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If the Lightning come up short this postseason, it will be self-inflicted

John Romano | Penalties were a problem for Tampa Bay in the regular season, and now they’ve shown up in the playoffs.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) goes to the penalty box for a holding-the-stick penalty during the overtime period of Game 3 at Amalie Arena.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) goes to the penalty box for a holding-the-stick penalty during the overtime period of Game 3 at Amalie Arena. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 4
Updated Jun. 4

TAMPA — Everyone in the arena seemed to be moving at once. The Hurricanes were swirling around each other in celebration, Lightning players were leaving the bench and the ice, and thousands of fans were looking for the nearest exit.

The only man who didn’t seem to be in a hurry was the one who set it all in motion. Nikita Kucherov waited a few moments before leaving his seat in the penalty box, and then stopped briefly again to have words with the game officials.

Carolina beat Tampa Bay 3-2 in overtime in Game 3 on Thursday night with a power-play goal courtesy of a Kucherov penalty for grabbing hold of an opponent’s stick. And now that the loss was in the books, the series was back up for grabs and Kucherov was making the loneliest skate across the ice imaginable, you realized there was a lesson here in his late-night gaffe:

The only way the Lightning will fall short this postseason is if they beat themselves.

Oh, that doesn’t mean Tampa Bay won’t be outplayed by some team in some future game. Perhaps even by Carolina in Game 4 on Saturday. But, after watching their skill and their commitment through the first nine games of this postseason, it feels like the only way the Lightning will fail to advance is if their wounds are self-inflicted.

That should be the takeaway from Thursday’s disappointment. The Lightning played a splendid hockey game and should have walked out of Amalie Arena with a 3-0 lead in the series if not for a needless mistake at the wrong time.

And don’t blame the officials. Maybe the penalty was insignificant as these things go, but it was clear that Kucherov held on to the stick of Martin Necas after they were fighting for possession in a corner by the Carolina net.

There is a school of thought that the final minutes of games should not be decided by referees, but failing to call a penalty can be just as egregious as blowing a whistle.

“When you get up in the morning and you look at the box score and (look) under penalties, whatever is listed there is a penalty,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s what the refs call on the ice, and you can disagree with them or agree with them, whatever you like. In the record books, all these penalties today are penalties.

“To answer your question about (if) the threshold (should be higher), no I think the playoffs are a different beast, but I don’t think it should change just because the game gets to overtime. If it’s a penalty, it’s a penalty. The big thing is, was it actually a penalty? You want consistency from the refs, and we were getting it. So I’ve got no complaints.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this issue with the Lightning. In the two games they lost to Florida in the first round, the Lightning were called for a combined nine penalties and gave up three power play goals. In the regular season, they served an NHL-high 597 penalty minutes.

It had not been an issue in the first two games of the Carolina series, but Kucherov was called for two penalties in Game 3 and both seemed to be borne more of frustration than anything else. Is it worth pointing fingers in Kucherov’s direction? Not really. The Lightning aren’t even in position to win the game if not for Kucherov’s precision passes on both of Tampa Bay’s goals on Thursday night.

And if it’s any consolation, the Lightning had a power play in the final minute of regulation and the first minute of overtime and failed to score.

“The refs call what they think is a penalty, and we have to live with that and fight through it,” said defenseman Victor Hedman. “They capitalized on theirs, and we did not. At the end of the day, it’s a hockey game and the referees are not out there to get anyone. They’re out there to do their job. We’re not going to look for excuses. We liked our game today, and we look forward to the next one.”

Sometimes, a team deserves to lose because it was simply outplayed. Sometimes, a team deserves to lose because it’s just not good enough.

You could argue whether we’ve seen that happen yet in Tampa Bay this postseason. The Lightning are clearly capable of losing, but usually they’re in greater danger of beating themselves.

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

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