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Lightning’s season on the brink after Game 3 loss to Panthers

TAMPA — The Lightning finally had the lead they had been searching for all series against the Panthers Thursday night in the second period of Game 3. After spending the first two games chasing Florida, this was their opportunity to get back into the opening-round series, trailing two games to none.

In a three-minute span to open the second period, the Lightning erased a one-goal deficit — Steven Stamkos’ deflection 44 seconds into the period was followed by Tyler Motte’s wrister from the high slot through traffic 2:12 later — and suddenly Tampa Bay had a one-goal lead.

“I thought we played probably the best 10 minutes of the series right there,” Stamkos said. “We were controlling the play physically. I thought we were on top of it. We had the lead finally. It’s just little mistakes that are costing us and, listen, that’s the difference at this time of the year.”

The Lightning ran out of gas down the stretch, and by the end of the second period found themselves trailing again after Florida scored a pair of goals when a tired Tampa Bay team couldn’t get the puck out of its own end.

Now, following their 5-3 loss at Amalie Arena, the Lightning find themselves on the brink of playoff elimination.

They go into Game 4 Saturday trailing the best-of-seven series three games to none. They’ve been in this situation before and were swept both times, most recently after their Presidents’ Trophy-winning season in 2019, when they lost four straight to the Blue Jackets. In 2014, Jon Cooper’s first full season as head coach, Tampa Bay was swept in the first round by Montreal.

Only four teams in NHL history have come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a postseason series, none over the past decade. The last time was 2014, when the Kings rallied from 3-0 down to beat the Sharks on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.

The Lightning can’t think that far ahead. Their focus is on getting one win in Game 4 to extend their season.

“It’s not easy to kind of comprehend sometimes the situation we got ourselves in, because I know everyone in here believes in this group,” said Lightning defenseman Matt Dumba. “And to be down 3-0, we would have never thought that, so it’s realizing that (the series) is not done.”

The first three games have been tight, but the Lightning have been outworked and outclassed by their cross-state rivals.

“It was tough to come out of that second period down a goal, because I felt we deserved a better fate,” Cooper said. “They weren’t in our end much, and the two times they were it was a couple of seeing-eye singles that went in the net. Don’t get me wrong. Two good players (Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour) shooting pucks.”

Motte’s goal 2:56 into the second period gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead and had the visiting Panthers on their heels.

“Tampa has this kind of quick-strike ability, and you saw it,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “They scored one at the top of the second, and it was on. We’re chasing the game. We’re a pretty good team. We may not be the most talented team, but we don’t suck, and they’ve got us (at that point).”

That’s when the Lightning had an exhausting shift in their own end that led to Reinhart’s tying goal.

Anthony Cirelli went down after blocking a Vladimir Tarasenko shot, Anthony Duclair couldn’t clear the puck out of the defensive zone, and it ended up on Reinhart’s stick. His wrist shot sailed over defenseman Emil Lilleberg’s sliding block attempt and past goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy with 10:02 left in the period.

Then, the Lightning again couldn’t get a line change, hemmed in their end by Florida’s fourth line. Defenseman Nick Perbix couldn’t poke the puck out from the corner, and neither could forward Tanner Jeannot off the wall. It led to Montour’s blast from the right point that went through traffic and past Vasilevskiy to give the Panthers a 3-2 lead.

They never looked back.

The Lightning’s top-ranked power play was 0-for-4, managing only four shots on goal. The Panthers gave them man-advantage opportunities early by committing three first-period penalties, but Tampa Bay couldn’t take advantage. The Lightning are 2-for-12 on the power play in the series (16.7%) after leading the NHL with a 28.6% success rate during the regular season.

“We’ve had a couple of (power-play goals) in the series, but if you’re going to give us eight minutes, we’ve got to do something with it,” Cooper said. “And we didn’t. And in a one-goal game (before Matthew Tkachuk’s late empty-netter), that might have helped us out.”

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