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The New Jersey Devils' latest run of success came to an abrupt halt in the opener of their trip to Florida, but they're not planning to leave the Sunshine State empty-handed.
The Devils will look to avoid their first back-to-back losses in six weeks Thursday night against the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning, who are reeling defensively entering the finale of their six-game homestand.
After closing its homestand with victories over the NHL's top two teams to run its winning streak to four, New Jersey was among the league's hottest clubs going into Tuesday night's game against Florida.
But the Devils (37-18-3) lost 4-0 to the Panthers, ending their seven-game road winning streak and getting shut out away from home for the first time this season despite outshooting Florida 36-28.
It was their most lopsided defeat since a loss by the same score to Atlanta on Jan. 8, also the last time New Jersey dropped consecutive games.
"We didn't play a horrible game, we just played a team that was a little bit hungrier tonight," Devils center Brian Rolston said. "I'm not making excuses, we obviously have to be better than that. This obviously was not our best effort."
The Devils may have suffered a letdown after beating NHL-best Boston 1-0 on Friday night and Western Conference-leading San Jose 6-5 two days later, but they're still 13-3-0 since Jan. 13 - with another big boost soon to come.
Goalie Martin Brodeur has returned to practice as he works his way back from elbow surgery, and the four-time Vezina Trophy winner could make his first start since Nov. 1 as soon as next week.
Despite allowing nine goals in his last two starts, Scott Clemmensen has been solid in Brodeur's place, going 25-12-1 with a 2.35 goals-against average and leading New Jersey's charge to the top of the Atlantic Division. The Devils have opened up an eight-point lead over second-place Philadelphia as they cruise toward a 12th straight postseason.
The Lightning (19-27-11) will likely miss the playoffs for the second straight year, especially after going 2-6-1 in their last nine games. They've allowed five goals in consecutive contests, giving up three in the third period of a 5-3 loss to Chicago on Tuesday night.
Rookie center Steven Stamkos, the top overall pick in last summer's draft, gave Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead with his first career hat trick. But Karri Ramo's career-high 44 saves weren't enough for the Lightning, who were outshot 49-23.
"Tonight, I took another step (forward)," Ramo said. "I didn't finish well, but you have to be able to pick up the good parts and build on that."
Ramo replaced rookie Mike McKenna during Saturday's 5-1 loss to Washington, then drew his first start since Feb. 3 versus the Blackhawks. Tampa Bay has used five different goalies this season and is still searching for stability with starter Mike Smith and backup Olaf Kolzig on injured reserve.
The Lightning are also looking for an improvement from an offense that has scored one goal in five of its last eight games, and the emergence of Stamkos would certainly help. Former coach Barry Melrose limited Stamkos' ice time before he was fired Nov. 14, and the highly touted 19-year-old still has only 25 points in 54 games.
Tampa Bay will be looking to end a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) against the Devils, who won 7-3 on Nov. 23 in their last trip to the St. Pete Times Forum. Dainius Zubrus scored four goals for New Jersey in that game, but has six goals in 38 games since.
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