Lightning’s loss in playoff opener may be more serious than you think

Tampa Bay lost its third straight playoff series opener on Wednesday. But history shows this loss is even greater cause for concern.
For the third straight playoff series, coach Jon Cooper is faced with rallying the Lightning from a 1-0 series deficit after losing Game 1 at home. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
For the third straight playoff series, coach Jon Cooper is faced with rallying the Lightning from a 1-0 series deficit after losing Game 1 at home. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published April 12, 2019

BRANDON — They are still the No. 1 seed. And they still have plenty of time.

But, at least for now, Lightning players have surrendered the home-ice advantage they worked so diligently to get.

And history says it’s not that easy to regain control.

Of the last 50 No. 1 seeds in the NHL’s two conferences, only a dozen lost Game 1 of their first round series. And of those 12, only six came from behind to win the series.

Only one, the 2002 Detroit Red Wings, went on to win the Stanley Cup.

“It’s a tough lesson,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said following Tampa Bay’s 4-3 loss to Columbus Wednesday in Game 1 at Amalie Arena. “Guys should be mad, but it’s not going to be easy this time of year. We’ve been in this position before. We just got to get the next one.”

That familiar position Stamkos speaks of is losing Game 1 of a playoff series. The Lightning has now done in its last three series.

Boston routed the Lightning 6-2 in an Eastern Conference semifinal opener last season before Brayden Point’s line responded to coach Jon Cooper’s challenge and stifled Bruins scorers as Tampa Bay won four straight.

Tampa Bay fell behind Washington 0-2 before the Lightning won three straight – Andrei Vasilevskiy stole Game 4 – to move within a win of the Stanley Cup. That win never came, courtesy of consecutive Braden Holtby shutouts.

So the Lightning, clearly, is more than capable of bouncing back.

“We’ll just see how our response is tomorrow,” Cooper said. “If we’re going to go off past history we’ve usually responded pretty well.”

The Lightning lost consecutive games only twice during an NHL record-tying 62-win season.

“We found ways to win in a lot of situations where maybe in games we didn’t deserve to win,” said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, one day after Tampa Bay lost after blowing a three-goal lead for the first time since Dec. 18, 2015 against the Capitals. “We just thought we’d come back and find a way.”

That’s a dangerous mindset in the playoffs, one Killorn knows won’t work. If Tampa Bay puts itself in situations to have to find a way to win, the team is making it easy on opponents.

Columbus knows what a comeback looks like as well. The Blue Jackets took a two-game lead on Washington in the first round last year and was on the verge of making it 3-0 but for two posts. Then the Capitals won four in a row to take the series. But the Lightning doesn’t need to learn from that comeback.

“They’re probably over there thinking about that,” Killorn referred to the lessons Columbus learned as well.

Wednesday’s loss was a reality check, according to Killorn, a reminder that the ways Tampa Bay found to “out-skill our way back into game” get a lot harder in the playoffs.

“As the playoffs move on, teams improve,” Cooper said. “I assume we’re going to get even better from Columbus than we did last night. So that puts a lot of onus on us to make sure we’re a heck of a lot better.”

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Times columnist John Romano contributed to this story.