NEWARK, N.J. — The Lightning never feels its out of a game, and its comeback ability has enabled it to save face — and points — early this season.
But playing catchup is starting to catch up to Tampa Bay.
"It's a recipe for disaster," coach Jon Cooper said.
Saturday provided another example, a 3-1 loss to the Devils at the Prudential Center. The Lightning has lost two in a row for the first time this season, and both losses came against teams that were playing in the second game of back-to-backs.
There was no excuse for the Lightning (5-3-0) to get outplayed from the beginning by a New Jersey team that had lost in overtime the night before. Aside from the Toronto game on Tuesday, the Lightning has been outscored 7-0 in the first period.
"This league is tough. You can't take anything for granted," captain Steven Stamkos said. "No one (cares) what you did last year as a team or what you did the last two years. But we've got to be better.
"Just come prepared to play. We've been down (in) so many games at the start. That's on us as players to be better."
For the second time against the Devils this season, the Lightning dug itself a two-goal, first-period hole. The second goal Saturday came after a defensive zone turnover and loose coverage in front of the Lightning net; defenseman Damon Severson pounced on a rebound.
"They came out harder than us," center Tyler Johnson said. "We definitely weren't at our best."
The Lightning won its first three games with resilient rallies, but Cooper said that's not how a team has long-term success, especially if it wants to be a Stanley Cup contender.
"Ask any coach — systems or structure, none of that matters if you don't have urgency in your game," Cooper said. "That's part of executing. It's working, and it comes down to 50-50 battles on pucks, which we didn't win a lot of those (Saturday). We didn't get our nose dirty enough."
Devils wing Devante Smith-Pelly won a 50-50 battle in front with Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn, redirecting a centering pass past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to make it 3-0 early in the third period. The game could have gotten ugly had it not been for Vasilevskiy, who made a stellar stop on a two-on-one and three straight stops in a flurry later in the period.
The Lightning made a strong push in the third. Tyler Johnson finished a slick cross-zone pass by Brayden Point to cut New Jersey's lead to 3-1 two minutes into the third. "Perfect play by 'Pointer,' " Johnson said.
Tampa Bay has to bounce back quickly. It faces the Rangers at Madison Square Garden tonight, the fifth game of a six-game, 11-day trip.
"We've got to find ways to start games on time,' Stamkos said. "You can have all the skill in the world, but if you don't stick to the game plan and structure and work at it, you're going to win a couple games because you're more skilled than the other team. But usually you're not going to win in this league, The parity is too great."
First Period—1, New Jersey, Henrique 2 (Cammalleri, Severson), 3:57. 2, New Jersey, Severson 1 (Greene, Henrique), 13:13. Penalties—Quincey, NJ, (interference), 5:12; Tampa Bay bench, served by Conacher (too many men on the ice), 7:26.
Second Period—3, New Jersey, Smith-pelly 1 (Quincey, Lappin), 5:22. Penalties—Paquette, TB, Major (fighting), 0:39; Kalinin, NJ, Major (fighting), 0:39; Henrique, NJ, (cross checking), 1:58; Parenteau, NJ, (tripping), 6:16.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Johnson 2 (Point), 1:59. Penalties—Bennett, NJ, (tripping), 13:58. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 12-11-10—33. New Jersey 8-12-3—23. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 4; New Jersey 0 of 1. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 2-1-0 (23 shots-20 saves). New Jersey, Schneider 4-2-1 (33-32).