Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers squander lead in crucial loss to Lightning

Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) reacts after Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan scored what proved to be the winning goal during the third period Tuesday, March 24, 2015, in Tampa, Fla.
Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) reacts after Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan scored what proved to be the winning goal during the third period Tuesday, March 24, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. AP

In his first year as coach of the Panthers, Gerard Gallant has not let his emotions rise too high nor sink very low based on the outcome of a game.

Tuesday night, however, Gallant couldn’t hide his disappointment nor frustration in what could be an extremely costly defeat.

The Panthers’ playoff hopes took a major hit when Tampa Bay scored twice in the third period to come back to beat the visitors from South Florida 4-3.

Florida scored three goals in a span of 1:58 in the second period to take a lead into the third, but the hard-nosed Lightning never stopped coming.

“We battled back, we took the lead. The last goal cost us the hockey game,’’ Gallant said.

“We played well, it’s a disappointing loss. We gave up three weak goals — not by the goaltending but by defensive-zone coverage and not battling, not working. We played hard, but you can’t give up three goals like that.’’

Florida, which had been 18-2-3 when leading after two periods, watched Nikita Kucherov tie the score 90 seconds into the third. With the clock ticking down toward overtime — and at least a point in the standings — Ryan Callahan popped out from behind the cage and got a shot off under Roberto Luongo’s glove from 10 feet out.

Tampa Bay gets the win and the two points; Florida got nothing. The Lightning is now 3-18-2 when down heading into the third.

“Bottom line is I have to be better,’’ a depressed Luongo said. “You want to make a save when it’s important. This is a tough one to digest.’’

Callahan’s goal with 2:28 left could be a final dagger into Florida’s playoff hopes.

The Panthers now have nine games remaining yet trail Ottawa by five points for the final playoff spot in the East.

Florida can’t afford any more losses down the stretch — especially Sunday in Ottawa.

“This was a tough game to lose,’’ Gallant said. “This would have been a great win for us.

“There is no room for mistakes now.’’

Tampa Bay jumped to a 2-0 lead after Florida’s defense broke down in the first with the Lightning scoring twice in a span of two minutes.

“We gave them two goals,’’ Gallant spat, “by sleeping. It shouldn’t have been a 2-0 game. We weren’t thinking, weren’t working. We made mistakes and they ended up in the back of our net.”

In the second, Jussi Jokinen got Florida’s scoring barrage going by whipping a shot from the right circle. Just 18 seconds later, Brandon Pirri scored on a similar shot and angle to tie the score.

With 11:46 left in the second, Florida took its first lead when Huberdeau dove at a loose puck and pushed it past backup Andrei Vasilevskiy.

That was all Florida would get, however.

Tampa Bay, which moved two points closer to the league’s Presidents’ Trophy, has now won an impressive 12 in a row at home in regulation against divisional opponents — something no team has done in 30 years.

Florida, meanwhile, heads to Canada hoping to stay in the playoff conversation.

The way Gallant walked to the bus and general manager Dale Tallon held his head in his hands, it sure felt like the end.

“It looked like it could have gone to overtime or we could have won it,’’ Dmitry Kulikov said.

“In sports, whoever wants it more usually wins it. That’s the way it went [Tuesday].’’

JAGR RETURN?

Although the Panthers have expressed an interest in re-signing him, Jaromir Jagr said Tuesday he is only focused on the rest of this season and won’t worry about next year.

Florida acquired Jagr — a free agent on July 1 — in a deal with New Jersey on Feb. 26.

Coming into Tuesday, the Panthers had won seven of 10 games with Jagr in their lineup.

“My goal is just to help this team make the playoffs,’’ Jagr said. “I never think about the future.’’

▪ Center Nick Bjugstad was missing from the Panthers’ lineup for the first time this season as he has been suffering from a lingering lower-body injury the past few weeks.

Bjugstad didn’t travel with the team to Tampa and Gallant said he would be evaluated throughout the week.

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