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Blackhawks squander third-period lead in loss to Lightning

Lightning center Brian Boyle flips over as he collides with Niklas Hjalmarsson after scoring a first-period goal on Tuesday. (AP Photo)

The Blackhawks spent most of the first half of the season talking about the need to start games better. It’s been a long time since they’ve had to worry about finishing better.

The Hawks started strong but finished terribly Tuesday night, giving up four third-period goals in a 5-2 loss to the Lightning. It’s the first time they’ve lost a regular-season game in regulation when they led through two periods since the start of the 2014-15 season. They had been 78-0-5

in such situations.

“It hasn’t happened a whole lot,” Patrick Kane said. “Even if we give up that lead, we’re finding ways to win those games.”

A trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup before the season, the Lightning entered Tuesday’s game in last place in the Eastern Conference, having plummeted from contention since Steven Stamkos tore the meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 15.

But on this night, the Lightning looked like the 2015 version that gave the Hawks all they could handle in the Stanley Cup Final, playing a fast-paced, high-danger style that paid off in the third period. The Hawks were leading 2-1 on goals by Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, but the Lightning struck back early in the third, as Nikita Nesterov scored off a Brian Boyle faceoff win against Toews to tie it at 2-2.

And moments after Nick Schmaltz drew iron with a potential go-ahead goal, Tyler Johnson scored twice in 30 seconds — both off Alex Killorn feeds — at 6:14 and 6:44 to stun the crowd into silence. Nikita Kucherov added an empty-net goal with 2:05 left.

“Just a few miscues there, obviously,” said defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was on the ice for both of Johnson’s goals. “We were in a good spot going into the third, right where we wanted to be. We just didn’t do the little things that make us successful and we let them use that speed of theirs.”

On the plus side for the Hawks, Toews is starting to look like his old self again. After his four-point night against the Canucks, Toews had a goal and an assist, and was all over the ice — crashing the net, creating chances and even yapping at a ref after a non-call. And a resurgent Toews would mean far more to the Hawks than two points in mid-January ever could.

Kruger activated

With Dennis Rasmussen battling an illness, Marcus Kruger was activated from injured reserve Tuesday. But Rasmussen wound up playing, and Kruger remained out of the lineup. Kruger hasn’t played since injuring his hand on Dec. 30 at Carolina. He could return Thursday against Winnipeg.

That’s Rich

Lightning coach Jon Cooper was at a Chicago restaurant with his wife on Monday night when a waiter brought over two “adult beverages” from a nearby patron. It was Panik, who played for Cooper with the Lightning and the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. Panik had eight goals and 14 assists in 75 games over two seasons with the Lightning, but Cooper isn’t surprised by his breakout season this year.

“The biggest thing for Richard is he’s learned how to be a pro,” Cooper said. “He’s got the size, strength, speed and skill. It just took him a little bit longer than some other guys. He’s an electrifying player and he can just do some things with the puck I haven’t seen other guys be able to do. . . . I’m really happy for him. He deserves this.”

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Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com