The final score was just about the only statistical category that the Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t hold an advantage in on Saturday night.
Of course at the end of the night, that’s really the only one that mattered to a team fighting for their playoff lives.
Ryan Malone and Nate Thompson each had goals, and Dustin Tokarski made 22 saves, but in a losing effort as the Lightning fell 4-2 to the division-rival Carolina Hurricanes at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Tampa Bay, which opened up a seven-game home stand, held a 38-26 advantage in shots throughout the contest and doubled the number of Carolina’s scoring chances, but still managed to come out on the short end while suffering its third straight loss.
“Our players did everything they could today,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. “We outchanced them and outshot them, but we just couldn’t beat Cam Ward tonight.”
The defeat left Tampa Bay in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings with 69 points, now five behind the Washington Capitals, who gained some ground in the playoff race with a 4-3 win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins earlier in the day.
Carolina, meanwhile, moved to within two points of the Lightning, as the Hurricanes won for the second time in three games.
“We’re quietly sneaking up on teams and it’s kind of nice that everybody is talking about everybody but us,” Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller said. “We’re putting points together, playing some good hockey and we’re doing it as a team.”
Jeff Skinner scored twice, and Chad LaRose added an empty-net tally with 22 seconds left in regulation to seal the win for Carolina, which also got a pair of assists from Jussi Jokinen.
Jaroslav Spacek had the Hurricanes’ other goal. Ward made 36 saves. Skinner snapped a 2-2 tie at 6:36 of the third when he skated around the back of the net and roofed a shot above the shoulder of Tokarski to complete a nifty wrap-around.
Tokarski, recalled from Norfolk of the AHL on Mar. 7 after starting goalie Mathieu Garon was sidelined by a groin injury, started for the second consecutive game. He made an in-close save on a late second-period shot by LaRose.
Malone grabbed Tampa Bay a quick 1-0 lead to open the scoring after a rebound off a shot from Tom Pyatt ricocheted right out to his stick for an easy wrist shot past Ward.
The early goal was indicative of a good start by Tampa Bay, which came out strong after the opening faceoff, getting three shots on Ward in the first minute.
Malone’s goal now gives him points in six straight games, recording three goals and six points in that span. He also has points in nine of his past 10 contests.
But Carolina took advantage of an interference penalty on Lightning right wing Tim Wallace when Spacek tied it 1-1 with a power-play goal at 3:46.
Carolina took its first lead and went up 2-1 after Skinner tapped home a feed from Jokinen with 7:31 left to play in the first.
Tokarski initially made a nice pad save to get the puck out of trouble, but the Hurricanes kept the play in along the boards as LaRose fired a slap shot towards the front of the net. The puck first found Jokinen, who skated in before dishing a pass to Skinner, who finished it off for his first of two on the night.
“We had our chances,” Lightning rookie forward Brett Connolly said. “They capitalized on theirs, we didn’t. It’s that simple.”
Thompson’s eighth of the year then drew the Lightning even towards the end of the first, as he took a centering pass from JT Wyman behind the net and wristed it in past Ward with 2:46 to go in the opening stanza.
After a scoreless second, Carolina spent the majority of the final period clinging to a one-goal lead. Ward stood strong in net, however, stopping all nine Lightning shots, including several from point-blank range.
“He’s been playing really well,” Muller added of his goaltender. “You need goaltending at this time of the year, late in the season, and we’re getting it from him.”
Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell, who entered Saturday’s game with point streaks of six and 11 games, respectively, were held scoreless on the night.
“For the most part I thought we played a pretty solid hockey game,” Connolly added. “But it’s a loss and we’ve got to move on here. We’re five points out of the playoffs and who would have thought a month ago that we would be here? I think the guys are confident that we can do it.”