The set-up was perfect.
The Tampa Bay Lightning was coming off a rousing 6-3 home victory Saturday against their heated state and division rival, the first-place Florida Panthers.
It was a game that featured a Martin St. Louis hat trick to mark his landmark 900th career NHL game, league-scoring leader Steven Stamkos 34th goal and another important step forward for the Bolts on the comeback trail.
What better way to skate into the finale of a four-game home stand against the defensively tough but low-scoring Los Angeles Kings Tuesday night?
What better way to generate momentum for a road swing against the New York Rangers, (first in the Atlantic at 33-13-5), the Buffalo Sabres (last in the Northeast at 22-24-6) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (fourth in the Atlantic at 30-19-5)?
Unfortunately, it turns out the Lightning still needs to get way better especially when it comes to the power play.
Thats what proved most costly to the Bolts in their 3-1 loss to the Kings, causing them to stumble back off the pace just as they were starting to roll.
An 0-for-3 effort in power-play opportunities with only two shots on goal to show for it became their undoing in a game that they needed to win and could have won.
The inability to capitalize on power plays this season has been a frequent problem, including a drought that has seen the team convert only six of its last 63 attempts.
That sorry state of affairs was particularly evident Tuesday night after Stamkos extended his scoring lead with his 35th goal to mark his 22nd birthday, tying the score 1-1 7:49 into the second period. Less than 20 seconds later, the Lightning earned a man advantage after a roughing call against LA wing Kyle Clifford.
The worst part wasnt that the Bolts didnt even muster a shot on goal during the penalty. It was that they lost sight of Clifford was he raced out of the box. Perhaps they were distracted by the familiar blast of the scoring buzzer that went off prematurely when Tampa Bays Victor Hedman directed a shot at the side of the net momentarily appearing to be a score.
Whatever the case, Clifford slipped by them, took a pass on the fly and beat Tampa Bay goalkeeper Dwayne Roloson with a one-on-one backhand shot. Just like that, the Kings were back on top 2-1 and the Bolts were left to wonder what happened.
That changed the entire complexion of the game, and Los Angeles made it 3-1 before the period ended. The Lightning had a chance to get back into the game with a pair of power plays in the opening eight minutes. Yet once again, the offense came away empty-handed . And so did the team, falling nine points behind division-leading Washington by watching its 6-0-1 points streak come to an end.
We have to be aware of the guy coming out of the box period, said head coach Guy Boucher. We know the guys coming out the box, the timings there. Obviously, Hedman almost scored on his backhand there, thought it was going in. I guess everyone was focused on that and we didnt pay attention to the guy coming out of the box. He got the puck on his stick at the right time. We didnt make many mistakes tonight, but it seemed like almost every one we made cost us.
Team captain Vinny Lecavalier refused to use the erroneous horn-blowing as an excuse on the pivotal play. We knew it wasnt in so the horn didnt really do anything, he said. I guess we got to know that guys are coming out of the box. We got caught. We made a few defensive mistakes tonight, but we had a lot of good opportunities that we could have scored more goals.
History suggested the Lightning could handle Los Angeles, second in the Pacific Division at 26-18-10 coming into the game. Tampa Bays last home regulation loss to the Kings fell on Oct. 7, 1999 and it was 3-0-0 record overall in the last five games prior to Tuesday.
But LA has only been allowing just over two goals per game this season and is now 14-0-1 when it scores three or more goals.
The Lightning, meanwhile, now stand at 23-24-5 with 51 points trailing the Caps (28-21-4 and 60 points), Florida (24-17-11 with 59 points) and Winnipeg (25-24-6 with 56 points) in the Southeast Division.
The task of making up ground wont be easy especially trying to re-generate their recent momentum on the road.
Perhaps the players can draw some solace and confidence from their recent streak of success. Before Tuesday, they hadnt lost in regulation since Jan. 15 against Pittsburgh and the loss to the Kings marked only the second time in their last 12 games that they scored fewer than two goals.
In addition, they rose to the occasion the last time they hit the road, knocking off Dallas and Phoenix back to back.
And at least Stamkos remains on a torrid pace, now having scored against every other team in the NHL this season.
The next seven games - the three on the road, followed by a four-game home stretch - could go a long way in determining whether the Bolts can actually climb back into the running.
But they cant let games like the one Tuesday night continue to get away. And theyve got to find a way to put some power back in their power play.