RALEIGH — If the Carolina Hurricanes miss the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, they will think back to the close losses, missed chances and a few bad calls that cost them crucial points.
The Canes' 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday will be one of those games. It was close, it was tough, and it may have been decided on a call that left everyone in the Canes' locker room in a foul mood when the game was over.
Dominic Moore scored a power-play goal late in the second period that proved to be the winner for the Lightning, which snapped a four-game losing streak that was confidence-sapping. But it came after Erik Cole was penalized for goaltender interference.
Cole, who had scored in the first period, was driving hard to the net when defenseman Pavel Kubina reached up and grabbed his jersey. Cole then was knocked into goalie Mike Smith - who was making just his third start since mid-December - by defenseman Victor Hedman.
"I didn't like that call," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "Kubina's got his forearm over his [Cole's] chest, and Hedman drives him into the goaltender. I didn't think it was a good call at all."
Neither did Cole.
"You've got one guy with his arm around you, and the other guy comes and bumps you," Cole said. "I didn't have anywhere to go. I tried to slow down.
"It is what it is. It's the difference in the game."
After a 4-3 victory over the Lightning on Friday in Tampa, Fla., the Canes (35-30-10) were looking to push their winning streak to four by sweeping the back-to-back. Instead, with the Buffalo Sabres beating the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, Carolina fell five points behind the eighth-place Sabres in the NHL's Eastern Conference with seven games remaining in the regular season.
"Now we're going to need help," Maurice said. "We're going to have to come pretty close to running the table here, and we're going to have to get some help."
The Lightning (40-24-11) got a big game from Simon Gagne, who scored a pair of goals and had four in the back-to-back. Vincent Lecavalier was a handful for the Canes, picking up two assists and setting up Martin St. Louis for Tampa Bay's first goal after forcing a turnover.
Smith, a big man in net at 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, missed 15 games this season with a knee injury. But he had 33 saves in earning his first victory since Dec. 18 against the Sabres.
Cam Ward had 28 saves for the Canes, making 23 stops in the final two periods. Moore's power-play goal at 17:53 of the second came after Ward first stopped a blast by Lecavalier, only to have Moore whack in the rebound.
Eric Staal and Cole scored goals in the first period, which ended in a 2-2 tie. Staal picked up his 31st of the season on an early power play, and Cole scored on a nifty backhander with 50.1 seconds left in the period as Cory Stillman had the primary assists on both.
The Hurricanes then bottled up the Bolts for much of the second period. Brandon Sutter, Chad LaRose, Drayson Bowman and Tuomo Ruutu all had good looks but couldn't find the net, and Ruutu had the crowd roaring with a big hit on Tampa Bay's Adam Hall along the wall.
Then came the Cole penalty at 16:28 - Carolina's first of the game. It turned into the go-ahead goal, as Gagne added an empty-netter in the final minute to close it out.
Adding further frustration to the Cole call was that Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos barreled into Ward early in the third period, with no penalty assessed.
"These are big points that we kind of gave away tonight," said defenseman Jamie McBain, who rejoined the lineup after missing six games with a shoulder injury.
The Hurricanes played Saturday without defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who had two assists Friday against the Lightning. Pitkanen had food poisoning, Maurice said, but may be able to play Tuesday in the road game against the Washington Capitals.
"We gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game," Cole said. "Cam played great again for us. It's just unfortunate to come away with nothing, and we have to regroup and continue to work hard and compete in the last stretch of games.
"Regardless of whether you win or lose a game at this time of the season, the next game becomes the biggest game of the year. So that's the mentality we're going to have to have: to keep going."
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