luck loss. Carey Price, who had been pulled in his previous two starts, stopped 32 shots for the victory while Alex Galchenyuk also scored for Montreal.
Tampa Bay finished off a four-game road trip 0-2-2 and has four games remaining in the final week of the season.
Despite the dose of reality regarding Tampa Bay's playoff chances long before they were actually eliminated, the Lightning had a solid effort. But as has been the case many times throughout this disappointing season and in particular of late, Tampa Bay found a way to lose — whether the result of a mistake, not finishing scoring chances, a poor decision or a poor play.
On Thursday, it was a little bit of everything as the Lightning fell to 5-11-4 in one-goal games this season.
“It's unfortunate because the guys battled hard,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
The final glaring error came with 2:21 left in the game when Benoit Pouliot virtually corraled Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban near the head behind the Canadiens' net. It was the sixth power play Tampa Bay gave up in the game — the fourth in the third period — and came just 29 seconds after the Lightning killed off an unwarranted Ryan Malone goaltending interference call.
Though it looked evident, Pouliot indicated Subban may have sold the call.
“It's tough to say (if it was a penalty) depending on how you see it,” Pouliot said. “Usually with P.K., moves are usually over-exaggerated.”
That led to a bad bounce coming off the end boards on a shot from Yannick Weber to Gionta, who buried the winner.
“It's 2-2, we take three penalties in a row (in the final 10 minutes) and that's what cost us,'' said defenseman Victor Hedman, who finished with two assists. “It's obviously painful, you always want to win hockey games.”
Another mistake proved costly, as a blind clearing pass up the boards by Ryan Malone was intercepted just inside the Tampa Bay blue line and resulted in an easy deflection for Gionta, who was alone in front the net to redirect a Tomas Plekanec shot at 15:05 of the second that gave Montreal a 2-0 lead.
Tampa Bay was able to come back, which the Lightning did on two other occasions on the road trip, to erase a two-goal deficit. Panik made a nice spin move at the top of the crease after taking a Hedman pass for a power play goal with 2:34 left in the second period. Lecavalier then notched his 10th of the season on a rebound 5:07 into the third.
The score could have been lopsided in Tampa Bay's favor. But Teddy Purcell hit the post on a wide-open net in the first, Steven Stamkos had his deflection strike iron minutes later, and Lecavalier made a nice move to his backhand only to have his shot carom off the crossbar.
“I don't know what the scoring chances ended up being, but I'm sure we were on the positive end of that although we end up on the negative side of the score,'' Cooper said.