After winning the Stanley Cup in 2004-05, the Tampa Bay Lightning are clinging to the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, and hardly look poised to defend their crown.
Hoping to avoid a third straight loss, the Lightning visit the Southeast Division champion Carolina Hurricanes in the opener of a home-and-home series and a potential first-round playoff preview.
Trying to hold off surging Atlanta for the final postseason berth, the Lightning lost 6-2 to the Thrashers on Tuesday night. Tampa Bay’s Dmitry Afanasenkov opened the scoring, but Atlanta responded with six unanswered goals over the first and second periods.
“We started out really well,” said Lightning coach John Tortorella, whose team outshot the Thrashers 34-24. “But for some reason after they scored their goal we were like deer in headlights. I don’t have an answer for that, but obviously that has to be cured.”
Tampa Bay has been outscored 12-5 in back-to-back defeats, including Sunday’s 6-3 loss to Florida, which has been eliminated from playoff contention.
The Lightning have lost just three times in their last 17 meetings with the Hurricanes, recording 10 wins and four ties. Tampa Bay, though, has struggled away from home recently and is trying to avoid losing six in a row on the road for the first time since a seven-game skid from Oct. 16-Nov. 21, 2001.
The Hurricanes have clinched their first postseason appearance since 2001-02 and are trying to overtake Ottawa for the top seed in the East. Carolina, however, has also hit a rough patch of late, losing 4-3 in overtime to New Jersey on Tuesday for its second straight defeat.
Eric Staal scored his team-leading 45th goal with 46 seconds left in regulation to force the extra period, but Carolina goalie Martin Gerber couldn’t stop Brian Gionta, who scored his 45th of the season 28 seconds into overtime on a power play.
“I have no problem with the way we played,” Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said. “I have a problem with the result. We were a little soft on defense and it cost us.”