To beat the best, you have to play your best.
For much of their game Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team this season, the Carolina Hurricanes did that. They played with an edge, gave up few good scoring chances, took the lead on Justin Williams’ 300th career goal and got one of Petr Mrazek’s best goaltending games of the season.
But it couldn’t keep the Lightning from winning. Tampa Bay scored two power-play goals in the final eight minutes -- from Ondrej Palat and then Brayden Point -- to win 3-1 at Amalie Arena and end the Canes’ five-game winning streak.
Rookie Andrei Svechnikov had the first Canes penalty in the third period and Greg McKegg the second with an undisciplined slash with 3:55 left in regulation. The Canes’ penalty killing, which has been aggessive and become a strength, couldn’t prevent the Lightning from scoring.
Point, denied a goal by a coach’s challenge in the second period, picked up a late empty-netter for a second goal.
“I couldn’t complain. The effort was phenomenal,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We worked hard. We always work hard. We’re a hard-working team. Obviously we knew coming in we couldn’t take penalties and we did. That’s the killer.”
The Lightning improved to 34-8-2, the NHL’s best record. The Bolts, called the “perfect package” by Brind’Amour before the game, are 17-1-1 since Nov. 29 and have won nine straight at home at Amalie.
After a scoreless first in which the Lightning managed three shots, Williams’ milestone goal at 4:24 of the second pushed the Canes (20-18-5) in front. Williams, crashing the net, followed up a shot by defenseman Dougie Hamilton to beat goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for his 11th of the season.
The game took a more intense turn later in the second period after the Lightning was denied a tying goal by Point.
Point took a stretch pass, got behind defensemen Justin Faulk and Calvin de Haan and beat Mrazek, who denied Point’s first shot only to have Point whack the puck out of the air and into the net.
Brind’Amour issued a coach’s challenge, claiming offside. But not on Point. On Tyler Johnson.
Canes goaltending coach Mike Bales, sitting with general manager Don Waddell high above the Amalie ice, was said to have spotted Johnson leaving the ice but not completely off the ice when Point entered the zone. The goal was negated and the Canes kept the 1-0 lead, much to the displeasure of the home fans.
The Canes kept the lead until Svechnikov was called for hooking at 11:15 of the third, his second penalty of the game. Palat’s power-play score, off a fortunate bounce, tied it.
McKegg then was called for what was a retaliation move. After being elbowed by Alex Killorn, with no call, McKegg slashed Killorn on the back of the leg with 3:55 left in regulation.
“Tough call at the end,” Brind’Amour said. “Good game going on and the guy embellishes a little tap on the back of the legs.”
Point, open in the slot, ripped a shot past Mrazek and the Lightning had the lead. His empty-netter gave him 29 goals for the season.
The Canes returned to Raleigh after the game to complete a back-to-back against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday at PNC Arena. It will be the return game for winger Jeff Skinner, who was traded by the Canes in the offseason after eight years with Carolina, has put together a terrific first season with Buffalo and also has 29 goals.
“When you play a team like Tampa, where we were in a good position, and then to lose it that way, that’s a tough way to lose,” Brind’Amour said. “You almost rather lose 8-0. That’s going to be tough but we have to pick the guys up tomorrow and be ready to go.”