Nine days off.
Head coach Jon Cooper told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan that was his first thought after the Lightning allowed the opening goal just over a minute into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday in New York.
He, of course, was referring to the length of time between the second-round, series-clinching victory over the Panthers and the start of the conference final against the Rangers.
Cooper was worried about his team giving up odd-man rushes, and his fears were realized right away when defenseman Ryan McDonagh pinched and a stretch pass resulted in a 2-on-1, with the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad beating Nikita Kucherov down the ice. Zibanejad faked a slap shot from the right circle and passed back to Chris Kreider, who beat goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stickside from the left circle.
The Rangers’ pressure on the forecheck and uncharacteristic mistakes by the Lightning (28 giveaways?) had Vasilevskiy constantly under siege, and he let in more pucks in the first two periods of a 6-2 loss than he did over the entire previous series. In fact, the six he allowed on 34 shots were as many as he’s ever permitted in a postseason game.
The Rangers took control with three goals in a 7:53 span of the second period, quickly turning a 1-1 tie into a 4-2 advantage.
Frank Vatrano started the flurry, snapping a shot over Vasilevskiy’s blocker from the slot after a misplay from Steven Stamkos above the circles. After an Ondrej Palat goal briefly tied the score, Filip Chytil put New York back ahead when four Tampa Bay players somehow lost track of him low in the left circle.
Then, after an extended stretch in the Lightning zone and a failed Anthony Cirelli clearing attempt, Chytil scored his second goal of the period from the right circle, off a K’Andre Miller pass through the seam.
The Lightning were outplayed from start to finish and looked less like the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions than the Rangers did.
Zibanejad played the part of Stamkos, scoring on a bullet from the left circle on the power play. Artemi Panarin hinted at Kucherov, skating one way and shooting another to score, then making a smart seam pass to set up Zibanejad. Goaltender Igor Shesterkin, a Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist, more closely resembled the 2021 Conn Smythe winner than Vasilevskiy did, saving 37 of 39 attempts.
What kind of Bizarro World was this?
It’s a long series, and the layoff may yet prove beneficial for the Lightning.
But for one night, rust triumphed over rest.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 1:
He can’t get an assist on the play, obviously, but Stamkos helped set up his own first-period goal with a strong forecheck.
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After Palat rimmed the puck behind the Rangers net, Stamkos drove former teammate Barclay Goodrow into the boards, jarring the puck loose. As his teammates kept the puck alive in the offensive zone, Stamkos skated out to the high slot, creating some separation from Zibanejad, then whipped a Jan Rutta pass past Shesterkin high on the stickside to tie the score at 1 just over six minutes after Kreider’s opening goal.
That’s helping yourself.
Palat started the game on the second line with Nick Paul and Alex Killorn but was flipped with Kucherov early on, joining Stamkos and Cirelli on the top line.
The new-look line produced the Lightning’s first two goals, with Palat starting the play and Cirelli picking up the secondary assist on Stamkos’ goal, then Stamkos backhanding a shot on net that Palat rebounded past Shesterkin to briefly tie the score at 2 in the second period.
Hey, if it works ...
Kucherov was credited with a team-high seven shots on goal, and many were Grade-A chances, including three in the first period alone.
A Kucherov tip was stopped by Shesterkin after a give-and-go with Killorn. Kucherov missed wide after a nifty backhand pass through the slot from Paul.
Once in the first period and again in the second, Shesterkin swallowed Kucherov shots from low in the right circle.
It was more of the same in the third. Shesterkin thwarted a Kucherov bid from the slot early in the period, and Kucherov missed the net with a shot from the slot late.
The chances are great. Now, he needs to start burying a few.
Too much of a bad thing
Can we just stop with the late-game, sending-a-message nonsense?
It doesn’t have any bearing on the outcome, drags out lopsided games and almost never carries over into the next meeting.
The pushing and shoving, face-washes and occasional punches mostly just allow the team that was outplayed to express its frustration and leads to a long exodus of players to the locker room and a lot of unnecessary paperwork for the official scorer.
The Lightning were awful in Game 1. Why extend the agony?
It’s the least entertaining part of the game, and it needs to go.
You know what sends a message? A strong bounce-back game, which the Lightning have done 17 times after a loss over the past three postseasons.
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