TAMPA — Well, that was entertaining. And maybe a little scary.
The Lightning played what might have been their best 20 minutes of hockey all season in the first period against Boston on Monday night. They also outscored the Bruins in the third period.
And, yet, they still managed to lose 5-3.
That’s how hot the Bruins are. And that’s how much ground the Lightning need to make up if they plan on extending their three-year hold on the Eastern Conference.
The Bruins survived Tampa Bay’s impressive start to come out of the first period with a 1-1 tie, then blew the game open with three consecutive goals in a 10-minute span of the second period.
Boston already had a sizable lead on the Lightning in the Atlantic Division coming into the game and has now widened that gap to an emphatic 11 points through the season’s first 19 games.
“That’s why they’re an elite team in the league,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It doesn’t go their way, and they kept it together and stuck with it. When it didn’t go our way, we didn’t handle it that well.
“Two good teams, it was a good game for the most part, but they deserved it more than we did.”
The good news is it’s still ridiculously early. And regular-season results in November are not necessarily a precursor to what you’ll see once spring arrives.
In the previous five years, the Bruins and Lightning had gone 8-8 against each other in the regular season. But all that really matters is the Lightning went 8-2 against Boston in two postseason showdowns. In other words, there’s plenty of time and hope for better results to come.
“Guess we just have to remember this feeling because, you know, we felt like was could have walked out of here with two points,” said forward Pat Maroon, who had two assists and a plus-one rating.
So what went wrong for Tampa Bay on Monday?
You could make the argument that the Lightning took too many penalties. Boston’s tiebreaking goal came on the power play, and the Bruins rode that momentum to another score 31 seconds later.
You could also say Tampa Bay left too many scoring opportunities on the ice in the first period and had a ridiculous 21 giveaways on the night.
But, mostly, you should say Boston was tighter, smarter and controlled the real estate in front of the Tampa Bay net. Other than their first goal, the Bruins did most of their damage within a few feet of the goalie crease. That includes Patrice Bergeron getting his 1,000th career point by setting up Brad Marchand for a goal on a rebound in the second period.
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“I think we hurt ourselves a little bit with the attention to detail,” said Nick Paul, who scored two goals to give him eight on the season. “Something we’ve talked about all year is staying out of the (penalty) box, especially when you’re going against a team like that.”
It certainly didn’t look like it was going in that direction when the game began. The Lightning were in complete control from the opening puck drop. They spent almost all of the first eight minutes in the offensive zone, firing the game’s first nine shots on goal.
Tampa Bay went up 1-0 after Alex Killorn won a puck battle in the corner and sent a pass to Steven Stamkos, who immediately found Paul in front of the net.
And yet, all that early dominance meant nothing just a short time later.
The Bruins tied the score late in the first period when Charlie McAvoy sent a long, cross-ice pass through the neutral zone and a wide-open David Krejci blasted a slap shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That was just a precursor to the second period when Boston outshot Tampa Bay 12-2 over a 13-minute span on the way to a 4-1 lead. Boston eventually increased the lead to 5-1 before Rudolfs Balcers scored his first goal for the Lightning since being claimed on waivers from Florida earlier this month.
“I loved the first (period). I thought we dictated play, we had our chances, we did everything we wanted to do,” Cooper said. “We weren’t trying to manufacture stuff that wasn’t there, we weren’t taking a wide array of penalties, we just stayed with it. And that didn’t happen in the second.
“And that’s where we have to grow from that.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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