The Carolina Hurricanes were hoping to create some momentum as they close in on the NHL's Southeast Division title. Instead, they created more questions about their ability to finish the job.
The struggling Hurricanes built a two-goal lead before the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team with the league's worst record, rallied for a 3-3 tie Sunday.
"We made some mistakes," said Ron Francis, who had a goal and an assist to help Carolina go up 3-1. "We had more than enough chances to win, and we didn't get it done."
The Hurricanes came in with only one victory in their previous five games, trimming their lead over Florida atop the division standings to five points with nine games left in the regular season.
"We are in a mini-slump ," goaltender Arturs Irbe said. "We'll get out of it. If we don't, we don't deserve it."
Carolina was coming off its worst performance of the season, a 7-2 loss to Toronto Friday night. Irbe gave up goals on each of Toronto's first three shots, and he had more problems against Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game when Stephane Richer launched a 65-foot shot and Irbe didn't appear to get a skate, pad, glove or stick on the puck as it whizzed past him.
Irbe's struggles Sunday kept his victory total for the season at 25, including just one in his last six decisions.
"I'm not very happy how things have gone," he said. "The game slips away, and I have to work my wa back. Sometimes the puck seems like a beach ball, and sometimes it looks real small like a golf ball. But that doesn't matter. I have to stop them."
Tampa Bay, winless in its last seven games against Carolina, also got goals from Chris Gratton and Alexandre Daigle. The Lightning are 0-27-2 when trailing after the first period and 1-9-2 against Southeast Division foes.
"We competed for 65 minutes. That's all we want for our team," Tampa Bay coach Jacques Demers said. "After it was 3-1, we never stopped skating. We battled the whole game."
Francis stole an errant pass later in the first and fed Kapanen just in front of the crease, and Sheppard put the Hurricanes up by two just before the midway point of the second period when he flipped a 25-foot wrist shot past Hodson.
Gratton banged in a rebound to make it 3-2 later in the second, and Daigle tied it with 11:42 left in the third when he took a pass from Darcy Tucker behind the net and poked the puck past Irbe.
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