NEW YORK — Say this for the Lightning:
They stay fully committed to the narrative.
For six games, they played like a team of leading men. They stood tall, they skated straight, they kicked collective butt while eliminating Toronto and Florida.
And when the script was flipped in a 6-2 Game 1 loss in the Eastern Conference final against New York on Wednesday night?
They showed up late, flubbed their lines and eventually picked a half-hearted fight in the final minutes that was mostly greeted with shrugs and laughter by the Rangers.
“We have better in us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Actually, he said that three different times. Mostly casually, almost bemusedly. As if Cooper was already preparing for a Thursday morning video session of banana peels and pratfalls.
There was no exasperation in his tone. None of the frustration that showed up a couple of times early in the first round against the Maple Leafs.
It was as if, after a 12-day stretch of great hockey that was followed by a nine-day stretch of barbecues and bathing suits, Cooper was anticipating a game exactly like this.
This is kind of what the Lightning do. They are either fully devoted to the cause of victory, or they cash in their chips early. They have only lost four times in a dozen postseason games this summer, but they’ve been outscored 20-7 in those rare defeats.
“Just the nature of the game,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “When you get down sometimes, you get out of sync a little bit.”
On the other hand, four of the Lightning’s past six wins have come by scores of 2-1, 2-1, 4-3 and 2-0. Does that sound like a team that’s comfortable knowing how to win when the hour is late?
“We certainly didn’t have our best,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “Not much we can do about it now. We’ll watch the tape like we always do after a loss. I think we know what we’ve got to be better at.”
They might want to start with puck handling. The Lightning came into the series averaging seven giveaways a game in the postseason. They had 28 against the Rangers. A 400 percent increase in turnovers doesn’t sound like something you want to do in a conference final.
They might also want to be a little more precise with their shots. New York goaltender Igor Shesterkin had some brilliant moments, but he also was fortunate that the Lightning came up empty on a number of prime scoring chances. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Lightning had more scoring chances and more high-danger chances than the Rangers. And they still got creamed.
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Finally, they might want to get Andrei Vasilevskiy back in the groove. This loss was not his fault by any stretch, but he did not do his part in the anticipated goaltender duel with Shesterkin. By the third period, Rangers fans were gleefully chanting, “IGOR’S BETTER.”
No one was using the long layoff between the second and third playoff rounds as an excuse, but there was an underlying acknowledgement that the Lightning were not the same team that walked off the ice when the sweep of Florida was completed on May 23.
“We might have gotten a little tired as the game went on,” Cooper said. “It’s because we haven’t played a game for a while here. But that’s no excuse on our part. I give the Rangers full marks on their game, their playing, their effort tonight.”
Typically, when Cooper says something like that, his voice is tinged with anger and disappointment. On Wednesday night, it was more like a man who was fully expecting this bill to show up in his mailbox.
It may also be borne of a coach who has seen his team bounce back from these moments too many times to recall. A coach who is confident in his team’s ability to self-correct.
It is, in its own way, an impressive trait. When the Lightning stink, they really stink. And when they’re playing their game, they’ve been almost impossible to beat the past three postseasons.
Who has the script for Game 2?
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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