BY GEORGE RICHARDS
TAMPA – As was the case the last time they were here, not much went right for the Florida Panthers.
Well, goalie Brian Foster made his NHL debut on his 25th birthday. He'll be the only Panthers player who left Saturday's 6-3 loss to the host Lightning with a positive memory.
“We had a tough second period to say the least and were our own worst enemy,'' said coach Kevin Dineen, whose team played in its third game in four nights and went 2-1-0. “They have good players. When you turn the puck over, it will be the difference in the game.''
Florida, which now leads Washington by just a point in the Southeast Division, didn't do much against the resurgent Lightning as Tampa Bay – which has at least a point in its past seven games – scored four goals in the second to chase starter Scott Clemmensen from goal.
Clemmensen returned to start the third period after Florida cut the deficit to two when Sean Bergenheim – Tampa Bay's playoff hero from last spring who is now booed here whenever he touches the puck – scored with 45 seconds left in the second period.
The Panthers didn't do a whole lot, however, in the third, registering just six shots in the period. The period all but came to a close with 20 seconds left when Martin St. Louis registered his fifth career hat trick by depositing the puck into an empty net. St. Louis scored twice against Clemmensen in the second as Florida's defense didn't help out a whole lot.
“We just had a couple of breakdowns in the second and some turnovers really killed us,'' said Clemmensen, who ended with 27 saves. “We had a 10 minute span in the second that was the story of the game. Obviously they made plays, but they took what we gave them. We made some costly mistakes.''
The Panthers lost 5-1 here on Thanksgiving weekend and Saturday's win gave Tampa Bay the season series with wins in four of six. Florida took the first two games of the series back in October then dropped four straight.
Florida hadn't lost the season series to the Lightning since Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup championship season in 2003-04.
“What happened in Tampa is in the past. I'm just ticked we didn't win this game,'' said Bergenheim, who had nine goals in Tampa Bay's run to the Eastern Conference finals. said. “We have to take care [of the Lightning] better next year. These are such important games. Congrats to them. They were the better team [Saturday], I thought.''
Tampa Bay opened the scoring 1:37 into the game when Florida's Mike Weaver's shot was blocked and Nate Thompson scooped it up at center ice and fired through Clemmensen's skates on Tampa's opening shot of the night.
Florida got right back in it on Tomas Fleischmann's soft off-speed wrist shot that beat Mathieu Garon two minutes later.
Only the Lightning opened things up in the third, taking a 3-1 lead on goals from Vinny Lecavalier and St. Louis within a span of three minutes. After Mikael Samuelsson scored by firing away from an awkward angle, Steven Stamkos made it 5-2 tapping in his own rebound.
Dineen then brought in the now 25-year-old Foster. With the Panthers down two, Clemmensen returned.
“We were down two with 20 minutes to go,'' said Clemmensen, who stopped all seven shots faced in the third. “For me, I just wanted to shut the door and let the team do the rest. Two goals isn't something you can't come back from.''
Said Dineen: “I wanted to give him a breather. My full intention was to bring him back. There may have been one he wanted back but there were breakdowns. We felt we could come back and push and I think, for the most part, we did.''
--Foster's NHL debut didn't last long as he was in net for under five minutes and faced just one shot. For Foster, who was called up from AHL San Antonio last week, it was fine.
“Just to get the nerves out, even though it wasn't long,'' Foster said. “I'm not disappointed, I'm just happy to be here. Whatever I have to do, I will. I'll go with whatever they tell me. I'm just trying to get better every day''
--The Panthers will take Sunday off and return to their practice facility in Coral Springs for an early morning skate Monday. The team will then fly to Washington, D.C., for Tuesday's divisional game against the Capitals.