TAMPA — The good news? The Lightning was in this position before, and pretty recently, too.
The bad news? It was hoping to avoid another Game 1 letdown like the one it experienced last round against the Bruins before rolling off four straight wins.
It did not.
A third-period rally only served to make it close as the Capitals won Game 1 4-2 on Friday to steal home ice in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference final.
"The whole game wasn't good enough for where we need to be at this point of the season," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "All areas of our game needs improvement."
The Capitals dominated the first 40 minutes to dispel any thought that they would suffer a letdown after an emotional series win over the Penguins that advanced the franchise to the first conference final in 20 seasons.
Instead, the Caps looked like the team playing in its third conference final in four years, not the Lightning, which is doing just that.
"You've got to bring it," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "We're in the conference finals, and we didn't treat it that way."
The Caps scored twice on the power play, disrupted the Lightning offense and chased goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy after two periods.
"We certainly didn't execute our game plan. We didn't execute having the puck, making the right plays," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "That's a good hockey team over there. They outplayed us. In hindsight we were in the same position after the last round and found a way to respond. But it's a missed opportunity. We get home ice and we wanted to take advantage of it, and we didn't."
The Capitals scored 7:28 into the series when Michal Kempny fired a puck from the left faceoff circle through heavy traffic in front of the net and over Vasilevskiy's left shoulder.
The Lightning, meanwhile, went almost 10 minutes before getting its first shot on net. It finished the period with just two.
It did appear to tie the score with eight seconds to play in the first when Nikita Kucherov took a pass at mid-ice and beat goalie Braden Holtby. But, Kucherov was the sixth man on the ice, which was evident from the moment he touched the puck. The goal was waved off, and Kucherov headed to the penalty box.
The Caps scored off the ensuing faceoff when Alex Ovechkin netted his fourth power-play goal of the postseason. It was quite the turnaround, but Stamkos said it was not the play the broke the Lightning's back.
There were a number of those, like the goal Jay Beagle scored less than three minutes into the second period when he pushed a puck past Vasilevskiy that teammate Brett Connolly fanned on. Instead of a Lightning player getting a stick on the puck, it was a Cap.
It became 4-0 when Lars Eller scored four minutes later.
The Lightning scored twice in the third. Stamkos ended Holtby's shutout with a power-play goal early in the period. Ondrej Palat went end-to-end for an even-strength goal with just under seven minutes to play.
But that was as close as the Lightning would get.
"We know we got better and we can bring it to the table," Cooper said, "but now there's pressure on us to do it in 48 hours."
Game 2 is 8 p.m. Sunday.
The Lightning had not played since last Sunday, when it eliminated the Bruins, but Stamkos said the layoff could not be used as an excuse. The Caps had one fewer day off after slaying the Penguins.
"For whatever reason they were quicker to pucks, they were more disciplined in their structure. They were better on special teams. That's a pretty good recipe to win," Stamkos said. "We now we have to be better, and we'll get back at it (today) in practice and respond. We just need to be way more assertive on the ice and play with that edge that we had after Game 1 last series."
Callahan felt the Lightning was prepared to meet the Bruins in the first game of the last series, and felt it was ready for the Caps on Friday. But that did not show up on the ice in either game.
"For whatever reason we were not, and we just have to put it behind us now," he said. "We've been in this situation before unfortunately. You don't want to be, but we don't have to look to far to draw back on the way we responded against Boston. We have to do the same here."
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50