With Philadelphia, Florida, Ottawa and the New York Islanders all losing Thursday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a golden opportunity to gain even more ground in the playoff chase when they hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at AMALIE Arena.
Instead, the Lightning fell victim to a host of issues and turned in one of their poorer performances of the season in a 5-0 shellacking at the hands of the Leafs.
The result temporarily pushes the Lightning out of a playoff spot, but the damage could have been far worse. With the aforementioned teams all losing, the Bolts are only one point back of the Maple Leafs for the final wild card in the East and five points behind Boston for third place in the Atlantic.
The Lightning will try to erase the memory of Thursday's blowout loss and get back to winning ways when they host the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
But before completely forgetting about the Toronto loss, let's examine why the Bolts were so soundly beaten in 3 Things we learned from getting shut out by the Leafs.
Video: Cooper on Bolts 5-0 loss to TOR
1. OUT OF SYNC
Blame it on the schedule, which had the Lightning playing their fourth game in six days.
Or maybe a flight delay getting out of Ottawa that had the Lightning arriving back in Tampa at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning was at fault.
Don't forget too, Toronto was coming off an embarrassing 7-2 loss in Florida on Tuesday and was certainly out to prove that result was a fluke.
Maybe it was a little bit of all three.
Whatever the case, the Lightning just did not look like the same team that had won four in a row and earned points in 15 of its last 17 entering Thursday's divisional contest against Toronto.
"We had a full day yesterday to kind of recover," Tampa Bay forward Alex Killorn. "We got in late, but we're not going to use that as an excuse. I think for parts of the game, I don't think we were outmatched at all. I think they played well. We'll give them credit. They didn't do great against Florida. They came out determined and those battles in front of the net, it didn't seem like we came out to compete in those instances and it ends up hurting us in the end."
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed four goals on 15 shots and was pulled in the second period. The defense didn't clean up in front of the net and allowed a number of rebound opportunities for the Leafs. And, offensively, when the Lightning were able to set up a good scoring chance, the shot was either scuffed or missed the target.
Nothing, it seemed, went the Bolts' way.
"We were in all alone a few times and just didn't even get shots off," Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said. "Pucks are rolling on us, probably maybe a product of trying too hard. Maybe a little frustration set in, but we had some good looks. We had a heck of a lot more better looks than I think that they did. We didn't give them a ton of scoring chances, just every one they had went in the net. It was a product of us just not defending. We were just too far away from our net. We weren't men down low."
Video: Stralman on Bolts not making excuses
2. SPECIAL TEAMS LETDOWN
Tampa Bay's special teams units were a major contributor to the Lightning's four-game win streak entering the Toronto contest.
In three of the four wins, the Bolts' power play was able to produce a goal, often at critical times. Coming into Thursday's game, Tampa Bay led the NHL for power-play goals (53).
The Lightning penalty kill, which has struggled to replicate its success from previous seasons, was improved over the last five games and a perfect 13-for-13 killing opponent power-play opportunities over that stretch.
Against Toronto, however, the Bolts' special teams units let them down.
Trailing 3-0 following a pair of Toronto goals within a 10-second span early in the second period, the Lightning absolutely couldn't afford to give up another score if they wanted to get back in the game. But minutes after going down by three goals, Luke Witkowski took a foolish elbowing penalty as he was exiting the ice at the end of a shift, and the Maple Leafs capitalized on the ensuing power play, Connor Brown netting his 16th goal of the season to effectively put the game out of reach.
At the end of the second period, the Lightning were awarded a 5-on-3 power play. In a situation where they had to score, the power play failed to even test Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen.
"There were good looks," Killorn said. "Listen, all you can ask for is good scoring chances. I think we had some good scoring chances. Maybe a couple times, just focusing in, when the score is whatever, 4-0, it might be a little bit more difficult to focus in. We've got to be a little bit better on the power play. Those guys, the first unit for sure, has been awesome for us the past month. They were getting opportunities and that's all you can really ask for."
The Lightning power play got opportunities but finished 0-for-5. On a night the Bolts certainly could have used a spark from their special teams, the power play and penalty kill weren't able to deliver.
Video: Killorn on not converting on scoring chances
3. SECOND CHANCE OPPORTUNITIES
A number of Toronto's goals were scored when an initial shot from the point was saved, but the rebound was slammed home by a Leaf skating freely in front of Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning didn't do nearly a good enough job clearing people out of the front of the crease. Toronto made them pay by being opportunistic near the net, jumping on loose pucks and outbattling the Bolts in the dirty areas.
"We were fine in the game, it was just the little ten by ten area in front of our net was the only area on the ice we didn't play," Cooper said. "Clearly, that's the most important part. That's what's unfortunate. We've been so good defending of late, hence why we've had success. We didn't tonight. It's too bad because it looks bad on Vasilevskiy, but there's not much he can do when you've got guys just tapping them in and winning battles against us there."
After surrendering his fourth goal on 15 shots, Vasilevskiy was pulled for Peter Budaj but that was more to give Vasilevskiy a break from the miscues in front of him than anything.
"He's making the first save on all of those," Killorn said. "It's the rebounds. We have to take guys in front of the net. Really not his fault at all. We've got to be a lot better to him. He's been huge for us down the stretch. We have to help him out a little bit."