TAMPA — Hockey fans understand misery. In a twisted sort of way, they embrace it.
When you worship the Stanley Cup above all else, the pain and exasperation of falling short can be a trophy unto itself. You measure your devotion by the amount of angst you put in your coffee.
So, no, it will not be the end of the world if the Lightning fall short in Game 6 against Toronto tonight. Even great teams sometimes stumble on their way up the mountain to the top.
And yet, I can’t help feeling there is something uniquely disturbing about this moment. If things do not change in a hurry tonight, the Lightning will have bookended their two Stanley Cups with underwhelming first-round collapses.
Now, it’s unrealistic to expect the winning to continue forever, but it’s not unreasonable to hope a team keeps its foot on the gas until the very end. It’s the difference between disappointment and regret.
And right now, the Lightning would be facing a very long summer of regret.
“It’s obviously uncharacteristic of us,” veteran forward Pat Maroon said, describing the self-inflicted wounds that have helped put the Lightning behind 3-2 in the series.
But here’s the problem:
It really isn’t all that uncharacteristic of the 2021-22 Lightning. Inexcusable, yes. Uncharacteristic, no.
This team committed too many penalties, blew too many leads and lost too many games against quality competition in the regular season. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen against Toronto.
It was mildly annoying during the regular season, but it’s been catastrophic in the postseason.
Coach Jon Cooper went out of his way to say the Lightning gave Toronto a freebie in Game 1 and then suggested the same after Game 5.
So how does a seasoned team, a team with Norris, Vezina and Hart trophy winners on resumes, a team with its name etched on the Stanley Cup each of the past two seasons, give away two of the first five games of a series?
“When I say we gave the game away, I’m saying we gave Toronto opportunities to capitalize, and to Toronto’s credit, they have capitalized on them,” Cooper said.
“We’re getting burned by some of the things we’re doing instead of making them earn it the hard way — where they’re just beating us at our own game — and so that’s probably a little frustrating. Maybe in years past, other teams just haven’t capitalized when we’ve broken down, so it hasn’t felt like that.”
The Lightning’s cool, analytical demeanor after losses has seemed like a plus when they inevitably bounce back and win the next game. But eventually, they’ll need to put two wins together.
And waiting until Games 6 and 7 to do that is not the wisest course of action.
In the last decade, the NHL has seen a series go to a Game 6 a total of 96 times. The team trailing has won both Games 6 and 7 only 22 times. The last two times the Lightning have trailed going into Game 6 were both in 2015. They came from behind to beat Detroit in the first round and lost to Chicago in six games in the Stanley Cup final.
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So how is it a team with so much star power has found itself in this position today?
The popular theory is to blame the loss of balanced scoring Tampa Bay used to get from its since-departed third line, but it’s not that simple. The problem isn’t scoring; it’s preventing goals.
The Lightning won consecutive Stanley Cups because they could play shutdown defense when necessary. In 45 playoff games over the previous two seasons, they allowed a team to score three or more goals less than 38 percent of the time.
The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have scored three or more goals in every game of this series.
You can blame that on the number of power plays Toronto has had, but those whistles are not being blown in a vacuum. The Lightning figured out quickly what the standard was going to be for penalties in this postseason, and yet they continue to commit senseless violations.
Tampa Bay is scoring at a greater pace than in the past two postseasons, but they’ve gone from giving up 1.96 goals per game in the 2021 postseason to 4.00 against Toronto.
“I always say this: If you give up two goals or less, you’re giving yourself a really good chance to win,” Cooper said. “You give up three and the game’s going to be in doubt. And now you’re playing with fire. We’ve scored enough goals to win games; we’re just giving up too much.”
This is not the way the Lightning season was supposed to end. Budding dynasties do not check out with blown leads and jammed penalty boxes.
The players in Tampa Bay’s locker room know that. And Game 6 is their last chance to prove that they are still a special team. It’s their last chance to avoid looking back in regret.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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