Friday, May 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning may not be ready for this stage

TAMPA

Maybe they just aren't ripe enough.

Maybe they just aren't tough enough.

Maybe they just aren't tested enough.

For whatever reason, the players of the Tampa Bay Lightning are in trouble today. Two games into the playoffs, and they are already halfway to the offseason. They trail Montreal 2-0, which is like staring into a deep, dark hole where something is moving around. The Lightning must now win four of its next five games to avoid elimination.

It has happened, quickly and cruelly. Two games, two defeats against a team that has been too good. And just like that, we are left to ponder what has been missing from the players who recorded 101 points during the regular season.

Maybe they just aren't healthy enough.

Maybe they just aren't efficient enough.

Maybe they just aren't opportunistic enough.

In particular, Friday night's game was a crushing defeat. Everyone knew the Lightning had to win this game, and still, it came up dry against a Canadiens team whose confidence seems to be growing by the minute. Yes, the Lightning played better than it did in its Game 1 loss, but it could not finish its scoring opportunities.

A shame. A victory here, even after all the mistakes of the first game, and this was a series again. A victory here, and at least the Lightning had room to breathe.

Instead, the Lighting lost 4-1. As inconceivable as it would have been to consider at the start of the series, it is now possible that Tampa Bay doesn't even make it back home for Game 5.

So what has gone wrong?

Maybe everything. And when you get down to it, maybe nothing. For the Lightning, maybe this is just part of the natural growth of a young team. You know, like the noogies a freshman endures on his way to being a senior. Maybe a miserable series is something this team has to endure on its way to becoming what it will become.

Remember the 2003 playoffs, when the Lightning won a series against Washington (despite Tampa Bay losing the first two games). The next year, it won the Stanley Cup. Maybe this year will feed into the following year, too.

After all, the postseason is a place where experience often makes the difference. Remember, the Lightning had eight rookies play at least 41 games this season. It's hard to ask kids to kick in the door to the NHL postseason.

Of course, it wasn't just the kids who turned over the puck in these two games. A lot of veterans took their turns, too. Maybe the roster has to get deeper, more dangerous.

Naturally, it would help if the team had its star goaltender, too.

In the months to come, you might replay this series a few times while wondering what difference Ben Bishop would have made in the Lightning net. No, that isn't to place Anders Lindback in the dunk tank, but ask yourself, what team would survive very long with its backup goaltender?

Lindback, the Man Who Would Be Bishop, didn't even finish the night. He was pulled while trailing 3-0 as the team sought a spark to change things. Yeah, it's easy to blame Lindback, who has only an .881 save percentage in these two games, but let's face it: He wasn't going to win with zero goals, which the Lightning had as long as he was around.

Instead, Friday night belonged to Montreal's Carey Price, who was finally the postseason goalie his country has longed for him to be. The guy who was so beatable in Game 1 was superb in Game 2.

All of this has to be somewhat flummoxing to Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who went through this season with all of the answers. Steven Stamkos hurt? No problem. Marty St. Louis wants a trade? No sweat. Bishop hurt? No biggie.

But how do you have answers when the other team seems to have more energy, more crispness, than your team? How do you solve a night when the other team doesn't turn over the puck as often as yours does?

Over the history of the Lighting, there have been three other great coaching jobs. The first was Terry Crisp, who in 1996 took this team to the playoffs in its fourth year. The second was John Tortorella, who won the Stanley Cup in 2004. The third was Guy Boucher, who reached the Eastern Conference final in 2011.

But none of those seasons had the degree of difficulty that this one did. None of those teams overcame the adversity that this one did.

Given that, it has been difficult to watch this team struggle against Montreal. It has not had the same spark, the same explosion, that it had for most of the season. It is as if the Canadiens have stepped up their game, but the Lightning has not. What a terrible epitaph that would be for the season.

Maybe they just aren't composed enough.

Maybe they just aren't old enough.

Maybe they just aren't good enough.

     
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