TAMPA — You didn't think it was going to be easy, did you? You didn't think the Washington Capitals were just going to show up and play patsy as the Lightning steamrolled its way to the Stanley Cup final, right?
Well, if that's what you thought then you and the Lightning were all in for rude awakenings Friday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final.
Turns out, this Caps team is pretty good. And, oh, you can forget all that baloney about Washington just being happy to be here. Looks as if they have some plans of their own, Stanley Cup plans that include busting through Tampa Bay to get there.
The Lightning came out flat and then got really flattened. The final score was 4-2. Don't be fooled. It wasn't that close. It was brutal loss, the kind that shakes confidences and plants doubts.
Now the good news is the Lightning has been in this spot before. Just last round, it got blown out by the Bruins in Game 1 and rallied to win the next four games. Time and time again the past few years, this group has suffered what appeared to be shattering losses only to put the pieces back together again and claw back to life.
The bad news? The Lightning isn't playing the Bruins anymore. Washington is bigger than Boston. Tougher. Scarier. Stingier on defense. Steadier in goal. More dangerous on offense.
In a word: better.
You can say it's only one game. That's true. But if felt like more than one game. It felt like a statement. It looked like a clinic.
The Caps so badly dominated the Lightning that two quick questions come to mind.
One: Is the Lightning in serious trouble after only one game?
The Lightning gave Washington too much space and dug what turned out to be an inescapable hole, Martin Fennelly writes. #TBLightning #GoBolts #ALLCAPS #TBLvsWSH @TB_Times @mjfennelly https://t.co/ZImM9f1poC— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 12, 2018
And, two: How in the world does this happen? How can a team that has looked so good in the past couple of weeks look so discombobulated, so outclassed?
First off, no, the Lightning is not in serious trouble just yet. It's a best-of-seven series. Let's see where things stand after what has now become an almost must-win Game 2 before we start planning eulogies. Things always seem like the end of the world when you lose a playoff game, especially Game 1.
But let's be clear about this. There was never in a point in the Boston series, not even during the Game 1 loss, when things looked his dire. That's how much of a smack-down Friday night was. That's how good Washington was. That's how bad Tampa Bay was.
It was a smart move by Lightning coach Jon Cooper to pull Andrei Vasilevskiy after the second period, Roger Mooney writes. #TBLightning #GoBolts #ALLCAPS #TBLvsWSH @TB_Times @RogerMooney50 https://t.co/91L0KgpJu7— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 12, 2018
"It's disappointing and frustrating when you don't come out the way you want to play,'' Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "It's one thing if you play well and you don't get the win. But I don't think we deserved to be that game.''
So that brings to how. How did this happen?
Maybe it was just one of those nights. You're bound of have a clunker every now and then, even if you're a team that had won eight of 10 games this postseason coming into Friday night.
The breaks don't even out. The bounces don't go your way. Luck takes a few shifts for the other guy. And there was some of that as the Caps scored a couple of goals that were a direct result of fluky bounces after fanning on shots.
Then again, those goals count, too. And that doesn't mean to suggest that the Caps were simply luckier than Tampa Bay.
Video: Dan Girardi says Lightning needed to stay patient even when things weren’t going as they wanted early on in opening loss to Capitals. pic.twitter.com/KPjgFIZ47O— Greg Auman (@gregauman) May 12, 2018
They were flat-out better, which is another explanation for what happened Friday. The Caps are a really good team with really good players and they proved that Friday night.
"They were just a better team (Friday),'' Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi said. "They were on top of us. They didn't give us any space. … They were just a better team. By far.''
The part of the equation for what happened that's the most concerning is what role did the Lightning play in it? Sure, Washington was good, but Tampa Bay, even with a late push that produced two third-period goals, was simply not good enough. Not by a mile.
"Our game wasn't good enough for where it needs to be this time of year,'' Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said.
There's no reason to think the Lightning can't get back to where it needs to be to compete in this series. It's certainly not the end of the world.
But you can see the end of the season from here if the Lightning can't figure things out. It has less than 48 hours to do so.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones