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Miller’s hat trick not enough as Ottawa bests Tampa Bay

Normally the first hat trick of a player’s career is a joyous occasion, especially on home ice. If this had been any other night, maybe we’re talking about J.T. Miller’s first career hat trick as a key point down the final stretch of this season. Unfortunately for the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’ll be remembered as the high point of an ugly loss to an Ottawa Senators team that’s just playing for pride.

Despite throwing 46 shots on net, the Lightning (48-18-4, 100 points) committed too many errors and were too sloppy with the puck in a dispiriting 7-4 loss to the Senators (25-33-11, 61 points) at Amalie Arena. Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was pulled after allowing six goals on 29 shots through two periods. The pulling of the Lightning’s star goaltender was a mercy move that one could argue should have been made after the opening period in order to wake the Lightning up from their doldrums.

When your top line of Miller, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov is your best line, that should equal a win. Usually when you score four goals in a game, you should win. Miller’s hat trick, combined with three assists each from Stamkos and Kucherov, would typically be enough for this team. But it wasn’t tonight. A team that has far too often been over-reliant on its goaltending this season is now seeing its defensive issues become an even bigger problem.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper’s post-game press conference lasted about 50 seconds, far shorter than what he typically delivers after a game, win or lose. He got right to the point when asked about what led to the defeat against a team playing out the string.

“Turnovers, bad tracks, inability to block shots, inability to kill penalties……add it all up,” said an obviously perturbed Cooper.

While one could also blame a couple of weird bounces for a pair of Ottawa’s goals, the Lightning’s issues in their own zone and on the penalty kill continue to pose a big problem. Tampa Bay saw their 10-game point streak (9-0-1) come to a screeching halt, and they allowed power play goals on both of the Senators’ power plays they attempted to kill off this evening.

A fast start for the Lightning deteriorated into a two-goal Ottawa lead after the opening period.

During the opening five minutes of the first period, Tampa Bay came out blazing. They took 10 of the game’s first 13 shots, jumping out to a 1-0 lead thanks to a goal by Miller. Playing his first full game on the top line with Stamkos and Kucherov, Miller converted a centering pass from Kucherov for his 16th goal of the season at the 4:19 mark.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, the good times didn’t last, as they began to break down defensively. Odd-man rushes led to chances for Ottawa, which led to goals. Tom Pyatt raced in on a partial breakaway, only to see his shot stopped by Vasilevskiy. However, Magnus Paajarvi was there to clean up the rebound and score his seventh of the season, tying the game 1-1. Ryan Dzingel scored his 20th of the campaign when he sniped a laser beam top shelf far corner past Vasilevskiy on a power play, putting Ottawa up 2-1.

The Sens increased that lead to 3-1 just 37 seconds later when Pyatt tipped in a shot from the point by Cody Ceci past a screened Vasilevskiy for his seventh of the year. What began as a blistering effort by the Bolts morphed into a period in which they were appeared to be sleepwalking. Turnovers and odd-man rushes allowed were a severe issue for Tampa Bay going into the intermission with each team recording 17 shots on net.

Whenever Tampa Bay built up some momentum, the Senators took it right back.

Miller continued to do his part, notching a power play goal just 2:03 into the period, cutting Ottawa’s lead to 3-2. The Bolts regained their jump after that goal, putting more shots on the Senators’ net and spending more time in their zone pressing for the tying goal. However, it was all for naught as the Lightning’s penalty kill surrendered their second power play goal of the night at 7:18. Dzingel faked a shot in the right circle and dished it over to the left circle to Marian Gaborik, who beat Vasilevskiy short side for a 4-2 Sens lead.

That Ottawa lead increased to 5-2 following a disastrous defensive sequence for the Lightning. Ottawa kept the pressure up and the Bolts were unable to clear the puck. Erik Burgdoerfer kept the puck in and chipped it towards the net, where it hit Victor Hedman and bounced to a wide open Mike Hoffman. Hoffman easily hammered the puck into an open net for his 20th of the season.

While one could say the Sens were getting the bounces, they were also putting themselves in a better position to take advantage.

Lightning forward Chris Kunitz felt the Lightning didn’t compete hard enough with the Senators.

“We didn’t come out and try to outcompete them. We tried to outplay them,” said Kunitz. “Any time you give up seven goals, you have to look within. You have to dig deeper and commit to being sound defensively, to playing a better team game.”

Miller wouldn’t let the Lightning fall behind too far, as his third goal of the night and 18th of the season cut the deficit to 5-3. While camped out in front of the Ottawa crease, he redirected a centering pass from Stamkos, giving the Bolts some life and bringing hats on the ice from the stands.

While the hat trick was nice, it was the lone bright spot in what continued to be a rough night for the Lightning.

With 1:30 left in the second period, Ottawa regained the three-goal advantage off another strange bounce. Erik Karlsson threw a pass towards the net that deflected off the skate of Kunitz and past Vasilevskiy for his eight goal and a 6-3 Ottawa lead.

That goal prematurely ended Vasilevskiy’s night, as he was pulled during the second intermission in favor of Peter Budaj. Budaj gave up a goal to Hoffman, his second of the night, early in the third period. Bolts defenseman Anton Stralman added that the effort wasn’t good enough from his team.

“It was disappointing. Playing a team coming off a back-to-back and allowing seven goals. It’s unacceptable,” said Stralman.

Ryan McDonagh, acquired along with Miller from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, scored his first goal as a member of the Lightning late in the third period to make it 7-4. Between now and the Lightning’s next game against Boston on Saturday night, the Bolts will have plenty of practice time to correct some issues and prepare for the biggest game of the regular season up to this point. Tampa Bay’s loss, combined with the Bruins’ come-from-behind 6-4 win in Carolina, leaves the Lightning ahead of Boston by just four points as Boston also has two games in hand.

“Biggest game of the year. We have a point to prove after tonight’s performance and I think guys will have a chip on their shoulder,” said Miller.

Game Notes

-Miller has five goals and four assists in seven games since joining the Lightning.

-Senators backup goalie Mike Condon got the start and finished the night with 42 saves. Budaj made three saves on four shots in relief of Vasilevskiy.

-The seven goals allowed by the Lightning are the most they’ve allowed this season and the most since giving up seven at Philadelphia on January 12, 2015.

-Kucherov’s efforts this evening made him the fifth player in Lightning history to record 90 points in a season. The others are Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Marty St. Louis, and Stamkos. Kucherov leads the NHL with 91 points.

-Hedman’s assist on Miller’s second goal was the 100th power play point of his NHL career.

Three Stars of the Game

1st Star: Mike Hoffman – Scored two goals

2nd Star: J.T. Miller – First career NHL hat trick

3rd Star: Ryan Dzingel – Scored a goal and added an assist

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