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Letdown comes hard

HURRICANES 5, LIGHTNING 1: A flat performance and a rival going nowhere halt an 18-game point streak.

FRANK PASTOR
Published March 14, 2004

TAMPA - It was bound to happen sooner or later.

After winning games against New Jersey and Carolina in which it was outshot and outplayed, and after overcoming a lackluster second period against the Rangers, the Lightning got precisely what it deserved Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Three nights after being held to a season-low 16 shots and squandering a two-goal lead in a victory over the Hurricanes, Tampa Bay at last was unable to overcome its deficiencies.

Playing sloppily in its zone and getting beaten at its forechecking game, the Lightning lost 5-1 to a Carolina squad that trailed it by 32 points in the Southeast Division.

"We had some bad periods in the last five games, but not the whole game, and tonight it was all three of them," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "Nothing was going right."

The loss ended Tampa Bay's league-best 18-game points streak (14-0-2-2), 11-game unbeaten streak (10-0-1-0) and 10-game home unbeaten streak (9-0-1-0) as well as a stretch of seven consecutive home wins. Detroit won Saturday, trimming the Lightning's lead to one point in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. Philadelphia, Tampa Bay's closest pursuer for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, won to close within two.

"We're not really concentrating on the race," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "We're just concentrating on doing our job and winning games, and we've gotten away from it a little bit here the last three games or so, let some stuff creep into our game that we don't normally do and we kind of have to nip that in the bud right away."

Sean Hill had two goals, and Rod Brind'Amour scored the winner at 16:09 of the first period. Worse, Jaroslav Svoboda scored for the first time this season, and the league's least productive power play managed its first man-advantage goal in three games.

The crowd of 20,237, a fifth straight sellout, expressed its displeasure with a chorus of boos after Darryl Sydor mishandled the puck near center ice little more than 10 minutes into the third.

After six games in nine days, including contests Friday and Saturday, Lightning coach John Tortorella said he will give his weary squad today and Monday off before Tuesday's game against the Islanders.

"You know something like this is going to happen," he said. "It doesn't make it any easier to go through, but you know sooner or later it's going to happen. We've had a hell of a run leading up to this here. I think our guys need to get away from the game a little bit."

Things started well for the Lightning, which led 5:25 into the game on Ruslan Fedotenko's 16th goal. Vinny Lecavalier flipped a right-to-left pass over the stick of a sliding Carolina defenseman to Fedotenko, who went top shelf. The point was Fedotenko's 37th of the season, a career best.

But Tampa Bay had only one more shot in the period, going the final 12:15 without one. Carolina, meanwhile, scored on two of four first-period opportunities.

The Hurricanes tied it on Hill's ninth goal 34 seconds after Fedotenko's tally. Justin Williams' pass from the right corner found Hill in front of the net, and Hill's shot bounced off goalie John Grahame's stick and into the net.

A Tampa Bay scoring attempt led to Carolina's go-ahead goal at 16:09. After blocking Cory Stillman's shot from the high slot, Erik Cole outraced Dave Andreychuk down the ice then, from his knees, passed across the ice past a sliding Sarich to Brind'Amour, who beat Grahame high to the stick side to complete a two-on-one.

There was little Grahame could do to prevent Svoboda's goal at 3:45 of the second. Svoboda was skating to the front of the net when the puck was deflected, and the Carolina wing knocked the puck out of the air and into the net for the Hurricanes' third consecutive goal.

You knew it wasn't Tampa Bay's night when St. Louis missed an open net during a two-on-one in the third.

"When do you see something like that?" Tortorella said.

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