Tampa, Fla. — When big Anthony Mantha streaked in during the opening moments of the game and banged one off the post behind Ben Bishop, arguably the best goalie in the league this season, one could hope it was not an omen.
The way things turned out, it may well have been.
The Red Wings lost to the Lightning, 6-2, Tuesday, allowing the Flyers to tie them in points (83) for the last playoff position with Philadelphia having an edge with a game in hand in the Eastern Conference. The defeat also likely ended any hope of catching Steve Yzerman’s team for a better playoff position while setting up a crucial three-game home stand beginning Thursday against the struggling Canadiens.
Playing sloppy defense for virtually the entire game, allowing the Lightning’s quick forwards to get underneath their defense with alarming frequency, the Wings constantly left Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek to fend for themselves.
Their starts to periods were brutal, allowing goals at 1:47 of the first, 33 seconds of the second and 1:03 of the third. Their start for an important game was so bad, the Lightning were on a pace for a 120-shot game, with eight on goal in the first four minutes.
With 10 games left in the season and a playoff berth on the line, they allowed six goals for the third time this season.
“In the end, not good enough,” Jeff Blashill said. “I thought we came out fine. But we talked about not giving up free chances, and we gave up free chances for two goals.
“You can’t give up free goals like that. They’re going to create enough on their own.
“They did create enough on their own.”
Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson allowed Eric Condra (Trenton) behind them, just about a minute after Mantha blasted it off the post. At full speed from between the circles, directly in, Condra buried it and Howard stood little chance.
Eight minutes later, at 9:55, Kronwall seemed to attempt a bank pass off the end boards. The execution left much to be desired.
The puck went directly to J.T. Brown, who fired on Howard.
Howard made an exceptional save. But the puck got lost in his jersey and equipment, plopped to the ice and was swept in by Vladislav Namestnikov.
No Wings player was anywhere close to hampering Namestnikov.
While neither goalie would say they were abandoned, they were.
Eventually, the Lightning got out to a 3-0 lead, and Blashill pulled Howard when Steven Stamkos’s attempt to put the puck in front of the Wings’ net bounced off Ericsson, who was trying to get back into the play, and up over his goalie and in.
It was that kind of night.
After the game, Blashill said he thought Howard played well and the only reason for relieving him was an attempt to change the direction of the contest.
“You know, it’s tough,” Howard said. “Like we said before it’s tough playing from behind in this league and digging yourself out of holes, and that’s what we had to do tonight.”
The game could have been 7-0, without him.
Despite all of that, pulling Howard and Brendan Smith magnanimous decision to start a fight with Brown about two minutes later seemed to get things headed in a better direction.
Justin Abdelkader scored his 18th of the season towards the end of the Red Wings second power play, at 8:08 of the second, with assists from Zetterberg (31) and Kronwall (20).
Mantha then got the first point of his NHL career, pulling the puck off the boards, passing it quickly to Pavel Datsyuk, who fed a speeding Darren Helm perfectly, allowing him to get through four Lightning defenders and put the puck behind Bishop.
All of a sudden it was 3-2, the Wings had narrowed the shot deficit and it felt for a moment like they might roar back, as they did Saturday against the Panthers and two weeks ago against the Jets.
But then, they got in their own way with three consecutive penalties in the last 3:19 of the second period.
The march to the sin bin yielded one goal by Nikita Kucherov directly, on a 5-on-3, and a second by Ondrej Palat indirectly, early in the third period, when the Lightning scored 16 seconds after the expiration of the last of the three, while the Wings had trouble getting out of their own zone.
Instead of 3-2, and hoping for a comeback going into the dressing room after two periods, it was 5-2 with 18:57 left to play.
Despite all of their bad defense, the Red Wings had fought back valiantly, and it was in those penalty-filled minutes that the game turned with finality.
That said, they felt they had a beef.
The second penalty, a cross-checking minor to Abdelkader, was criticized by Blashill. And Abdelkader indicated he believed it was soft.
“I thought the first penalty (of the sequence) put us down five on four, we got running around in our end a little bit,” Blashill said. “I think eventually you are going to end up with a call, and that was a good tripping call, there.
“The second one, I didn’t really like the call. I thought that play happens a lot. But that’s part of hockey. You’ve got to deal with it.”
Abdelkader’s criticism was somewhat less direct.
“You’ve got to be careful, obviously, any kind of stick penalty, slashing, cross-checking. You know, refs, you never know what they’re going to call, so you’ve got to keep sticks down.”
Condra added his second goal against his hometown team with 3:04 left in the game, to make it a half dozen.