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Rangers are young, fast and aggressive; sorta like the Lightning once were

John Romano | It’s only two games, but the Eastern Conference final is starting to have a changing-of-the-guard feel to it.
Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko (24) celebrates his first-period goal against the Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final Friday. Remember when the Lightning were this spry and jubilant?
Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko (24) celebrates his first-period goal against the Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final Friday. Remember when the Lightning were this spry and jubilant? [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 4

NEW YORK — Back when they were young, this sort of thing would not have happened.

Not the lopsided penalties, not the egregious turnovers, not the interminable stretches without controlling the puck.

Back when they were young, someone would have stepped up by now.

A big block, an unexpected goal, a flashy play that would stun a crowd and turn momentum back in Tampa Bay’s favor.

Back when they were young, this seemed inconceivable.

You know, like last week.

Bless their hearts, the Lightning seemed to have aged practically overnight. Two games into the Eastern Conference final and these guys look slower and more confused than we have seen in years.

Now, the good news is the Lightning showed signs of rediscovering themselves in the third period of Game 2 Friday night when they almost came from behind before losing 3-2 to the Rangers.

The bad news is they’re already running out of time.

Rangers teammates and fans celebrate a third-period goal by center Mika Zibanejad.
Rangers teammates and fans celebrate a third-period goal by center Mika Zibanejad. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

History says a team trailing 0-2 in a seven-game series in the Stanley Cup playoffs goes on to lose almost 85 percent of the time. Tampa Bay’s core group of players likes to believe they’ve done it all in the postseason, but they’ve never come all the way back from a deficit like this.

The last three times the Lightning have fallen behind by two games in a series — in 2014, ‘18 and ‘19 — they eventually lost, although they did manage to briefly tie the 2018 series against Washington.

“You get to this point, you’ve got to work your ass off, keep it simple and play smart,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And we probably didn’t do that for portions of this game.”

That would be known as an understatement.

Work hard? There was a 27-minute stretch between the first and second periods when the Rangers had 20 shots on goal compared to six for the Lightning. And this was when the Lightning were supposedly playing with greater urgency following the Game 1 blowout loss.

Play smart? Trailing 2-1 in the third period, Nikita Kucherov sent a slow pass to Ondrej Palat in the neutral zone. The puck was picked off by the Rangers and put in the net seconds later by Mika Zibanejad for what turned out to be the winning score.

Keep it simple? They’ve had 50 giveaways in two games, including nine by Kucherov.

“We haven’t executed the way, in the proper way, that has gotten us here the last couple of years,” said captain Steven Stamkos. “Especially in terms of puck management and execution.”

The Lightning have had some postseason stinkers in the past, but they’ve often managed to pull out a game with a big play at the right moment. There was a time, after Nick Paul scored with a little more than two minutes remaining, when it felt like they might do it again.

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They got plenty of looks in the final 100 seconds, but couldn’t come up with the final shot to send it to overtime.

“Once we take that puck and start moving our feet and skate up the ice, we make plays and if they’re not there, (we) put it in deep,” said Paul, who was Tampa Bay’s most active player with six blocked shots, two hits and one takeaway. “I think that controls the pace. We’ve got to take the game over and play the way we need to play.

“Just playing simple, playing north, that will dictate the pace of the game.”

The sentiment in the Lightning locker room seems to be that this is a problem of their own making. That if they simply get back to their proven formula, all will be solved.

The fear is that time has caught up to the Lightning. Ten of the 18 skaters they have put on the ice are 30 or older. New York, on the other hand, has only four players that old.

The Rangers are the youngest team in the playoffs and they have looked more energetic and dynamic than Tampa Bay. Frankly, they have looked like the Lightning did in their prime.

You know, like last week.

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

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