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Lightning lets Game 1 slip away (w/video)

Chicago Blackhawks fans Jason Gilley, center, Raiden Gilley, right, and Nicholas Robles of Valrico are booed by Tampa Bay Lightning fans outside Amalie Arena before Game 1 Wednesday.
Chicago Blackhawks fans Jason Gilley, center, Raiden Gilley, right, and Nicholas Robles of Valrico are booed by Tampa Bay Lightning fans outside Amalie Arena before Game 1 Wednesday.
Published Jun. 4, 2015

TAMPA

Well, that turned out to be a real bummer.

Tampa Bay had been waiting for this night for 11 years. And for most of Wednesday evening, it was darn near perfect. The town was the center of the sporting world and its hockey team, the Lightning, was showing that world how the game was played.

It couldn't have been going any better. It could not have ended much worse.

About to take a big bite of the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, the Lightning got kicked in the teeth.

If it could have just held on a little longer. Just a few minutes longer. Just a few more shifts, just a couple of blocked shots, just a lucky hop of the puck and Tampa Bay would be hung over from a celebration today.

Instead, it is trying to get over the restless night, surely spent tossing and turning over the one that got away.

No way to paint a rainbow on this one. It stings. A sure-fire victory that turned into a gut-wrenching loss.

Chicago 2, Tampa Bay 1. Oh so close. That what makes it all the more bitter.

"It's a tough one to swallow because we played so well," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "But nobody said it was going to be easy."

And to think the night started off with such joy and pride and optimism.

Just a couple of hours before the puck dropped, a mass of folks dressed in blue jerseys with lightning bolts across the chests and names such as "Stamkos," "Bishop" and "Hedman" stitched on the back crossed bridges and crawled along interstates to converge on this tropical paradise, turning a steamy Florida afternoon into the coolest place on earth.

As downtown Tampa was becoming Hockey Bay, USA, Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, was bragging about our little slice of hockey heaven.

"Tampa Bay has truly become a hockey market," Bettman said. "You can see the passion, the excitement, the level of sophistication even since the last Stanley Cup, and that's nice to see."

It could be seen, and heard, and felt inside a sold-out Amalie Arena as the Lightning took the ice against one of hockey's Original Six teams. That passion, that excitement, that special buzz that only games such as these can produce — and not experienced here since the Lightning last lifted Lord Stanley's Cup in 2004 — returned Wednesday night.

For the next couple of weeks, our neck of the woods — not Toronto, not Moscow, not some frozen pond in Minnesota — is the heart of hockey. But Wednesday night, in front of those sophisticated fans (well, as sophisticated as one can be with a painted blue face or a dyed beard), the Lightning's dream of another Stanley Cup hit a snag because it played not to lose instead of to win.

A team that loves to run and gun decided to sit and stall.

The style turned out to be dumb and dumber.

One of the most offensively-skilled teams in all of hockey, the Lightning went against its familiar way of winning. Concentrating more on keeping pucks out of its own net instead of depositing them in the other team's goal, the Lightning tried to grind its way to a victory. Nothing wrong with that, especially when big silver trophies are at stake.

Except the Lightning generated very little offense after Alex Killorn gave it a 1-0 lead just 4½ minutes into the game.

Trying to use the exact same blueprint it drew up in an improbable 2-0 shutout of the Rangers in New York in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final just to get to this championship round, the Lightning managed to fend off a skilled and seasoned Blackhawks club for 53 minutes.

It tried to win 1-0. It lost 2-1 when it ran out of gas against a relentless and talented Blackhawks team that was bound to score sooner or later. They scored sooner and later. Chicago scored twice in the final 6½ minutes with the winning goal coming with just under five minutes left in the third period.

"A little too passive there," goalie Ben Bishop said. "We sat back a little too much against a really good team. … You can't sit back against a good team like that or you're going to pay."

They paid a steep price.

"We can't afford to sit back after the way we played for two periods," Stamkos said. "We let them hang around for too long and they found a way to win."

These are type of losses that are hard to get over. Even though it's only one game into the series, you have to wonder about the psychological effect of this one. The Lightning lost a game it should have won. The Blackhawks won a game when they didn't play their best.

"We had chances to put them away and we didn't put them away," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

For two periods, the night was great. The third period was a bummer. It didn't ruin the current hockey vibe in town. But it sure did put a damper on it.

When it was done, there was only one good thing to say: There's a Game 2 on Saturday night.