TAMPA -- If the Tampa Bay Lightning were looking forward to the seven-game homestand they opened Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes as a chance to advance in their postseason quest, they certainly didn't get the start they wanted.
The Carolina Hurricanes, behind two goals by Jeff Skinner and a clutch 36-save performance by Cam Ward, left the Tampa Bay Times Forum with the win, 4-2, keeping their playoff hopes alive and pulling within two points of the Lightning in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Lightning, for their part, fell three points behind Buffalo and Winnipeg and five points behind the Washington Capitals in their pursuit of the final playoff position.
Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward keyed the Carolina win. Skinner scored two goals, including the eventual game winner which broke a 2-2 tie at 6:36 of the final period. Ward stopped 36 shots for his 24th win of the season.
Tampa Bay got off to a fast start, getting the first five shots of the game and grabbing a 1-0 lead when Ryan Malone knocked the rebound of Tom Pyatt's wraparound attempt past Ward just 1:20 after the opening faceoff. Malone's goal extended his point streak to six games, a season high.
But the next six shots and the next goal belonged to Carolina, which tied it during a power play at 3:46 when Jaroslav Spacek's shot deflected off a defender and beat Dustin Tokarski with Tim Wallace in the penalty box for interference.
Skinner put Carolina ahead with his first of the night and 18th of the season when he set up outside the crease and deflected Jussi Jokinen's cross-ice pass into the net at 12:29. Tampa Bay's Nate Thompson evened the score again at 17:14 with his eighth goal of the season, breaking a 15-game pointless drought.
The second period was scoreless, but featured some sharp play by both goaltenders, especially a toe save by Tokarski on LaRose late in the period.
The go-ahead goal -- Skinner's 19th -- came when he roofed a wraparound over Tokarski's shoulder.
"Skinner is a goal scorer and that was a goal-scorer's goal," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "He put the puck in a small hole. You can't blame anybody."
Tokarski, though, didn't agree and spent some time shouldering the blame.
"The last goal went over my shoulder," Tokarski said. "I don't know if I was expecting it or not, but obviously I wasn't there. I didn't hug the post good enough. I've got to make the save for the guys there. If I'm tight to the post or challenge him a bit more, maybe it just hits me. So, good shot but in a tight game like that, you need the goalie to come up big."
Tokarski, a rookie making his second consecutive start for the Lightning, stopped 22 of 25 shots. LaRose added an empty-netter with 22 seconds remaining.
Carolina got forward Tuomo Ruutu back on the ice after missing 10 games with an upper-body injury. But the 'Canes lost Jiri Tlusty, who left the game with an upper-body injury early in the second period and did not return.
Teddy Purcell had his scoring streak halted at 11 games and the Tampa Bay power play, which had converted on five of their last ten attempts, went scoreless in two chances against the Hurricanes.
Boucher called it "just one of those games" and pointed to Ward as the difference.
"Their goaltender was great," Boucher said. "When it's not like that, I'll say it like it is, but in this situation, the puck just didn't go in. Their goaltender is a good goaltender. He's stoned us before and other teams.
"The players did everything they could today. We outshot them and outchanced them, but couldn't bury it. We had all the chances but their goalie played great. The capitalized on their opportunities. If you play like this over a long span of games, you'll get more than your share and that's what we keep looking at."
The problem for the Lightning is that they don't have a long span of games remaining. After tonight's loss, the count of games remaining to be played is 14. Not a lot of time to recover from missed opportunities.
"Every game that we lose is extremely disappointing," Boucher said. "We know each game is important but tomorrow the sun will rise and be shinning and Tuesday we have a game against Boston. Tonight, we lost against another good team that is fighting for their lives."
The Hurricanes are indeed fighting for their lives, but they are doing it stealthily, and playing under-the-radar is just how Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller likes it.
"We're quietly sneaking up on teams and it's kind of nice that everybody's talking about everybody but us," Muller said. "We're putting points together, we're playing some good road hockey right now and we're doing it as a team. Everyone's pitching in, doing their roles and we're finding ways to pick up points."
Carolina (26-27-15) continues their road swing as they head to Florida to meet the Panthers on the second half of a back-to-back series.
For Tampa Bay, the long-awaited homestand is just beginning. And, though time grows short, there is still room for optimism.
"It's disappointing and obviously you want to get the win," Martin St. Louis said. "But there's still six more. Six (wins) and one (loss) is a pretty good homestand, so we'll focus on the next game and go from there."