TORONTO -- Already exhausted following a long road trip and playing the second half of back-to-back games, the last thing the Toronto Maple Leafs was another emotional pitfall.
Coach Randy Carlyle had already caused a stir in Detroit a night earlier by calling James Reimer's play in a loss "just OK," and then the goaltender gave up a goal on the first shot he faced Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, that was just the beginning of a long game as defenceman Paul Ranger was injured and Steven Stamkos rang up a hat trick to hand them a 5-3 loss at Air Canada Centre, their third in a row.
Even after the club released an update saying Ranger was "stable, conscious and alert" after his head hit the glass on a hit from Alex Killorn and he was taken to a local hospital, there were plenty of worried teammates in the home locker-room after a defeat that dropped the Leafs three points behind the Lightning in the Atlantic Division. With that came a notion of missing an opportunity to make something out of the impossibly difficult situation of seeing Ranger go down.
"You try to use that as motivation to go out there and give yourself the best opportunity to get a chance and try to use the player, Range, get it for him," Carlyle said. "And we fell short, for sure."
Against the Lightning (38-24-7), falling short meant starting terribly with a goal against 59 seconds in, taking too many penalties and giving Stamkos far too much room to operate.
But Killorn's hit on Ranger understandably took the lion's share of the attention. Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper called it "probably the turning point in the game" as his team killed off the five-minute major, while the Leafs (36-27-8) just struggled to pick their game up after watching him get wheeled off the ice on a stretcher.
"We say our job's to get ready and prepare for the next period, but that's scary," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "He obviously didn't look great when he was leaving the ice. So you're trying to clear your head and focus on the next period. But you can't lie -- obviously part of you is wondering what's going on with him."
When Ranger went down, the Leafs were trailing 3-2 after Radko Gudas beat Reimer in the game's first minute with a seemingly innocent shot from just inside the blue-line. Reimer didn't see the shot, and long after his Leafs came back to take the lead on goals by Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin, Carlyle didn't blame his goalie for that one.
"The first goal's kind of (a) fluke," Carlyle said. "What do you do? It's a seeing-eye shot, there's a screen, it hits a post and goes in. So you can't get too unravelled by that."
Reimer, who gave up five goals on 30 shots, didn't unravel, but a lack of discipline and the Leafs' defence was to blame for Stamkos scoring twice in the first period and then completing the hat trick early in the second. An interference penalty on David Clarkson led to the first goal, and there were missed assignments on all three.
For Stamkos, who was playing in just his seventh game since returning from a four-month absence after breaking his right leg, called getting the natural hat trick in front of family and friends the highlight of his season.
"I was a little disappointed there was no hats on the ice," the Markham, Ont., native said. "I guess I'll take it anyway."
Though he couldn't be blamed for any of the three goals Stamkos scored, Reimer couldn't take many positives out of his performance. Because Jonathan Bernier remains out with a groin injury, Reimer became the first Toronto goalie to start on back-to-back days this season, and this wasn't the result he wanted when thrust into that situation.
"I just want to come out and play well and kind of be a difference-maker, and unfortunately it wasn't the case," Reimer said. "I thought I made some good saves, but it definitely wasn't the performance I was looking for. I wanted to come out and be big and keep your team in it, and that didn't happen tonight."
Reimer's failings, notably on the first goal, paled in comparison to the other drama and blunders that tormented the Leafs against the Lightning. Six minor penalties led to two power-play goals by the Lightning -- the first by Stamkos and the second one in the third from linemate Tyler Johnson -- which wound up being enough to make the difference.
"A lot of things come down to special teams," Cooper said. "We've had our ups and downs all year. For us to kill off all those penalties, especially the five minutes and then get two power-play goals. That's how you're going to win. That's how you're going to win down the stretch and get into the playoffs."
With the victory, the Lightning, who got 36 saves on 39 shots from Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop, moved ahead of the Montreal Canadiens for second place in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs, who at 71 games have played the most of any team in the Eastern Conference, held onto the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference but lost a major opportunity to pick up points.
Reimer lamented not doing that more than being unable to cover up the fire storm that surrounded him.
"It doesn't really matter how you play or how people talk about how you play as long as you get points," he said. "As tough as things go or as good as things go, you can play a great game and still lose. The big thing is points, so as far as statement games or whatnot, I think really at this time of year it's just about your team and about getting your team points, not necessarily about you making a statement."
Stamkos, who scored his three goals on his only three shots of the night, made a statement that he's back and capable of carrying the Lightning. Cooper was looking forward to seeing how the 24-year-old would fare in his "backyard," and he didn't disappoint.
"There's special players out there that find a way, they have that innate ability to rise to the occasion," Cooper said. "For Stammer to come back in here to his hometown and do what he did tonight, basically put the team on his shoulders, I can't say enough about (him)."
And the Leafs couldn't say enough about how things went wrong, especially when it came to not containing one of the league's best in Stamkos.
"We were getting exposed," Lupul said. "There were times today where we were good, other times we made some errors getting the puck out of our zone, once by me and then a couple times we let their best player get the puck in an area where we can't do that."
And then there was a lack of desperation early on that only came in the second half of the game and showed up when Jake Gardiner cut the deficit to one with 12:40 left. Giving half of what was necessary was not enough.
"I felt that our desperation level went up for the last 30 minutes of the game," Carlyle said. "We've got to do a better job than that."
NOTES -- Kessel's goal was his 35th of the season, two short of his career high. ... Gardiner's goal was his fifth in the past seven games and 10th of the season. ... Killorn was given a game misconduct along with the five-minute major for boarding Ranger, whom the Leafs said was taken to a hospital for a "precautionary assessment." ... Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier skated Wednesday morning for the first time since suffering a groin injury almost a week earlier in Los Angeles. Carlyle said Bernier was "coming along" and he expected the injured netminder to take shots during practice Friday.