Throughout the Tampa Bay Lightning’s desperate push for a playoff spot since the beginning of February, its been painfully obvious they’ve had no room for error. Coming off back-to-back regulation losses, the Lightning sought a win over the Arizona Coyotes. Instead, their playoff hopes were severely damaged at the end of an important homestand.
Radim Vrbata’s shot from the high slot eluded Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy 6:39 into the third period, breaking a 3-3 tie en route to a 5-3 victory for the Coyotes (27-37-9) over Tampa Bay (34-29-9) at Amalie Arena. The Lightning not only finished 0-3-0 on this homestand, but they surrendered five goals in each of the three contests. In addition, Arizona swept the two-game season series from Tampa Bay, preventing the Lightning from gaining ground on the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Despite Boston’s 3-2 loss to Ottawa, the Lightning are still five points behind the Bruins and four behind Toronto. It was another inexplicable loss to a Western Conference bottom-feeder in what was a crucial homstand that ended with zero points.
“There’s been a lot of frustrating games this year,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “This ranks up there.”
Especially when holding a 3-2 lead after two periods on home ice against the team with the second-fewest points in the NHL. A team the Lightning have no business losing to when every point matters. Instead, they allowed Arizona to rally with a pair of goals in a span of 1:45 in the final period to take the lead. Oliver Ekman-Larsson rifled a shot from the center point that rang off the post and in at the 4:54 mark, tying the game 3-3. Soon after, Vrbata propelled the Coyotes to the lead for good when he took a pass from Alex Goligoski and zipped a shot from the high slot that made its way past Vasilevskiy.
“A 3-2 lead at home going into the third in a must-win for us, to give it up like we did, it’s frustrating to say the least,” said Cooper.
Both teams traded goals in an opening period that saw each team register 14 shots on goal, with each goaltender forced to make multiple quality stops. Arizona’s Christian Fischer pounced on a Vasilevskiy miscue to put the Coyotes up 1-0 at the 4:56 mark when the Lightning goaltender misplayed the puck behind the net. It bounced in front to Fischer, who made no mistake in putting the puck into an open net for his third of the season.
During a 4-on-4, Vasilevskiy slammed the door on a chance by Vrbata, sending the Lightning into a rush the other way. Nikita Kucherov grabbed the puck and sprung Victor Hedman for a breakaway chance. After he took a slash from Goligoski, Hedman fired a shot past Coyotes goalie Louis Domingue for his 15th of the season, tying the game 1-1 at the 9:45 mark. The Lightning dominated play for much of the remainder of the period, but were unable to take the lead heading into the intermission.
Tampa Bay spent much of the opening half of the second period going through the motions, as the Coyotes had several quality looks at the net.
Arizona regained the lead when Connor Murphy chipped the puck up to Max Domi for a 2-on-1 during a delayed penalty. Domi slid the puck over to Christian Dvorak, whose 12th of the season made it 2-1 at 10:06.
However, the Lightning regained their composure and tied it up 1:44 later. Hedman sent the puck into the slot, where Goligoski attempted to knock it away. When he did, the puck bounced to Ondrej Palat, who promptly dished it to Kucherov for a one-timer goal, his 34th of the season.
Anthony Duclair came close to giving Arizona the lead on a backdoor play after a turnover. Unfortunately for him, Vasilevskiy stopped his shot before it hit the post and stayed out.
Despite a mostly uneven period for the Lightning, they took a 3-2 lead on a goal by Namestnikov that was set up by some magic from Drouin. Drouin carried the puck into the Coyotes’ zone and fought off Murphy. He switched from his forehand to his backhand before dishing to Namestnikov in the slot. Namestnikov had an open look, but hit the post. However, he had some luck on his side, as the puck bounced off Duclair’s shoulder and into the net with 1:52 left in the second.
Throughout this contest, the Lightning spent a lot of time in Arizona’s end of the ice, but many of their shots on goal didn’t make it through. Something that wasn’t lost on Cooper after the game.
“For me the most telling stat was they had 25 blocked shots. We had six,” said Cooper.
The Coyotes blocked shots and the Lightning didn’t. Not something you want to see from a team trying to push for a playoff spot.
The Lightning lacked the same effort during the final period of their homestand that they displayed in the first two periods. Instead of flying around generating chances, the Lightning didn’t get as many shots through to the net. Despite that, and despite blowing a third period lead, opportunity came knocking for the Lightning. Kucherov cut to the net and drew a tripping call on Luke Schenn with 5:53 left, giving the Lightning a crucial power play. The Bolts lobbed exactly zero shots on goal during that man advantage.
Arizona’s Jordan Martinook then took a tripping penalty with 2:41 left, giving Tampa Bay another chance to tie the game up. The Lightning created a few shots on goal and even pulled Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker. Murphy placed the dagger in the Lightning’s heart with an empty netter, his clearing attempt bouncing off Hedman’s hand and into the yawning cage. Just like that, a former Stanley Cup favorite’s playoff hopes took a major blow on a homestand in which the Lightning needed all the points they could muster.
The Lightning return to the ice Thursday night in Boston when they take on the Bruins. Puck drops at 7 pm.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Radim Vrbata – Tallied the game-winning goal in the third period, his 18th of the season.
2nd Star: Oliver Ekman-Larsson – The Coyotes defenseman tied the game 3-3 in the third period and assisted on Vrbata’s game-winner.
3rd Star: Nikita Kucherov – Scored his team-leading 34th goal of the season and added an assist for the Lightning.
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