Monday, July 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Game 3 loss has Lightning teetering on brink (w/video)

TAMPA — It's not a great day for hockey in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning lost Wednesday night's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins. That's disturbing news because that means Tampa Bay is now down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

But that's not the worst of it. It's how the Lightning lost that is even more disturbing. It's the how that is truly troubling.

The Lightning didn't just lose, it was soundly beaten. Whipped. Pounded. Stomped.

Maybe the 4-2 final score didn't look that bad, but the Lightning was thoroughly manhandled by the Penguins in Game 3.

And now the cold reality is starting to set in. Maybe the Tampa Bay simply isn't as good as Pittsburgh. Sorry. It's true. Anyone who has watched these three games would come to the same conclusion. For as close as the series looks on paper, it really hasn't been that tight on the ice.

"They're a good team,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

A good team that has been better in this series. Way better. So much better that you can't help but wonder if it is too good for the Lightning.

The Penguins are only halfway to eliminating Tampa Bay, but the Lightning looks more than half-dead. It feels as if Tampa Bay is teetering on the edge because of what we've witnessed in the first three games.

For three games now, the Penguins have been the better team.

Faster. Stronger. Hungrier. More opportunistic.

Just better.

"I know we can play a lot better than this,'' Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said.

But can it?

Sure, when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's easy to overreact to what you just saw. Every game feels epic. Each win is glorious. Every loss is catastrophic. And the teams that succeed this time of year are the ones that can stay on an even keel and not get too wrapped up in the last shift.

The Lightning has proven that in its recent history. Just when you are about to bury this team, it climbs up from the dirt.

But this feels different. This series has an uneasy feel to it for Tampa Bay. The difference between the two teams is noticeable, and the gap is getting wider each game.

If the Lightning doesn't figure out a way to stop this leak, the series is going to end sooner rather than later, and not in Tampa Bay's favor.

"It's a lack of quality right now,'' Stralman said. "A lot of it is self-inflicted. They're a really good team, but we're kind of feeding them a lot.''

Now, you could suggest that the Lightning isn't playing well, and that certainly is true.

But it's not for a lack of effort. Of course, the Lightning is trying.

And it's not for a lack of desire. Of course, the Lightning wants to win.

And it's not for a lack of strategy or preparation. This team has been one of the NHL's best the past three years. Of course, it knows what to do this time of year.

So that leaves only one alternative, and it's a depressing one: Tampa Bay is getting beat by a better team right now.

Defensively, Tampa Bay is scrambling in its own end under the heavy pressure of the Penguins stars, who have definitely shown up in this series. Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang have left their fingerprints all over the place. The Penguins reeled off 48 shots Wednesday.

Forty-eight! In a playoff game. That reveals a lot right there.

And this is the first series this spring where you're noticing the absence of leading goal-scorer Steven Stamkos. The Lightning simply can't generate offense.

The offense is having trouble gaining traction because of the disappearance of its stars. Nikita Kucherov had two assists Wednesday night, but he hasn't been a difference-maker. Victor Hedman had little impact Wednesday. The only time Jonathan Drouin was noticed Wednesday was when his boneheaded giveaway led to the Pittsburgh's first goal that broke the ice and, in reality, Tampa Bay's back with 10 seconds left in the second period.

That, of course, was enough to bury him on the bench for a good chunk of the third period even though the Lighting desperately needed offense.

Is this series over? Not quite. But the Lightning needs to move on and forward. In a hurry.

"When you play in the playoffs, you have to have a short memory,'' Cooper said. "Regardless if you played well or not. That's it. Turn the page. Tomorrow is a new day. Sun's coming up, I think. And we'll be ready to go (today).''

The problem for Tampa Bay? The Penguins will be ready to go, too.

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