The Tampa Bay Lightning again showed a lot of heart, character and determination amidst an eventful weekend on Sunday, but in the end, came up short.
The loss was Tampa Bay’s third straight, and came just hours after the team relieved Guy Boucher of head coaching duties.
“We’re all professionals, and when we come to the rink, we know we all have a game to play,” Stamkos said. “I thought we out-chanced them and this was a good building block for our team with all the uncertainty that will take place in the next couple of days.”
General manager Steve Yzerman during the morning did say he expected to find a replacement for Boucher as soon as possible, but at least for Sunday night’s contest in Winnipeg, assistant coaches Martin Raymond and Dan Lacroix led the Bolts behind the bench.
It was also an important game for Tampa Bay to win, as a victory would have closed the gap in the Southeast Division between the Lighting, second-place Hurricanes and the division-leading Jets.
Instead, however, Winnipeg padded their lead at the top of the division standings to now four points ahead of Carolina, and nine in front of the Lightning.
Bryan Little had a goal and three points for the Jets, while Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom also scored for Winnipeg, which rebounded from back-to-back losses at home against the division-rival Capitals.
Blake Wheeler added two assists in the victory.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, had a number of good quality scoring chances, but at times, couldn’t solve Ondrej Pavelec, who made 23 saves.
Little opened the scoring after collecting a turnover in the Lightning end and beating Lightning netminder Cedrick Desjardins with a wrist shot from the hashmarks at 14:02 of the first.
Byfuglien then doubled the Jets lead while on the power play at 2:35 of the second, but Stamkos’ league-leading 21st goal of the season, also while on the man advantage, trimmed the deficit to just one less than four minutes later.
“I thought we came out hard and that the pace of play was really hard,” Bolts forward Martin St. Louis said. “We had some good looks and thought the effort was there tonight.”
Enstrom, though, reclaimed Winnipeg’s two-goal lead at 9:35 of the middle frame after a defensive breakdown left him all alone in the slot, as he beat Desjardins to make it 3-1 with his third of the season.
Tampa Bay refused to go quietly, coming to within one again, when Conacher tipped in a soft wrist shot from Eric Brewer to make it 3-2 approximately five minutes into the third period.
That’s as close as the Bolts would come, however, despite a furious effort in the game’s final minute with the extra attacker on.
Desjardins finished the night with 21 saves on 24 shots against.
“It was a bit shocking when we all woke up this morning, but we have to have a short memory and move forward,” Lightning forward Teddy Purcell said of the sudden change behind the bench. “This was a good character test for us.”