TAMPA — The Lightning stressed entering Wednesday's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final how it needed to play much better to beat the Penguins in this series.
It wasn't getting enough shots.
It lacked puck possession.
It had too many turnovers.
"We haven't put our best foot forward," coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday.
It still hasn't.
For the second straight game, the Lightning got outplayed and nearly doubled up in shots in a 4-2 loss in front of a subdued sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena.
Had it not been for another Herculean effort by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had 44 saves, it could have been a lot uglier. Pittsburgh's 48 shots were the most allowed by the Lightning in a regulation postseason game and the first time it surrendered 40-plus shots in back-to-back games since October 2011. It was outshot 41-21 in Monday's 3-2 overtime loss.
Cooper called it "unacceptable."
"It doesn't matter who was in net," he said. "We could've had (Ben Bishop) and 'Vasy' in at the same time and they still might've squeaked a couple in."
After losing just twice total in the playoffs' first two rounds against the Red Wings and Islanders, Tampa Bay has dropped two straight to the Penguins to fall behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, making for an almost must-win Game 4 on Friday at Amalie Arena.
"(The Penguins) are definitely a different team than the Reds Wings or Islanders," said center Tyler Johnson, who scored in the third period. "They're a fast-paced team, have a lot of skill. We've just got to adjust and play better. And I have all the faith in the world in our guys that we're able to do it."
The Penguins are beating the Lightning at its own game, using speed and puck possession to suffocate Tampa Bay at times. That included the second period, when Pittsburgh outshot the Lightning 21-6 and forced Cooper to take a timeout after the Lightning spent 3:30 in its zone on a power-play-like shift by the Penguins.
"(The Penguins) really turned the tables in the second period," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "They spent basically the whole period in our zone."
The Lightning's puck management is feeding the Penguins' transition game. Tampa Bay had 11 giveaways, with a turnover leading to the Penguins' first goal, by Carl Hagelin with 10 seconds left in the second period for a 1-0 lead.
"We're kind of trying to put a square peg in a round hole," Johnson said. "Not making the right plays, doing the right things."
And though two of the Penguins' big guns continued to deliver — Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel each also scored — the Lightning snapped an 86-minute goal drought with Johnson's goal five minutes into the third. Ondrej Palat had the Lightning's other goal.
Captain Steven Stamkos, the Lightning's sidelined top scorer, can't return soon enough for Tampa Bay.
"You need more production than the same guys each night," Cooper said.
The Lightning has been resilient and unflappable this postseason, so it isn't hitting the panic button. But it's getting close to gut-check time.
"I think everyone is frustrated because you definitely don't want to lose the series," Johnson said. "But we have so much confidence in this group, we know we can bounce back. It's not about taking a knee. We're going to battle.
"They've got these ones, but now it's our turn. We've got to respond. Even if it takes twice the effort, we've got to do it."
Before it's too late.
First—None. Penalty—Hornqvist, Pit (slash), 17:42.
Second—1, Pit, Hagelin 5 (Kessel), 19:50. Penalty—Callahan, TB (hold), 3:57.
Third—2, Pit, Kessel 7 (Bonino, Hagelin), 5:16. 3, TB, Johnson 5 (Kucherov), 5:30. 4, Pit, Crosby 5 (Malkin, Schultz), 10:50 (pp). 5, Pit, Kunitz 2, 13:12. 6, TB, Palat 4 (Kucherov), 18:16. Penalties—Palat, TB (rough), 9:05; Letang, Pit (rough), 9:05; Coburn, TB (elbow), 9:53; Coburn, TB (high-stick), 14:12; Killorn, TB, minor-misconduct (rough), 19:41; Daley, Pit (rough), 19:41. SOG—Pit 10-21-17—48. TB 12-6-10—28. PPs—Pit 1 of 3; TB 0 of 1. Goalies—Pit, Murray 9-3 (28 shots-26 saves). TB, Vasilevskiy 1-2 (48-44).