TAMPA, Fl. — The end result was the Boston Bruins  losing their sixth game in the last seven tries, but a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered in the closing minutes of Sunday night’s tilt at the St. Pete Times Forum was a small step in the proper direction.
At this point it’s small gains for a hockey team that clearly lost its groove some point after the New Year.
The bad news: the B’s lost three of four games on the just-concluded road trip through the Sun Belt and couldn’t hang on for overtime and steal a point out of Sunday’s showdown in Tampa. The good news: Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara  was encouraged in the face of a six game homestand that will take them through March 7, and ever-closer to the postseason.
The Black and Gold outshot the Bolts by a wide 43-18 margin and enjoyed a boatload of Grade A chances produced by their extended efforts. But two late penalties to David Krejci  and Andrew Ference  gave the Lighting an extended power play late in the third that Vaclav Prospal finally cashed in on.
“I thought we did a really good job,” said Zdeno Chara. “(Saturday) we had about the same amount of shots, but we didn’t have that steady presence in front of the net. We definitely had that and created a lot of chances. We all really played hard, the effort was there and it’s just a tough loss. You’re going to have games like that.
“No matter what we say, we know we have to put some wins together and get back on a roll,” added Chara. “Points are getting and we didn’t get any tonight. We need to put it behind us and get ready for some games. We realize teams are playing us really hard and they want to measure themselves against, especially with only 20 games left going into the playoffs. Everyone wants to have a strong finish. We just need to make sure we’re playing our game, and not adjusting to other teams.”
Sunday’s effort-filled defeat featured several fights along with plenty of big bodies crashing at the net and a little extra oomph and determination at taking the puck away from Lightning skaters in all three zones of the ice. In other words, it seemed a lot more like the hockey club that had built up a huge cushion in the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately a 4-4-2 month of February has done what absolutely nobody could do through the first four months of the season — it’s made the Bruins look mortal and allowed an impressive Washington Capitals  to close within seven points in the Eastern Conference standings.
“If the effort is like that night after night, then we’ll get back on track and that’s what we’re looking for,” said B’s coach Claude Julien . “Our guys competed hard tonight from start to finish.
“I thought our game had slipped probably for at least a month now, and — if anything — I thought that was one of our better games in the last month. We need to work our way back to where we were. It took us a month to slip, so it’ll probably take us a month to get where we want to be.”
Snake-bitten Phil Kessel  entered the game riding a 14-game goal-scoring drought — the third longest stint without a lamp-lighter in his young career — and ended it just 1:38 into the game. The score was a pretty typical quick, well-placed wrist shot to the goalie’s stick side that Kessellaunched with his feet moving through the right faceoff circle. It was the same kind of thing that the sniping winger did 24 times through the first half of the season while pushing himself off to such a great start, and the youngster didn’t stop competing through the 60 minute game.
Kessel pushed and shoved and competed for loose pucks. He pushed and shoved at Tampa Bay aggressors throughout the game, and he even lifted the stick of a Lightning shooter in the defensive zone to prevent a point blank bid at B’s goalie Manny Fernandez . He did all of those things to raise his all-important “compete level” while also cashing in on his 25th goal of the season, and first since way back on Jan. 3 in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres .
“I hadn’t scored in a while,” said Kessel. “I feel like we had a lot of chances. I thought we worked hard out there today. We just need to keep battling, do all the little things and get back on track. I’m just trying to go out there and get going again.”
Julien was happy with what he saw.
“When Phil plays like that, he’s a great player,” said Julien flatly.
Kessel had a pair of golden chances in the third period when he walked in from the right side on the Lightning net and flipped a shot at Tampa goalie Karri Ramo that he was able to kick out to the front of the net. Kessel followed after the puck and poked a rebound bid at the open net, but somehow Ramo was able to swing his pad outward and knock Kessel’s bid away. It was part of a big night for Ramo, who stymied the Bruins with 40 saves and helped his Bolts take two points away from the B’s.
Injury Ward: Everybody appeared to leave Tampa relatively healthy, and there should be a relatively full lineup against the Panthers at the Garden Tuesday night.
Player of the Game: Zdeno Chara always seems to man up when his team needs him most, and he was a monster against the Lightning Sunday night. He scored the game-tying goal in the second period on a heads-up play filling the lane, he fired off a game-high six shots and he shut down Vinny Lecavalier’s line. In short, Big Z did everything a Bruins captain should out on the ice and he was the first to answer any and all questions in the dressing room.
Goat Horns: The two Bruins penalties (Krejci for interference and Ference for delay of game) late in the game set up the game-winning goal for the Bolts, but it shouldn’t completely muddy a good all-around effort by the entire roster from top to bottom. The B’s need to bottle up that passion and energy for their final 22 games of the regular season, and finish up strong for an intense playoff run.
Turning Point: The B’s were behind the 8-ball early in this one as — following Kessel’s first period score — the Lightning struck quickly for two goals within 15 seconds in the first period. The goals by Jeff Halpern and Adam Hall stole away the momentum Boston built up early, and gave the Bolts just enough to hang on in a game Boston dominated. Mini-turning point No. 2 came in the third period when Ramo made those two show-stopping saves on Kessel to keep the game tied at 3-3.