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Lightning can’t shake off rust in Game 1 loss

After a long layoff, Tampa Bay is slow and sloppy in the defensive zone against the Rangers in the conference final opener.
Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko, center, throws his hands up while celebrating teammate Filip Chytil's second goal of the second period against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final opener Wednesday night.
Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko, center, throws his hands up while celebrating teammate Filip Chytil's second goal of the second period against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final opener Wednesday night. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 2|Updated Jun. 2

NEW YORK — The Lightning have been here before, as recently as a month ago following their lopsided playoff-opening loss to the Maple Leafs. Everyone wondered whether that was the beginning of the end of their Stanley Cup reign, but the Lightning have shown since they have plenty of life left.

But how will it end against the Rangers?

The Lightning’s 6-2 loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday night was concerning. After spending the previous six games showing off their defensive mojo, the Lightning didn’t have it in their first game following a nine-day layoff after their second-round sweep of the Panthers.

“Too many turnovers, and execution wasn’t there, and we have to respond,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve been in this position before. And I’m confident our group is going to have a much better effort next game.”

The Lightning allowed six goals in one game after allowing seven combined during a six-game winning streak going back to Game 6 against the Maple Leafs.

“It was different types of goals,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “Some were in zone; some were off the rush. It’s just execution in our game plan. It’s not just with the puck, it’s without the puck, too, being in the right spots. A couple of breakdowns there and (the Rangers) were able to execute and were able to find the back of the net.

“We’ll look at it and be better next game.”

From the beginning, the Lightning struggled to defend their end, and they spent the night chasing the game because of it.

Just 71 seconds into the game, Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian committed to Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad on a 2-on-1 and was unable to cut off the passing lane, leaving forward Chris Kreider open for a goal.

The Lightning had answers for New York’s first two scores. Stamkos followed Kreider’s goal, and Ondrej Palat matched forward Frank Vatrano’s. Then the Rangers piled on with four unanswered goals, two by forward Filip Chytil in the second period.

“There was definitely a lack of execution in all three zones,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “Once you get down a little bit, you kind of start chasing it. We don’t want to put ourselves in that situation. (The Rangers) capitalized on their opportunities, but it was a lot of things where we weren’t executing.”

On Chytil’s first goal, the Lightning overpursued forward Kaapo Kakko behind the net, and Kakko found Chytil in front of the net. Chytil then beat Vasilevskiy with a one-timer from the right circle after a cross-slot pass from defenseman K’Andre Miller, one of several times the Rangers moved the puck up the ice east to west with success.

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The Rangers added on from there. Forward Artemi Panarin scored 30 seconds into the third period after the puck skipped over Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s stick in the neutral zone to forward Andrew Copp going the other way and Panarin had an open look from the left circle. Zibanejad’s power-play goal 6:06 into the third ended the scoring.

“We always talk about defending and taking care of our own end, and we don’t ever like to give up six on any night,” McDonagh said. “So we’ve got to obviously take pride in being strong in our own end and letting our offense come from there.”

Lightning players wouldn’t make the layoff an excuse for their performance, and they promised a better showing in Game 2 on Friday. Tampa Bay is 17-0 when coming off a postseason loss dating to 2020.

“(The Rangers have) depth throughout the lineup,” Hedman said. “Good goaltending, obviously, good (defensive)-core team, some acquisitions that we haven’t seen with their jerseys. They’re rolling and coming off that big win against Carolina (in Game 7 of their second-round series), so we know they were confident going into (Wednesday’s) game.

“They executed a little bit better than us.”

Coach Jon Cooper pondered whether the game might have been different had a Hedman shot not gone off the post when the score was 3-2 in the second period but also credited a Rangers team that’s surging at the right time.

“The Rangers have some dynamic players, and you give them an inch and they’ll take a mile, and they did that (Wednesday),” Cooper said, “They’re a good team. (Coach Gerard Gallant has) got them rolling, and they compete hard, and they didn’t fluke their way to where they are in these playoffs.

“But in saying that, we have better in us as well. We’re going to show up two nights from now.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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