TAMPA — After getting outplayed, and badly outshot, by the Penguins in losing the past two games of the Eastern Conference final, the Lightning enters an almost must-win Game 4 tonight at Amalie Arena.
It can't afford to fall behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
The key for Tampa Bay turning things around? Center Tyler Johnson said that to beat the Penguins, you have to join them.
"Mimic what they're doing," Johnson said. "They're playing our game. We've just got to be better at it."
That's easier said than done against a red-hot Penguins team that hasn't lost two in a row since mid January. Now Tampa Bay must win three of the next four to advance to the Stanley Cup final. That's a tall task considering the Lightning is coming off one of its worst games in recent memory, giving up 48 shots in Wednesday's 4-2 loss in Game 3.
This is the first time since October 2011 that Tampa Bay has allowed 40-plus shots in back-to-back games. It allowed 41 in a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 2 on Monday.
"It's not something we're sitting here saying, 'Oh, we can't beat this team,' " coach Jon Cooper said. "We couldn't beat them the last two games, and that's the way we're looking at it. So we have to just dig down and look through the past, do some of the things where we've had success, and really look back at some of the things that are hurting us. The things that are hurting us are things that are a little bit uncharacteristic in what we do.
"In saying that, Pittsburgh's put us in a position to be like that. Now it's we served, they volleyed back. Now it's our turn to send it back to them. That's what we've got to do."
The Lightning had a meeting Thursday, and captain Steven Stamkos, out because of a blood clot, said a few players shared their opinions. "They knew that effort (Wednesday) wasn't good enough," he said.
The team also watched film and believes its mistakes are correctable.
"We're a confident team," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We're not second-guessing ourselves after back-to-back loss. Everyone in this room believes we can come back. (The series deficit is) only 2-1."
Puck management has been a major problem for the Lightning. Typically a strong possession team, Tampa Bay has given the Penguins many transition opportunities with turnovers in the neutral zone and its zone, hanging goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy out to dry. Wing Jonathan Drouin used his late second-period giveaway in Game 2 as an example. He forced a pass near the blue line instead of chipping the puck in. The Penguins scored the game's first goal on an ensuing odd-man rush.
"I think we're fueling them the way they want us to play," Drouin said.
Johnson said the Lightning isn't executing; too many passes are at feet or off the mark. And when there's a chance, it's not shooting.
"We're trying to do a fancy play, and you can't do that against this team," Johnson said. "They're too skilled, too fast. You feed their transition game. We've got to simplify things, get pucks to the net."
The Lightning needs to forecheck, one of its strengths, and flip the script from Wednesday's second period, when the Penguins pinned Drouin's line in its zone for three minutes, 30 seconds.
"That was a long one," Drouin said. "Definitely happy to sit on the bench after that one."
Though the Penguins' top players are stepping up, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel each scoring again Wednesday, the Lightning's leading playoff scorer, Nikita Kucherov, hasn't been a significant factor. He has no goals and two assists in the series. Kucherov said he's not getting chances and not shooting as much as he did in the first two series, after which he led the playoffs with nine goals.
"I've got to be better," Kucherov said. "Everybody's got to be better."
Much, much better.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.