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Sometimes, even Stanley Cup champs need a slap in the face

John Romano | The Lightning were in cruise control until Florida scored 12 goals in 3 games. Going into a tougher stretch of games, that’s not a bad reminder.
Florida Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman is mobbed moments after scoring while Lightning right wing Barclay Goodrow (19) skates to the bench during the third period of Monday's loss at Amalie Arena.
Florida Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman is mobbed moments after scoring while Lightning right wing Barclay Goodrow (19) skates to the bench during the third period of Monday's loss at Amalie Arena. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 16

TAMPA — It was a good week to be embarrassed. A fine time to be scolded.

Looking back, the Lightning might even be grateful to have been knocked around the ice two times in five days by the Florida Panthers. Honestly, it might be just what Tampa Bay needed.

Before the Lightning ran into the Panthers, they had pretty much had their way in the top-heavy Central Division. And they were in danger of falling into habits and traps that have tripped them up in previous seasons.

“I wouldn’t say (Monday) night was a wakeup call, I would say the three-game series was a wakeup call,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We won the game we deserved to win, and we didn’t win the two we shouldn’t have and didn’t deserve to. So probably a little lesson there for us. We just can’t throw our sticks in the middle of the ice and expect to win.”

That’s a natural dilemma for a team this good during a monotonous regular season when you’ve already climbed the mountaintop a year earlier. You have enough skill to win most nights, even when your effort and focus isn’t optimal.

That’s nothing to scream about in February, but it is important to recognize. You don’t want bad nights to turn into bad habits, because careless mistakes against one team might be fatal mistakes against another.

The Panthers are good enough to capitalize on silly turnovers or odd-man breaks, and that’s exactly what you saw Monday night. Tampa Bay began the week with the lowest goals-against average in the NHL at 2.00 but gave up six fairly easy goals against Florida. It was the first time a team had scored six times against the Lightning — without a power-play goal — in a combined 100 regular-season and postseason games.

“I think you see the difference in those games where mistakes and turnovers can lead to a lot different situations, especially when you’re playing playoff-type teams,” forward Alex Killorn said. “Those Florida games are going to prepare us well for the games that we’re going to play against Dallas and Carolina, for sure.”

Now, if you look at recent power rankings done by national publications, you’ll see most of them are thoroughly impressed with Tampa Bay outscoring its collective opponents by a ridiculously high 22 goals through the first quarter of the season.

And that is impressive. Until you break the numbers down a bit. In the six games preceding the Florida series, the Lightning went 6-0 while outscoring Nashville and Detroit 27-9. In their four games against Florida and Carolina, which were sandwiched around that stretch, the Lightning were 1-3 and outscored 13-12.

“It happens to everyone, even the best teams,” defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. “Even when we won 62 out of 82, we still had some bad games. It’s a learning process. It’s good. It’s going to help us in the long (haul). We have to make sure we’re not beating ourselves and teams have to work for it, and (Monday) night I felt we shot ourselves in the foot.”

So should you be worried that the Lightning are only one point ahead of both Carolina and Florida in the Central, while having played one more game? Not in the least. Even in normal times, NHL regular-season results can be terribly misleading. And in this pandemic-era schedule, the standings are obviously necessary but not necessarily obvious. There are too many games against the same group of opponents to get a true sense of where you stand in the league.

The Lightning will make the postseason, and that’s all that really matters. Everything else is conjecture and fluff.

Do you know how long it’s been since the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference reached the Stanley Cup final? That would be 17 years ago, when the Lightning last did it. Since then, the No. 3 seed has played for the Cup five times.

In other words, it helps to play well in the regular season, but constantly flexing your muscles is wasted effort.

The key is understanding the difference between winning and actually playing well enough to win against the very best. And, whether they needed it or not, the Lightning were reminded of that by the Panthers.

“Has the ship sprung a tiny little leak here in the last couple of games? There’s no doubt,” Cooper said. “But this is going to happen during the season, it’s not going to be flawless. We just have to get our consistency back, and we’ve shown we can do it.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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