Steven Stamkos might not be able to predict wins and losses, but he will give his team the best chance to achieve the former each and every night.
Monday proved to be no exception.
Stamkos notched his 15th goal of the season to extend a three-game goal streak, but in a 3-1 losing effort to the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center on Monday night.
The loss snapped Tampa Bay’s two-game win streak, while Minnesota improved to 6-2-0 in its past eight games to pull into a first place tie with the Chicago Blackhawks atop the Western Conference standings.
“Lately we’ve just been treading water, but I think once we get that big win streak, that’s when the swagger will come and everyone will be feeling good about themselves,” Lightning forward Martin St. Louis said. “That’s when we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
Stamkos broke a scoreless deadlock to make it 1-0 just 5:53 into the second period to open the game’s scoring after wristing one past Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
The Lightning center now has nine goals in his past 11 games and came within one of tying Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Phil Kessel for the NHL lead.
He came close to tying the game at two late in regulation, but missed a chance at an empty net before being denied by Backstrom from in-close just moments later.
Backstrom made 32 saves on the night.
Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard each had goals for the Wild, who rebounded from a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames just the day before to open up a back-to-back set of games on consecutive nights.
Bouchard broke a 1-1 tie to put the Wild in front after cashing in a one-timer to the short side with 2:54 remaining in the middle frame. He took a feed from Nick Johnson, who took the puck away from Lightning forward Brett Connolly before sending a pass over to his Wild teammate for the goal.
“We weren’t happy with our last two games, so we wanted to come in tonight and turn things around,” Wild forward Matt Cullen said. “I thought of we just played our game we could do that.”
Mathieu Garon stopped 21 of 23 shots for Tampa Bay, which along with its goaltender played for the third time in four nights.
Tampa Bay’s sound effort on defense played a large part in helping the Lightning complete a home and home series sweep over the division-rival Panthers in their last pair of games, but sloppy clearing attempts within its own defensive zone provided a much different result Monday night.
Clutterbuck, while shorthanded, took advantage of Eric Brewer’s turnover nearly eight minutes into the second to draw the Wild even at one.
As the Bolts defenseman began to skate through the slot, the puck caromed off the blade of his stick and drifted right to Clutterbuck, who made a nifty move to first deke the goaltender, then convert his seventh of the year just 39 seconds past the seven-minute mark.
Kyle Brodziak had not one, but two golden opportunities to give the Wild their first lead of the game just moments later, but his first shot towards the near post to finish off a breakaway rattled the iron before a second attempt on Garon was denied by the Lightning goaltender.
Much like Garon, Backstrom was equal to the task at the other end.
He first made a key stop with the pad on Ryan Shannon in the final minutes of the second period to turn back a breakaway attempt through the slot, then denied Stamkos with a kick save midway through the final period. Dominic Moore also had a clear path from close range when defenseman Clayton Stoner slipped and fell in front of him, but Backstrom brushed aside his shot.
“I think we did a lot of good things from the top,” Lightning assistant coach Martin Raymond said. “I just think we needed to bear down on our chances.”
Backstrom improved to 5-1-1 in his career against the Lightning, and entered the game with a 1.79 goals-against average.
This wasn't merely an important bounce-back game for only the Wild goaltender. That was true for the entire team, coming off consecutive defeats to Northwest Division opponents. The Wild had won 10 of 12 games going into Thanksgiving, but emerged from the holiday in much different form.
Just as they did following back-to-back losses on Nov. 10 and 12 with a victory at Anaheim that started a five-game winning streak, the Wild awoke and played a smart, disciplined and aggressive game to close a season-high, six-game home stand and notch their first win in four tries against Eastern Conference teams.
Captain Mikko Koivu added an empty-net tally to cap the game’s scoring with 24 seconds to go.
Tampa Bay plays at Detroit on Wednesday. Monday night’s game at Minnesota marked the first of nine for the Lightning to be played on the road over the team’s next 12 games.
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