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Red Wings fall behind early, can't overcome league-leading Lightning

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Tampa, Fla. — A lot of the young players on the Red Wings had an opportunity Saturday to measure themselves at this point in this career against the best team in the NHL.

What they found playing against the Tampa Bay Lightning is that they’re still a ways from being even with them.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) and Detroit Red Wings left wing Justin Abdelkader (8) fight during the first period.

The Lightning took an early lead, then kept the Wings at bay, winning 3-2.

It was the Lightning's 14th consecutive regular season victory over the Red Wings, dating to February 2016.

BOX SCORE: Lightning 3, Red Wings 2

“It’s really frustrating,” said forward Anthony Mantha, who scored a late goal, talking about the losing streak against the Lightning. “It started pretty much the whole time I’ve been here. It stinks we can’t win against these guys.

“I don’t know what it is. (Goaltender Jonathan) Bernier played an unbelievable game, he probably saved four or five goals against. We couldn’t build anything offensively, we didn’t grind in their zone like we wanted.”

The Wings (24-34-10) lost their ninth of the last 10 games (1-6-3).

Mantha sored with 56 seconds left, cutting the lead to 3-2. Thomas Vanek scored on a deflection with 3.1 seconds left in the second period, cutting Tampa's lead to 2-1. Filip Zadina earned his first NHL assist on the Vanek goal.

Nikita Kucherov, the league's leading-scorer, had two goals and Ryan McDonagh had the other for the Lightning (52-13-4).

“It’s a great measuring stick, it’s the best team in the league, obviously some of their best players are some of the best players in the league at their positions,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “We didn’t rise to the occasion tonight. Not even close. Too many guys weren’t skating. You have to skate yourself out of pressure to get open. We self-induced mistakes.

“Their pressure was hard, but we did a poor job handling it. A lot of our guys, especially our young guy, they want to be elite players in this league. Well, we had a chance to see them first hand. We have another chance next week (the Wings host Tampa Thursday).”

The Wings’ power play was 1-for-5 and the unit mising Dylan Larkin (neck strain) – keyed by Andreas Athanasiou and Mantha – particularly struggled.

“I just know they got a chance to rise to the occasion and the unit wasn’t good enough,” Blashill said. “Dylan is a big piece of our team but everybody loses players. The other night a lot of guys on that unit were excellent, tonight not so much.”

Kucherov and McDonagh staked Tampa to a 2-0 first-period lead, putting the Wings in an undesirable hole.

Bernier made 31 saves and was at his best in the third period, making big saves on Yan Gourde and Anthony Cirelli near the net, keeping it a one-goal deficit.

“I didn’t feel good right off the bat,” Bernier said. “I battled hard mentally, just kind of got myself back in the game and (beginning in the second period) my game was much better for sure. I was reading better, not as aggressive, and making better reads.

“Some nights you just don’t feel great and you have to battle through. It just seemed like it was a tough one for me to start with.”

An apparent Steven Stamkos goal in the third period was erased by video review, as Tampa was offside.

But Kucherov made it 3-1 with a quick shot at 13:53 of the third period, effectively ending any potential Wings rally.

For Kucherov, the two goals gave him 33 goals and 110 points — establishing a new single-season point mark in Lightning history.

“He’s a superstar,” Blashill said. “Even on a night where he doesn’t play his best, he’s dangerous as can be. He’s a guy, if you want to be a great player, that’s a great measuring stick. He’s one of the best in the league.”

Twitter: @tkulfan