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Tampa Bay tumbles to eighth
PANTHERS 4, LIGHTNING 2: Florida's strong second period, puck-loving goal posts too much to overcome.
By TOM JONES
Published April 2, 2006
Where's the puck? Behind Tampa Bay's John Grahame, after Florida's Nathan Horton gave the Panthers an early 1-0 lead.
SUNRISE - The Lightning still has an ample lead in the playoff race, so it might be too early to start popping the Alka-Seltzer. But it might be a good idea to at least figure out where it is. Just in case.
With a chance to bury Florida in the chase for the postseason, the Lightning came up short and opened the door just a smidgen wider for the Panthers.
In the first of back-to-back meetings, the Panthers beat the Lightning 4-2 Saturday to knock Tampa Bay from sixth place in the Eastern Conference race to the eighth and final playoff slot.
With New Jersey and Montreal winning, the Lightning (39-30-5) becomes the team to catch in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning's lead over ninth-place Atlanta is down to five, while 10th-place Florida is six behind. Both teams have two games remaining against the Lightning, including Monday's Panthers-Lightning game at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"We're not going to overanalyze it," coach John Tortorella said. "There were a lot of good things. That's the way we have to approach it. We take the day off (today) and then go back at it against the same team."
If you saw only the second period Saturday, you saw enough to know it was not going to be the Lightning's night. Florida extended a 2-1 first-period lead into a 4-1 rout, while the Lightning hit four posts and pulled its goalie. John Grahame, who seemed to be slowly working back into solid form of late, was yanked at 15:43 of the period.
Once again, at the most critical part of the season, the Lightning's goaltending is in question as Sean Burke, who made his first appearance since breaking a fingertip on March 15, had to relieve Grahame. To be fair, Grahame faced 26 shots in less than two periods as the Lightning's defense was not nearly as tight as it was in Thursday's victory against Atlanta. The good news for the Lightning is Burke looked sharp.
"It was a good test," Burke said. "I felt good. I don't see any problem at all."
With a little luck, the Lightning might have squeezed at least a point out of Saturday's game. It hit five posts on the night.
"We had a couple early that if they go in, it might have been a different game," Burke said.
On March 20, the Lightning trailed 5-1 after two periods then rallied to tie before losing in overtime. Saturday's game started to get the feel of that one when the Lightning cut the lead to 4-2 on a Darryl Sydor power-play goal less than five minutes into the third.
Incredibly, Dmitry Afanasenkov hit the crossbar three minutes later with a shot that could have cut the lead to 4-3 in a period the Lightning dominated, outshooting the Panthers 25-7. Florida goalie Robert Luongo, who made 41 saves, proved to be the difference.
"We did a lot of good things," Brad Richards said, "but we can't keep falling behind 4-1, 5-1 to these guys. That's why we've had problems with these guys."
Still missing key players Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina and Fredrik Modin, the Lightning was hoping for a steady start, but it didn't get it as Florida's Nathan Horton scored only 24 seconds into the game. Marty St. Louis tied it with his 26th goal at 6:18, but when Joe Nieuwendyk scored at 18:53, the Panthers led for good.