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Lightning may not be the smartest kids in the class in this series

John Romano | Tampa Bay is usually the more disciplined team in the playoffs. The Islanders may challenge that notion.
This is what a team looks like when an opponent does not make mistakes. From left is defenseman Erik Cernak (81), left wing Ross Colton (79), left wing Ondrej Palat (18), center Tyler Johnson (9) and right wing Pat Maroon (14) during Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Islanders.
This is what a team looks like when an opponent does not make mistakes. From left is defenseman Erik Cernak (81), left wing Ross Colton (79), left wing Ondrej Palat (18), center Tyler Johnson (9) and right wing Pat Maroon (14) during Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Islanders. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 14
Updated Jun. 14

TAMPA – Well, that was interesting. If you’re a Lightning fan, it wasn’t particularly riveting, inspiring or encouraging, but it was interesting.

Tampa Bay lost the opening game of the Stanley Cup semifinals against the Islanders 2-1 on Sunday, and the best thing you can say is that the Lightning didn’t play terribly. In some ways, that’s also the worst thing you can say.

You see, there’s no smoking gun here. No obvious cause of Game 1′s death. Yes, the Lightning made a few mistakes, but there were no egregious shortcomings. They were just beaten by a team with greater discipline. Greater patience. Dare we say it, greater cool.

And that’s a little disconcerting.

The Islanders played a near-flawless game, but you get the feeling that it wasn’t a fluke. That’s who they are. And if the Lightning are to survive this round, they’re going to need to figure out a way to rattle that team or play just as flawlessly themselves.

“We weren’t using our heads the way we normally do. We’re playing a different team than we did last week,” coach Jon Cooper said. “The Islanders do what they do, and they do it extremely well. We saw. Now it’s on us to pick it apart.”

The Lightning may have rolled through the first two rounds of the postseason with their usual panache, but the truth is Florida and Carolina contributed to their own demise. The Panthers were on the penalty kill 3.33 times per game. Carolina averaged 12 giveaways a game.

New York is not going to approach those numbers. The Islanders took two penalties on Sunday, but both were pretty sketchy. And they had one giveaway the entire game. One! Which explains why you never saw the Lightning offense get any odd-man rushes.

“It’s exactly what we thought it was going to be,” said captain Steven Stamkos. “It’s going to be a tight-checking, not a lot of room out there, low-scoring series. We have to be comfortable with that and continue to get better with that.”

Of course, a little perspective helps. Meaning Tampa Bay is not doomed, or even in grave danger.

The Lightning lost the opening game in two (Boston and Dallas) of their matchups last postseason. They went on to win the next four games in a row against the Bruins and four of the next five against the Stars. So, yeah, they know how it’s done.

And if you compare them position by position, you would probably come to the conclusion that the Lightning are a more talented team than New York.

But there are a few worrisome signs, and you don’t have to look too hard to find them.

The most obvious is Tampa Bay’s lack of production in 5-on-5 situations. And it’s not just that New York outscored the Lightning 2-0 when evenhanded on Sunday. The Lightning have been less-than-impressive all postseason in those situations.

Including Game 1 against the Islanders, Tampa Bay has outscored the opposition 19-18 when 5-on-5 in the playoffs. For a team with as much scoring clout as the Lightning, that’s a bit jarring. For comparison, the Lightning outscored Columbus, Boston, New York and Dallas 54-35 in last year’s postseason in 5-on-5 situations. That’s an enormous discrepancy from one year to the next.

Now, maybe you could say the Lightning’s power play has been so efficient that they have been able to dial it back in 5-on-5 and play a more conservative game. There’s probably some legitimacy to that idea.

But the bottom line is Tampa Bay needs more production out of its top line. Between them, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have 10 power-play goals, which is outstanding, but only six in 5-on-5 situations. For comparison, Tampa Bay’s fourth line (Tyler Johnson, Ross Colton and Pat Maroon) has five evenhanded goals in about half of the ice time.

“We’ve relied on our power play, for sure, in the first two series’,” forward Alex Killorn said. “Our 5-on-5 play was pretty good as well, but I think we’re going to have to take it up a notch. Make sure every line gets in the game. We can just roll the lines, kind of build some momentum that way.”

Killorn ain’t kidding. The Lightning are going to have to take it up a notch, because the Islanders are not going to give them power plays the way the Panthers and Hurricanes did. New York led the NHL in fewest penalties taken in the regular season, and it’s hard to imagine the Islanders getting more careless in the postseason.

The Lightning are certainly capable of rebounding, and it’s true they have not lost back-to-back in more than 30 postseason games. But they can’t afford even minor screwups in this series, because the Islanders don’t look like they’ll be making many mistakes themselves.

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

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