BRANDON — Veteran defenseman Anton Stralman said he can't explain it.
Why do NHL teams that score the game's first goal win more than 75 percent of the time this season, as the Elias Sports Bureau says?
"It's just one goal," Stralman said.
But it's an extremely important one.
The Lightning enter tonight's game against the Penguins having won nine of its past 10 games. Of those nine wins, Tampa Bay scored the first goal in seven. It is 21-4-0 when striking first, 6-15-4 when the other team does.
"It feels like it's insurmountable, almost," said Lightning color analyst Brian Engblom, a Stanley Cup-winning defenseman, of falling behind 1-0. "Especially if you're doing it on a regular basis. It's like, 'Oh, not again.' "
There are psychological and strategic reasons why taking an early lead is such an advantage, especially with scoring down. Score first and you can settle into your game. Fall behind and you're forced to chase the game. As Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock told Toronto reporters, "Chasing hockey is losing hockey."
"All it takes is for a couple of guys to go, 'Okay, we've got to score,' so you start losing your structure," Engblom said. "Then you're loose all over the place, and guys are running around covering for the guy that's not there. Instead of doing it in the third period, you're doing it early in the game, and it's getting worse and worse. Then the whole team is out of structure, and that's when coaches level the locker room and say, 'What the (heck) is going on?'
"It's only one goal. But it's in your head."
Said coach Jon Cooper: "You tend to stick in your structure when you have the lead because it's working. When you're behind, there's a psychological part inside you saying, 'Well, this isn't working. What's going on? We've got to change things up,' when that's not the case."
Part of the Lightning's early struggles were due to it rarely holding a lead after the first period, Cooper said. Tampa Bay wasn't playing as badly as its record indicated; it just wasn't scoring. In its past eight wins, the Lightning trailed for a combined eight minutes.
"You score the first goal, obviously you get some momentum and feel good about your game," Stralman said. "I don't know why it's so hard to come back. But you … tie it up, you're happy you scored, but you still can't really celebrate because you're not in the lead yet. And the other team wakes up a little bit, and it's game on."
Take the Lightning's 3-1 win over the Red Wings on Wednesday. After J.T. Brown scored the first goal early in the second period, Detroit answered four minutes later.
"But we had no reason to be really down," Cooper said. "(The Red Wings) were feeling somewhat good about themselves, but all they did was tie the game. They still have another (goal) to go ahead. And we get the next one."
Though captain Steven Stamkos said the first goal is "not the be all, end all," he acknowledges the trend, especially with his team. This season teams are 542-145-68 (.763 winning percentage) when scoring first, the Elias Sports Bureau says, up from .741 last season.
"I know it's pretty remarkable," Stralman said. "It's weird how it works. Whoever figures it out will have a good chance to win the whole thing."