Thursday against Toronto just a taste of what playoff life could be like for Lightning

The Lightning would be a tough beat for anyone in a long series. But it isn’t there yet, and when it does get there, anything can happen.
Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Adam Erne battles to get around Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) during action Thursday, [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Adam Erne battles to get around Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) during action Thursday, [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published January 18
Updated January 18

TAMPA – It could be just like this.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are more than two months away, though it is evident that the Lightning will head into them as favorites to lift the silverware.

That’s for then. Thursday was for playoff atmosphere at Amalie Arena as the Toronto Maple Leafs hit town. The building overflowed with energy — and rabid, somewhat annoying Toronto fans. Both anthems received rip-roaring attention and sing-alongs. And there was the game itself, close throughout, back and forth. Felt like a playoff preview.

And the Lightning lost.

Yes, lost: 4-2.

Toronto, its fanatical followers ever in a panic, came to Tampa having lost five of its previous seven games. The Lightning has now lost 12 of 48.

That’s right. The now 36-10-2 Lightning has double-digit losses. Start building your underground shelters and bulking up on canned food. Note: Thursday was the Lightning’s first loss at home since … Nov. 27. Keep that in mind. The Lightning entered play Thursday a robust 15 points ahead in the Eastern Conference and 16 ahead of Toronto in the Atlantic Division.

But it did remind us that come playoff time, games and series can turn on a very few things, like too many missed scoring chances, a turnover here or there and defensive breakdowns.

That was all on display Thursday.

Just a reminder, Lightning fans.

“Sometimes you can get away with mistakes when you’re playing a team that isn’t as talented as Toronto,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. The former Maple Leaf (wait, he didn’t go, right?) had 10 shots, but no goals. “We made a couple of errors at the blue line that resulted in turnovers that resulted in goals for them. You can’t afford to do that against the talented teams in this league.”

Lightning defensemen lost their men down low and the puck ended up in the Lightning net, behind Andrei Vasilevskiy, who probably deserved a better fate, though Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen was better. Not a lot better, just enough.

That’s how it can go sometimes, especially with the Cup on the line. It doesn’t take much. Stamkos and MVP favorite Nikita Kucherov, who had an assist Thursday and has been outstanding, didn’t score a goal despite a combined 14 shots, which reminded me of their whiffs down the stretch against Washington in last year’s Eastern Conference Final. It didn’t take a lot then, either, just stars not stepping up. Just a reminder.

And just a reminder that Toronto has played the Lightning dead even this season. It took 48 saves from Vasilevskiy, some of them spectacular, for the Lightning to beat Toronto 4-1 here in mid-December. Tampa Bay might have gotten away with one that night, but that’s what good teams sometimes do.

“We probably didn’t deserve the result we got, so it evened itself out tonight,” said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who had a goal and assist Thursday.

It’s easy to see these teams' first-ever postseason meeting in the second round of the playoffs, a gathering of stars (Kucherov, Hedman, Stamkos, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner) and elite coaches (Jon Cooper, Mike Babcock) with both houses rocking, provided Toronto exorcises its demons against the Boston Bruins, who came from three goals down in the final 11 minutes to win a Game 7 in 2013.

How many Leafs fans walked fully clothed into Lake Ontario that night has never been determined, but it is just another brick in the wall the futile Leafs franchise has built, as Toronto has not won the Cup (or been to so much as a single Cup final) since 1967, two years before Neil Armstrong (“Arms” to NASA teammates) walked on the moon. It’s never too early to question the home team in Toronto, the de facto capital of planet hockey. Heading into Thursday’s game, one Toronto sports columnist said it might be time for the struggling Leafs to essentially put up or shut up.

The Lightning will be at that intersection come April. It will have to generate its own motivation until then, into the upcoming sabbatical, All-Star break and beyond. Short term, there is a game tonight with San Jose Saturday, featuring former Lightning defenseman Erik Karlsson (wait, he didn’t come, right?).

But Thursday was a dutiful reminder. I think the Lightning is fine. I think it is better than Toronto. I think the Lightning would be a tough beat for anyone in a long series. But it isn’t there yet, and when it does get there, anything can happen. It doesn’t take a lot. Just a reminder.

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