Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Rust shows in Lightning's Game 1 loss to Islanders (w/video)

TAMPA — Sloppy. Unfocused. Flat.

Those are words not normally associated with a Lightning team that has spent the past three seasons showing guts, smarts and skill.

It better find all those latter qualities, and it better find them quickly. Like before Saturday.

Otherwise, it could find itself in a very big hole that it started digging Wednesday night with a sobering 5-3 loss to the Islanders in Game 1 of its second-round playoff series.

"Not a good night," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.

How did this nightmare happen?

Because Wednesday night the Lightning took its foot off the pedal after taking an early lead and turned in its worst period in recent memory.

Not that we should be totally shocked.

Tampa Bay hadn't played a hockey game in six days. It looked more like six months.

Although coach Jon Cooper and his players refused to use the time off as an excuse, it was clear that in the battle of rest versus rust, rust kicked the Lightning's tail up and down the ice. Oh, so did the Islanders. Throw out the first few good minutes and the Lightning was outclassed for much of the game.

How bad did it get? Goalie and team MVP Ben Bishop, who before the game was named a finalist for the award given to the top NHL goalie, was mercifully yanked midway through the second period after giving up four goals.

The fourth goal from Islanders star John Tavares was the second iffy goal Bishop gave up, yet he wasn't even close to being the team's worst player.

Who was? Call it an 18-way tie between all the skaters in front of Bishop. Actually, make that 17 after forward Erik Condra was knocked into another dimension on a check by Casey Cizikas in the first period.

That hit not only represented a shift in Game 1, but it was clear evidence that one team came ready to play and the other was caught flat-footed.

"I thought at the beginning, we made some bonehead plays," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "We made some dumb decisions that they capitalized on. We didn't adjust quick enough."

Before Cizikas blasted Condra into the boards, the Lightning led 1-0 on a goal from Ondrej Palat only 3:05 into the game.

"Sometimes when you score first like that," Bishop said, "you think it's going to be easier than it is. I think we started to get more cute than we should have been."

After the Cizikas clean, yet frightfully brutal check that sent Condra into the boards and then the dressing room for the night, the Islanders shifted into another gear that the Lightning simply could not match. Before the first period was over, New York had scored three times.

"What hurt us was giving up two goals in the last 2½ minutes (of the first period)," Cooper said. "That's what killed us. … We were way too soft."

The first goal came on a goal that Bishop certainly would like to have back. The third came with only 2.1 seconds left in the first period.

But don't pin this loss on Bishop. He had plenty of help putting Tampa Bay in trouble. Defenseman Matt Carle was on the ice for all three goals. Palat, Vlad Namestnikov and Jonathan Drouin were on the ice for two of the goals. Jason Garrison had a hand in one of the goals.

Pick a Lightning player and it was fair to say that player had a crummy night or, at the very least, a couple of bad plays. All took turns passing the shovel around to dig its hole.

It was certainly not what the Lightning expected, but it couldn't be considered shocking considering the team's time off.

Well, the Lightning better hope that's the reason.

See, here are the real questions after this horrendous Game 1: Was this simply a team rusty from not playing in nearly a week? Was it a team that got too full of itself after taking an early lead? Or is it a case of the Islanders simply being that much better than Tampa Bay?

Well, let's start here: The Islanders are good, much better than the Red Wings team that the Lightning disposed of in the first round. They finished with 100 points — three more than Tampa Bay — and knocked out the Atlantic Division-winning Panthers in the first round. They certainly are good enough to win this series.

Game 1 proved the Lightning has its hands full.

But there's no way the Lightning is as bad as it was in the first two periods. You have to think the layoff had something to do with it despite what Tampa Bay said.

After five intense games in nine days against Detroit and then nearly a week off, Tampa Bay couldn't be expected to simply pick up where it left off in the previous round.

Prediction: The Lightning will be better in Game 2. We started to see signs of that in the third period Wednesday when it nearly came all the way back from a 4-1 deficit to make it 4-3. The thing is, with an extra day to rest themselves, the Islanders might be better, too.

Still, Tampa Bay should come out Saturday sharp and motivated and focused and disciplined.

It better, or this series — and season — is in jeopardy.

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