TAMPA — The post-Olympic stretch for the Lightning has been defined by lost leads and lamenting lost opportunities.
It happened again for Tampa Bay on Monday.
The Lightning failed to hold a lead for the fifth time in six games coming out of the break, dropping a 4-3 shootout decision to Phoenix in front of an announced crowd of 18,167 at The Forum.
Tampa Bay rallied in the final minute of regulation to earn a point, but former Lightning forward Radim Vrbata scored the only goal in the shootout to give the Coyotes the victory.
“This is something we need to fix and fix fast,’’ said goaltender Ben Bishop, who stopped 17 shots. “We have to find a way to hold the lead.’’
The Lightning have just three victories in the past 13 games (3-8-2) but maintain a four-point lead for the top wild card spot ahead of Columbus and Detroit.
Ondrej Palat had two goals – including the tying goal with 37.2 seconds left – and an assist for Tampa Bay while Tyler Johnson scored his fourth shorthanded goal of the season.
Former Lightning goaltender Mike Smith stopped 28 shots for the victory. Martin Erat, Brandon McMillan and Mikkel Boedker all scored for Phoenix.
Since returning to action after the Olympics, Tampa Bay has scored the opening goal six times and have either been in front or tied heading into the third period. The Lightning’s record in those games is 1-4-2; before the Olympics Tampa Bay held a 22-2-1 record when scoring the first goal.
“We will take the point any way we can get them at this point in the season, but we blow another lead and that’s unacceptable,’’ said Steven Stamkos, who is still looking for his first point in three games since returning from a broken leg.
Tampa Bay opened the scoring on Johnson’s league-leading fourth shorthanded goal of the season – tied with Boston’s Brad Marchand – when he raced up the ice with speed, which led to Keith Yandle blowing a tire, allowing Johnson to skate around Yandle and deke Smith before flipping a backhand into the top corner 11:25 into the first period. For the third consecutive game the Lightning scored a shorthanded goal, matching a franchise record accomplished two other times, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Palat’s first goal of the game with 52.3 seconds left provided a 2-1 lead for Tampa Bay heading into the third, but two sloppy plays erased the lead in the opening 10 minutes.
But a soft backhand pass by Victor Hedman intended for Matt Carle took a bad bounce off the end boards and popped back out toward the crease where Erat easily scored into the vacant side of the net as Bishop was expecting the puck to rim around behind the net 2:13 into the third period.
“Make the D-to-D (defenseman to defenseman) pass behind the net, let the goaltender following the puck, that’s what has to happen,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We are way too lackadaisical and it’s a mental error.’’
Tampa Bay appeared set to grab some momentum back when Keith Aulie blocked a Vrbata shot that looked destined for an open net that led to a Lightning rush the other way. On the rush, Erat took an interference call on Ryan Callahan handing Tampa Bay a power play at 7:19. But 12 seconds into the advantage Valtteri Filppula was called for hooking, leading to a 4-on-4 situation. Off the faceoff in the Tampa Bay zone, Zbynek Michalek got a puck on net which eventually Boedker found the rebound to give Phoenix its first lead of the game at 7:48.
“The third one, we’ve run that (defensive zone) coverage a thousand times and it’s just a blown assignment,’’ Cooper said. “Those don’t go in in midget hockey, let alone the NHL, or at least they shouldn’t. That’s what is frustrating because guys battled their (tails) off, they played hard and we come down and make some mental errors down the stretch. It’s magnified at this time of they year when they shouldn’t be happening.’’
The Lightning looked on the verge of another costly set back until Palat scored his second of the game with 37.2 seconds left, finding a puck on his stick after Filppula had the rebound of Matt Carle’s shot and potted home his 17th of the season.
“Having leads heading into the third period, those are ones you have to hang on to this time of year with everything being so close,’’ Callahan said. “We show some character coming back, but at the same time I don’t think we need to be in that situation.’’