RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller didn't mince words Saturday after a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at PNC Arena.
No forced smile. No stressing any perceived positives in a loss. Not after a third straight loss.
"We got outworked and they out-competed us," Muller said. "That's not acceptable. In a big game, in your own rink, they outworked us. They wanted it more and they won all the battles.
"In a big game like that, we've got to have more weight to our game. We can't accept that. Yes, we have injuries. Yes, we have guys playing out of their positions and that's tough. But there's not going to be any excuses.
"That's not acceptable."
The Lightning (9-7-1) did everything needed to win. Mathieu Garon, getting the start in net, had 32 saves in beating the Canes for the second time this season. Tampa Bay also ignited in the third period, scoring four times as rookie Richard Panik scored his first NHL goal and Steven Stamkos scored his 12th of the season.
Drayson Bowman and Chad LaRose scored for the Hurricanes (8-7-1) in the third. But the Lightning was rolling at that point, controlling the puck, pressuring the Canes in the offensive zone and manufacturing scoring chances.
"In the third they opened it up to a different level that we didn't match," Canes goalie Dan Ellis said.
For two periods, defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron had the only goal -- a quick wrister from the left wing that Ellis couldn't track midway through the first. Had Garon not been sharp in net, the Canes might have led.
But early in the third, Benoit Pouliot scored on a quick-hitter after Vincent Lacavalier's hard work down low set up the goal. Bowman's goal, on a bullet of a shot from the high slot, made it 2-1, but Panik then struck.
Panik fired off a shot from the right side that glanced off Ellis, then circled to the far side and whacked in the puck. When Tom Pyatt scored for Tampa Bay, it was 4-1.
LaRose's goal came four-on-four, pulling the Canes within 4-2, but Stamkos finished it off with his fifth goal in the past three games. Stamkos also had an assist on Panik's goal.
Ellis had 34 saves in his fifth start. Muller said he had no problem with Ellis' play, saying, "For me, I don't care who's in net if we going to let them go to the net that easily and get their opportunities.
"Yes, we got shots. But we didn't get inside their 'D. It's all parts of the game tonight we just weren't strong enough."
The Hurricanes were again playing without forward Jeff Skinner, out with a concussion, and injured center Tim Brent. Defensemen Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain all are sidelined with injuries, and rookie Ryan Murphy made his second NHL start on the back end.
There was a scary moment for the Canes in the second period. During a power play, winger Alexander Semin was hit in the side of the face by the puck and had to helped to the bench, but later returned to the game.
The Hurricanes now are 0-4-0 against Southeast Division opponents and no longer the divisional leaders. Nor do they have long to dwell on it -- Carolina plays a road game Sunday against the New York Islanders.
"A mistake here and there can cost you a game," Canes defenseman Jay Harrison said. "A little bit of lack of jump in one period can cost you a game, that's how competitive and close it is.
"For the past three losses that has been the case, that has been the difference. But being close is unacceptable."