Lightning’s overtime playoff struggles never have been so glaring

Tampa Bay’s inability to hold leads the past two games indicates it is not the same team that went to the past three Stanley Cup finals.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) is beaten for the game-winner as center Brayden Point (21) looks on during overtime of Game 4 Monday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) is beaten for the game-winner as center Brayden Point (21) looks on during overtime of Game 4 Monday at Amalie Arena. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published April 25

TAMPA – It’s a remarkable — and puzzling — statistic.

The Lightning’s overtime loss in Game 4 of their opening-round series against the Maple Leafs Monday at Amalie Arena — a defeat that put the Bolts on the brink of elimination —was their ninth in their past 10 overtime playoff games dating back to a Game 5 loss to the Stars in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s dreadful,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “To have the success we’ve had in the playoffs the last however many years, to have that record in overtime it shows either how unlucky we’ve been of late or how good our team actually is to be able to hang around and go to three finals when you’ve been in that many overtime losses.”

This postseason, it seems to have caught up with the Lightning, who now must beat the Maple Leafs three straight times — including two games on the road, starting with Game 5 on Thursday — to avoid a first-round playoff exit.

The Leafs took control of the series with back-to-back overtime wins at Amalie Arena, but neither game should have gone to an extra session. The Lightning allowed a game-tying goal with one minute left in regulation in Game 3, and blew a three-goal lead with less than 11 minutes left in the third period of Game 4.

The Lightning were 0-4 in overtime during their second straight Cup run in 2021, but they had a series lead at the time of each of those games. None of the losses were the kind that can change the momentum of a series, as the past two have the potential to do.

In last year’s Cup final loss to the Avalanche, the Lightning lost twice in overtime in the first four games of the series, including 3-2 in Game 4 at Amalie to fall into a 3-1 deficit. They were able to salvage Game 5 in Denver before their season ended on home ice in Game 6.

“You’ve just got to be careful, because that was last year and it’s a different team,” Cooper said of the Lightning bouncing back to win Game 5 in Denver. “Moving forward here, yes, the guys that played in that know that feeling, know that preparation, know the mindset, know what we had to do. And they went in a really hostile environment in the final to win a game, and so there’s no question.

“But there’s a lot of guys that weren’t in that game. So it’s up to our group and our leaders that guide these guys along in those situations. But the one thing is we’ve had plenty of success in Toronto’s home arena in the playoffs, and so we’re confident we can just do that again. No guarantees, naturally, but we have confidence in ourselves.”

Cooper said the Lightning’s overtime struggles in the playoffs could be a regression to the mean: They were 14-4 in the postseason in overtime from 2014 to Game 4 of the 2020 Cup final.

Ultimately, the backbone of the Lightning’s championship runs was a roster that was able to close out games.

But over the past two offseasons, they have lost key pieces (defenseman Ryan McDonagh, forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman) of the group Cooper would use to lock down games late. They were difference-makers who would block shots, clear the front of the net and defend the middle of the ice in crunch time.

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This Lightning group won 8 of 14 overtime games in the regular season, owned a plus-18 goal differential in the third period and overtime, and was 28-1-2 when taking a lead into the third period.

“Are we missing some big pieces?” Cooper said. “There’s no doubt. Again, we haven’t had these guys all year. At some point, you’ve got to turn the page on that, and we have our group that’s done really well. And when the spotlight’s on in the game, like especially Game 3, we didn’t get it done. But I think that might have been the first time all year that’s happened to us. We had a goal lead and had a team come up and tie us. Hey, the timing sucked. But our guys have done a heck of a job at closing games out.”

Note: Cooper said defenseman Erik Cernak will miss Thursday’s Game 5. Cernak has been sidelined since being knocked out of Game 1 by Michael Bunting’s illegal hit to the head. Cooper said he still considers Cernak day-to-day. Bunting will return from his three-game suspension in Game 5.

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