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Lightning’s woes at Xcel Energy Center continue in loss to Wild

Wayne Masut | The Scrum Sports

Over the years, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota has become the Tampa Bay Lightning’s house of horrors. Entering Thursday’s meeting with the Minnesota Wild, the Lightning had won 11 of their previous 12 games overall. With a back-to-back looming just before their bye week, the Lightning sought to reverse their fortunes in Minnesota.

Unfortunately for the Lightning (28-15-4, 60 points), their doldrums in the land of 10,000 lakes continued. A combination of ill-timed turnovers, poor defensive play, and timely goaltending from the Wild (21-20-6, 48 points) sent the Lightning to their eighth straight defeat at the Xcel Energy Center, this one by a 3-2 margin. The game resembled a late-season game or a postseason contest, as it was tight-checking and saw the officials swallow their whistles at times. Minnesota out-shot the Bolts 23-20, a far cry from the Lightning’s shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings that featured L.A. outshooting the Lightning 41-38.

Alex Stalock picked up the win for the Wild in net, stopping 18 of 20 shots, while Curtis McElhinney took the loss, stopping 20 of 23 shots on goal. In a game in which the margin of error was slim, it would be the Wild making the Lightning pay for mistakes.

Plenty of puck possession, little to show for it

During the opening period, the Lightning only trailed the Wild 15-14 in terms of overall shot attempts. Digging deeper at the 5-on-5 numbers, the Lightning held a 14-9 advantage in shot attempts while at 5-on-5. However, the Wild owned an 8-5 edge in actual shots on goal thanks to the Lightning not really generating much in the way of quality opportunities. Too many shots came from the outside and there wasn’t much in the way of follow-up chances. On the other side, the Wild created a pair of early 2-on-1 rush chances that didn’t result in shots on goal, one by Luke Kunin in which the puck rolled away from his stick and the other by Victor Rask that the Lightning broke up.

Tampa Bay found themselves shorthanded thanks to a Jan Rutta holding penalty, but their penalty kill, which came into the game tied for fifth in the NHL, turned in an impressive effort, allowing zero shots on goal. Soon after, the Wild began putting the puck on net on net more often and playing more aggressively in the offensive zone. Soon after, Minnesota’s power play learned from the failures of their first man-advantage. With Brayden Point in the penalty box for tripping, the Wild fired four shots on goal, the last one finding the back of the net with 5:43 left in the period. Eric Staal backhanded a gorgeous pass to Zach Parise, who crept in and converted the backdoor feed to put the Wild up 1-0. Tampa Bay finally put together an offensive flurry late in the period, but couldn’t find the equalizer going into the first intermission.

The pace picks up and the Lightning tie it up

A methodical, slow-moving opening period gave way to a second period that featured a much quicker pace, at least early on. The Lightning began forcing the issue offensively, creating more chances. In spite of that, they were also loose in their defensive zone coverage at times. Both teams traded breakaway chances as McElhinney stonewalled Jason Zucker while Stalock robbed Nikita Kucherov at the other end. Mikko Koivu later had a golden opportunity, taking a pass down low and firing a shot that McElhinney turned aside.

At the 7:42 mark, Kucherov made up for the earlier breakaway when he tallied his 19th of the season, tying it 1-1. Ondrej Palat carried the puck down the left wing and fired a shot that was blocked. Picking up the rebound, Palat dished it to Mikhail Sergachev at the point. Sergachev almost immediately fed it to Kucherov, who one-timed a shot from the right circle past Stalock.

Minnesota pounces on sloppy defensive play from the Lightning

Over the final 12 minutes of the middle period, the Wild largely controlled the action, extending their lead to 3-1. Nick Foligno forced a turnover by Palat before working the puck to Kunin. Kunin passed it back to a trailing Joel Eriksson Ek, who blasted a shot past McElhinney at the 12:32 mark to make it 2-1.

The Lightning’s defensive coverage on that play left a lot to be desired, and that would be a theme for the rest of the period. McElhinney’s mistake led to Minnesota’s third goal, as he attempted a breakout pass to Erik Cernak that didn’t connect. The Wild kept the puck in and Jordan Greenway worked the puck back to the point to Ryan Suter, who uncorked a big shot that beat McElhinney 2:11 after Eriksson Ek’s goal, increasing Minnesota’s lead to 3-1.

The Wild appeared to increase their lead to 4-1 on a goal by Carson Soucy following more sloppy defensive coverage by the Lightning, but the Bolts challenged the play, believing it was offside. Upon further review, they made the right call and the goal was overturned. Unfortunately for the Lightning, Minnesota earned a power play thanks to a hooking penalty that occurred between the time the play went offside and the goal that was disallowed.

During the ensuing power play, Kevin Fiala nearly scored a highlight-reel goal when he split the Lightning’s defense on a rush, but McElhinney came up with a huge stop. This wasn’t McElhinney’s best night, but he came up with a few key saves that kept this one close.

Kucherov narrows the gap, but the Bolts can’t close it

Early in the third period, the Lightning earned their first power play when Koivu went to the box for holding (although Suter should’ve been called for roughing Steven Stamkos in front of the Wild’s net). Kevin Shattenkirk found himself with a couple of Grade A chances, but his rebound opportunity off a Sergachev shot was stopped by Stalock, while another rang off the post.

Things got chippy later in the period as Stamkos hammered Fiala with a clean hit along the boards. Wild defenseman Matt Dumba took exception to the hit, sparking a melee. The officials handed Dumba a minor penalty for roughing, and Kucherov narrowed Minnesota’s lead to 3-2 with a bullet of a wrist shot on the ensuing power play.

That would be the closest the Lightning would get to tying the game, although Alex Killorn came dangerously close to tying the game on a rebound chance that barely went wide of the net. Tampa Bay pulled McElhinney with under two minutes left, but the Bolts couldn’t find the equalizer. Anthony Cirelli tipped Stamkos’s last-second shot on net, but Stalock made the save as time expired.

The Lightning play their final game before the All-Star break on Friday night when they head north to take on the Winnipeg Jets at Bell/MTS Place. Puck drops at 8 pm.

Game Notes

-The Lightning have lost five in a row overall to Minnesota.

-Tampa Bay’s all-time record at the Xcel Energy Center sits at 2-10-2. Their .214 points percentage in Minnesota is their worst points percentage against any team on the road. Tampa Bay’s last win in Minnesota occurred on April 2, 2011 in a 3-1 victory.

-McElhinney’s three-game winning streak against Minnesota came to an end.

-The Wild ended a four-game losing streak with their win over the Lightning.

-Kucherov took over the team lead in goals, as he now sits at 21.

Three Stars of the Game

1st Star: Ryan Suter – Scored the game-winning goal late in the second period

2nd Star: Alex Stalock – Stopped 18 of 20 shots

3rd Star: Nikita Kucherov – Scored both of the Lightning’s goals.

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