Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning must switch to playoff mode fast

TAMPA

Don't let the closeness of the score fool you.

Don't be misled that it took extra time to determine a winner.

And don't for a second think the Lightning was anywhere near the vicinity of being good enough to win Wednesday night's Game 1 of their playoff series against the Canadiens.

The Lightning got exactly what it deserved. And if it doesn't soon figure out that playoff hockey is not the same as regular-season hockey, it will be getting something else it deserves: an early start to its summer vacation.

Call it a rude awakening. Call it a bad night. Call it opening-night jitters. Call it whatever you want. But call it this, too: alarming.

You see overtime and you think it was a close game and the start of a long series. But if you know anything about hockey and you watched Game 1, you know this was a beat down and could be the start of a dominating sweep if the Lighting doesn't get its act in gear.

The Lightning worked its tail off for 82 games and overcame more adversity than just about any team in the NHL to get into the playoffs. Then it goes out and spends the first 79 minutes of the playoffs acting like just getting to the tournament was good enough.

While coach Jon Cooper and his team tried to put lipstick on this ugly pig of a game, the 5-4 loss was a truly disturbing performance, one of the sloppiest in recent memory from a team that seemed so eager and ready for the playoffs to begin.

Maybe it wouldn't feel so rotten if you could just blame backup goalie Anders Lindback, the supposed weak link of this series.

Lindback was hardly great. He made a bunch of routine saves, a couple of pretty good ones, and he was helped out by his friendly neighborhood goal post on more than one occasion. He did give up a soft goal and five overall, but he was not the reason the Lightning lost.

Maybe the loss would be easier to swallow if all the Lightning youngsters had played like a bunch of nervous kids, but the kids were all right. Rookies Nikita Kucherov, J.T. Brown, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette found their way on to the score sheet and proved the moment was not too big for them.

Maybe you could feel better if Steven Stamkos had a rare off night, but he was Tampa Bay's best player, physically and emotionally. He scored a pair of goals and jolted some life into a surprisingly lifeless team in the first period by going all Hanson brother and sticking up for a teammate.

No, what makes you worry is how poorly the Lightning played as a team, particularly on defense. Playing its own private game of hot potato, the entire defensive corps, from veterans Sami Salo and Victor Hedman to young guys Radko Gudas and Mike Kostka, was awful.

Meantime, the Lightning spent much of the game floating in and out of intensity.

"We came out tentative," Killorn said.

It stayed that way for too much of the night.

Ultimately, here's what we learned most from Game 1: When the Lightning played with intensity, when it played smart, when it played hard, it played well. In those stretches, the Lightning was every bit as good as the visiting Canadiens.

But when the Lightning didn't play with emotion, when it was a little too careless with the puck, when it played flat, it was blown out of its building.

Unfortunately, that was most of the night. Shots on goal don't always indicate dominance, but in this case, it absolutely does. The Lightning was outshot 44-25. It felt like 144-25.

It's a miracle the game went to overtime.

Here's another kick to the head: The Lightning scored four goals on Montreal's sensational goalie, Carey Price, and still lost. You think he might give up four again in this series?

And this is what we now know after just one game: There is absolutely no margin for error for the Lightning in this series. Let your play dip, even if it's for a few shifts, and you're in trouble.

The Canadiens aren't the best team in hockey, but they were prepared and played a full game. That's more than you can say for the Lightning.

"Could we have played better?" Cooper said. "Yeah, of course. This wasn't our best game."

Now it's Cooper's job to see to it that the Lightning plays much better in Game 2.

He's a smart coach, and these are good players, and this is a good team. There's no reason to say this series is over after just one game.

But this loss feels like more than just one loss. It feels like a sign of things to come.

Cooper has a day to figure this thing out. The Lightning has a day to clean up its mess.

Either that, or its days are numbered.

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