John Romano: Tampa Bay Lightning falters in key emotional moments

Marty St. Louis celebrates his tying goal, but the Lightning’s happiness was short-lived.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis celebrates his tying goal, but the Lightning’s happiness was short-lived.

TAMPA — It was the perfect comeback. Patient, tenacious and dramatic.

It was everything a coach could ask for and as good as a crowd could expect. It began early, arrived late and had a star's fingerprints all over it.

And it lasted for 31 seconds.

That's as much good fortune as the Lightning could stand in a 3-2 Game 3 loss to the Penguins.

The Lightning came from two goals behind to tie the score in the third period Monday night then kissed it all away on the next shift.

So now it is permissible to wonder about this team's ability to control its emotions. About how it deals with prosperity and how it copes with adversity.

For the Lightning has been as good as, or better than, Pittsburgh for the majority of this series, and yet Tampa Bay trails because it has dropped its guard at key moments.

A scoreless game for 40 minutes in the series opener was wiped out when the Lightning allowed back-to-back goals 18 seconds apart. A fresh start in Game 3 was obliterated when the Lightning gave up back-to-back goals 45 seconds apart.

Worst of all, a comeback of grand proportions was ruined Monday night when Marty St. Louis' second power-play goal of the game was amazingly followed by a Pittsburgh score 31 seconds later.

"We know this, it's something we talk about," forward Simon Gagne said. "After a power play, or even a penalty kill, we have to be ready. Whoever goes on the ice has to know the next shift is going to be critical.

"We come back, we tie the game and we have five-on-five, we have to be ready for that big shift. We get caught on the faceoff, and they score the game-winner. It's all about mistakes in the playoffs. We didn't have a lot of mistakes, but every one we had cost us a goal. And that third one was a killer."

Each of these episodes can be explained in technical terms. For instance, defenseman Victor Hedman got beat in a one-on-one situation that led to the second goal. And Lightning players were slow to react on a faceoff that led to the winning goal in the third period.

An optimistic person might just call them regrettable mistakes. A cynic would suggest they were letdowns after momentum-shifting goals less than a minute earlier.

"We came back; we came back from two goals," coach Guy Boucher said. "The problem is we allowed that goal. It's a disappointing goal because it's a faceoff that we know they're doing, so the players are extremely aware of it. We saw it on video, we talked about it, and two players were a little late doing what they're supposed to do.

"After … getting some momentum, getting scored on with something we're supposed to be aware of was a little disappointing."

It was as if the Lightning had been pounding on the door so long Monday night, that once it knocked it down, it forgot someone might be on the other side.

It should have been a statement-making moment against a despondent opponent in a hostile rink, except the Lightning let it slip away.

"Obviously we were excited about tying the game up," Hedman said. "We knew that next shift was going to be big."

A mature team does not allow emotion to rule the moment. A mature team takes advantage of an opponent's lapses. A mature team understands a game's ebbs and flows.

Pittsburgh looks like a mature team.

Thus far, Tampa Bay does not.

Maybe that sounds harsh, but you can certainly build a case to justify it. Because when you watch these teams on the ice, you do not see a major gap in talent.

The Penguins are without their two best offensive weapons, yet they are playing the kind of structured, relentless game that Boucher has been preaching to his own team. They have made mistakes, but they have not turned into consecutive mistakes.

For more than 178 minutes of this series, the Lightning has outscored Pittsburgh 7-3. Unfortunately, the Penguins are up 4-0 in those other 63 seconds.

"It's not like guys go out there and try to screw it up," defenseman Eric Brewer said. "We're trying to make some plays."

And so now, the tone of the series changes again.

Pittsburgh began with home-ice advantage, and Tampa Bay took it away with a victory in Game 2. The Penguins wrested it back Monday night.

Surrendering Game 3 at home now means the Lightning is going to have to win either Game 5 or Game 7 in Pittsburgh if it is to advance.

That's certainly not out of the question, but it's going to require a team ready and capable of growing up in the postseason.

John Romano: Tampa Bay Lightning falters in key emotional moments 04/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 8:44pm]

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