Jones: Lightning needs to get back to its game

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn (55) battle along the boards against Montreal Canadiens right wing Dale Weise (22) during second period action in game four of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening. (05/07/15).
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn (55) battle along the boards against Montreal Canadiens right wing Dale Weise (22) during second period action in game four of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening. (05/07/15).
Published May 9, 2015

MONTREAL — All it takes is one loss and suddenly the sky is falling.

Okay, maybe not falling, but some dark clouds are starting to gather.

Funny how quickly it all changes. After five consecutive victories in these playoffs, after eight victories in a row over the Canadiens and despite still holding what looks like a comfortable 3-1 series lead, the Lightning heads into tonight's Game 5 at the Bell Centre looking a little more vulnerable than it did only 48 hours ago, when everything was as peachy as could be.

"We're not too concerned," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "It has to be better. We know that. We seem to respond well after games when we haven't been our best. And (tonight) is another opportunity to do that."

Actually, it is more than one loss that has the Lightning looking wobbly in this series. The Lightning didn't look good in the past two games. That includes the Game 3 victory when Tyler Johnson scored with 1.1 seconds left in regulation.

"We didn't play our best in Game 3; we snuck one out there," Callahan said. "And then (Thursday in Game 4), you saw the result there."

We did see the result. It was a jagged pill to swallow. A 6-2 loss. The score was 5-0 at one point. Goalie Ben Bishop couldn't get through the second period. Turnovers galore. Odd-man rushes all over the place. Too many passengers, according to captain Steven Stamkos. He was one of them, with no shots on goal for the second straight game.

It's about as bad as the Lightning has looked in these playoffs, and we should have seen it coming because of Game 3.

"If you look at that Game 3, we didn't deserve to win that one, honestly," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "And quite frankly, we deserved the beating we got (Thursday) night."

So what has gone wrong? Have the Canadiens just played better, or has the Lightning slipped?

Maybe a bit of both. But the things we have seen from the Lightning most of the season — speed, transition, poise in its end and aggressiveness in the other team's zone — have been missing the past two games. Come to think of it, they have been missing from every game in this series except Game 2.

The Lightning was outshot in all four previous games of this series. Twice in the four games the Lightning surrendered at least 40 shots on goal. That happened only four times all regular season. In three of the four games, the Lightning didn't reach 25 shots on goal.

Simply put: This is not the same Lightning team we're used to seeing. Even the Lightning admits that.

"I think there are things we can clean up in our defensive zone," Callahan said. "But I think we are at our best when we are playing fast and moving the puck up ice and we're attacking the other team. I don't think there has been enough of that the past couple of games, and we need to get back to it."

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Easy to say. Harder to do. If it was easy, the Lightning would have cleaned this up after what should have been Game 3's wakeup call. That the Lightning played even worse in Game 4 is what is concerning.

"You want to do the right thing, (but) I don't think we're necessarily doing it," Stralman said. "I think we're not working as a unit on the ice. I think that's the most important thing. We're not supporting each other. We're not making the right decision with the puck. It's really easy things to fix."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the Lightning has sputtered and stalled. First, these are the playoffs. Every opponent is good. Every game is hard. You cannot expect to have every game go your way.

"I don't know if there's a coach out there that's going to tell you every team is absolutely on top of their game (over a long season)," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "I've talked to other coaches who have gone the distance in this league. And they've won games they weren't supposed to win, and they've lost games they weren't supposed to lose. It's a cycle. This is a grind."

But it's a grind the Lightning has to fight through if is going to seriously consider winning the Stanley Cup. Not in a year or two. Right now. The time is now for the Lightning to make a run at the Cup. This team has the skill to get there. It has the will, too. This isn't a question of not being good enough or not wanting it enough.

But there is a level the Lightning must get to, a level we saw at times in the first round against Detroit, but a level it hasn't really reached consistently in the second round.

"Are we a little upset as a staff and as a team that we haven't played our best in the last couple of games, especially at home … which is, I guess, a little bit troubling?" Cooper asked.

Cooper didn't answer his question. He didn't need to. Frankly, he didn't seem interested in the answer.

He just knows one thing.

"We still woke up (Friday)," Cooper said, "and we're up 3-1."

That could change in a hurry unless the Lightning cleans up its act. Tonight would be a good time to start.