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Maybe the warning signs were there for the Lightning all along

John Romano | Tampa Bay has gone from a six-game winning streak to the prospect of elimination in what seems like the blink of an eye.
The Lightning won their first five games after Brayden Point was injured, but there is no way you can erase the NHL's leader in goals scored the past two postseasons and not feel the effect.
The Lightning won their first five games after Brayden Point was injured, but there is no way you can erase the NHL's leader in goals scored the past two postseasons and not feel the effect. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 4

TAMPA — They say the scoreboard never lies, but you wonder if sometimes it doesn’t obscure.

We see victory and assume there are good times ahead. We see success and anticipate more to come. We see the Lightning sweep the NHL’s No. 1 seed and begin planning for another parade down the Hillsborough River.

But is it possible we missed a boatload of warning signs?

The Lightning return home looking like a far different team today than when they left earlier in the week. Two losses to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final and suddenly you’re scouring the roster for forwards that creak and defensemen that moan.

And you begin to wonder, did we miss something in the first-round comeback against Toronto? Did we overlook any portents in the romp against Florida? Is it possible we gazed lovingly at the 2022 Lightning and saw the team they used to be a year ago?

Now, it should be said this series has a long way to go. It’s pretty rare (around 15 percent) that a team comes back from an 0-2 hole, but it’s not unprecedented. The Rangers did it themselves just last round.

The question is whether the Lightning have it in them to reverse the momentum against a team that is unmistakably younger and, apparently, quicker and deeper than Tampa Bay.

Those aren’t the kind of queries we were making in the second round against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers, but maybe we should have. Maybe expert panels at ESPN and The Athletic should have been picking New York instead of Tampa Bay before the series began.

How is possible, after just 120 minutes of hockey, that our view of the Lightning changed so drastically?

Losing one star too many

Of all the qualities that made Tampa Bay unique the past few seasons, the ability to absorb the loss of players and continue moving forward may have been the most admirable.

The salary cap cost them their entire third line from a year ago, but they managed to retool. Nikita Kucherov missed 64 percent of the regular-season games the past two years, but it didn’t matter. Steven Stamkos missed almost the entire 2020 postseason, and the Lightning still won the Stanley Cup. Brayden Point missed the Florida series, and the Lightning still got a sweep.

But is it possible Point’s absence could eventually become a fatal blow?

This isn’t the same as losing Stamkos in 2020. The Lightning had months to prepare for the captain’s absence in that postseason. And his two-way impact was not nearly as dramatic as Point’s.

“Look at goals scored in the playoffs the last three years, who is No. 1? Brayden Point. So that’s a loss for us,” said coach Jon Cooper. “Now the one thing I’ve learned about this team, whether you’re Brayden Point or Steven Stamkos, the boys seem unfazed by it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard in my time here somebody say, ‘Oh my God, if this guy played we would have won.’”

A step slower than before

Alex Killorn is 32 and played a career-high number of minutes in the regular season. Victor Hedman is 31 and also spent a career-high amount of time on the ice. Stamkos, Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are all in their 30s and saw significant increases in on-ice time.

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Is it possible some older players are wearing down deeper in the postseason? Based on the numbers, it’s a question worth asking.

Killorn scored 12 goals in 40 games the past two postseasons. He has yet to score in 13 games this postseason.

Hedman was an absolute beast the past two postseasons. The Lightning scored twice as many goals (78) than they gave up (39) when he was on the ice. This year, his goal differential (19-18) is practically null.

Meeting their match

Ironic, isn’t it? The Lightning faced the highest-scoring team in the regular season in the second round and held the Panthers to three goals in four games. They faced the No. 2 scoring team in the first round and neutralized the Maple Leafs in Games 6 and 7.

And now they’re facing a Rangers team that was tied for 16th in goals scored in the regular season, and the Lightning can’t seem to stop the New York offense.

No doubt, some of that is because the Rangers have gotten better as the season has progressed. But it’s also because New York is beating the Lightning at their own game.

The Rangers are a tight defensive team and have a highly disciplined, low-risk attack. While the Lightning made Florida and Toronto pay for their run-and-gun offensive styles, the Rangers are not giving Tampa Bay easy scoring opportunities with odd-man rushes. And, on the rare occasions they do, they have a world-class goaltender to clean up those mistakes.

Sounds familiar, huh?

“They’re a very skilled team,” Stamkos said. “And they can make you pay.”

Maybe, a few days from now, this will all seem like a blip. The Lightning will rediscover their mojo at Amalie Arena, and the Eastern Conference final will turn into a competitive affair.

Or maybe the signs were there all along, and we’re starting to understand the Lightning no longer have all the answers for every challenge that comes along in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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

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