This was an especially disappointing loss for the Lightning. Not just because it came at home against a sub-.500 opponent on a night when they could have caught both Boston and Ottawa in the Atlantic Division standings. But also, and more significantly, because of the way their game unraveled after they had tied the score at one early in the second period.
It was, in some respects, a tale of two games. The first period was one of the Lightning's better frames of the entire season. They pressed the attack, generated numerous scoring chances and limited Winnipeg's looks. The period was punctuated by a number of minor penalties - and it was on one of those power plays that Winnipeg scored the game's first goal. It was a well-executed passing play between Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele. But it was also one of the isolated chances the Jets had in the first. The tally came nearly seven and a half minutes into the game and was Winnipeg's first shot on goal.
Much of the rest of the period was spent in the Winnipeg end. But the Lightning couldn't solve Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who was at his best in the opening period. He made 17 first period saves and helped his team get out of the first period with the lead. Still, in terms of flow of play, it was a strong opening period for the Lightning.
Matthew Peca's first NHL goal at 3:43 of the second tied the score. Off the rush, he finished a nice shot from the right circle, beating Hellebuyck to the stick side. On the shift after that goal, however, the game's momentum shifted. Winnipeg's line of Scheifele, Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers stormed into the Lightning's end and applied immediate pressure. After the Lightning cleared the zone, the Jets reentered off the rush. Ehlers had a step on Nikita Kucherov, who hooked him. While it most definitely was a penalty, the play did not seem to meet the standard of a penalty shot. But Ehlers was awarded the penalty shot and he scored to reestablish a Winnipeg lead.
From that point, the Lightning's game fell apart. They committed turnovers, lost puck battles, had loose coverage and yielded lots of Grade-A chances. On the shift after the Ehlers goal, the Jets pinned the Lightning back in the Tampa Bay end and scored again. Before the second period ended, the Jets had another goal and a 4-1 lead.
While the Lightning did score three times in the third, their overall game didn't really improve. The Jets surrendered an early two-on-one to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat - Palat buried the chance to cut the deficit to 4-2 with 16:34 remaining. But as was the case after the Peca goal, the Lightning failed to build any momentum from the tally. Instead, the Jets dominated play for the next several minutes and forced Andrei Vasilevskiy to make several difficult saves. Eventually, Ehlers struck again at 9:28 to make it 5-2.
Thanks to two Kucherov power play goals (including one with Vasilevskiy on the bench for an extra attacker), the Lightning whittled down that advantage to 5-4. They had one more dangerous offensive zone sequence, but Hellebuyck made a good save on Johnson to preserve the Winnipeg lead. Laine iced the victory with an empty-netter.
Afterwards, Jon Cooper aptly described the final two periods as "men against boys". After the Peca goal, the Lightning were decisively outplayed. Alarming and disappointing after how well they played in the first.
The Lightning finish their five-game homestand on Thursday against Nashville and also wrap up their stretch in which they've had seven of eight at home. Even with the Winnipeg result, the Lightning have a chance to make the segment a successful one - a win over the Predators would give them a 5-2-1 record over those eight games.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
The penalty shot goal for Ehlers.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
- Nikolaj Ehlers - Jets. Two goals and assist.
- Blake Wheeler - Jets. Two assists.
- Connor Hellebuyck - Jets. 17 first period saves.