Jon Cooper walked into the locker room and didn’t get the sense Lightning players were down in the dumps about losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference final.
“It was more kind of like an anger of like we want to get back – like let’s get Game 3 going here,” Tampa Bay’s coach said.
Game 3 on Tuesday night in Washington can’t come soon enough for the Lightning, who are in a historically difficult spot after losing twice at home to open the series. Of the 41 previous times a team lost the first two games in the conference final, 39 went on to lose the series – including every team that lost its first two at home.
“For us, it’s all about resetting everything,” defenceman Victor Hedman said on Monday. “There’s no panic. We’re obviously not happy with losing two games on home ice, but that is not something that goes into our locker room. We’ve got the experience. We’ve got the guys that are in the playoffs for the first time, guys have been through this, and we’re capable of handling that.”
The Lightning under Cooper haven’t lost the first two games of a series since 2014, when they were swept in the first round by Montreal. That was a learning experience players could point to when they went to the Stanley Cup final in 2015, but right now it’s just an ugly deficit.
After not allowing Boston to score an even-strength goal in the final three games during the second round, Tampa Bay has been outscored 7-1 by Washington at even strength and 10-4 over all. Asked what the Lightning needed to do better, three-time Cup-winning defenceman Ken Daneyko responded, “Where do we begin?”
“They were so responsible defensively, making good puck decisions and through the first two rounds they didn’t give up a whole lot. All of a sudden, you’re seeing outnumbered situations,” said Daneyko, now an NHL Network analyst. “Just mental breakdowns, mental mistakes by Tampa Bay. You never know why it turns so drastically like that when they were so sound against the Bruins. That can’t happen.”
Mistakes are happening in abundance, most notably passing up shots that lead to opportunities the other way. And ill-timed penalties late in periods have led directly to Capitals power-play goals, which definitely can’t continue happening if the Lightning want to make this a series.
“We need to do a better job of not getting in that situation, not letting two games in a row, 7, 8 seconds left on the power play and they get one,” defenceman Dan Girardi said. “That’s something we can definitely control ourselves.”
As clinically as Tampa Bay eliminated New Jersey and Boston in five games apiece, Washington is rolling behind the scoring of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov and the goaltending of Braden Holtby, who has stopped 52 of 56 shots through two games. The Capitals are feeling confident right now, but after falling behind 0-2 on home ice in the first round and roaring back to beat Columbus, they understand how fast things can swing.
“We’re off to a heck of a start, but we’ve got to take care of business at home,” defenceman Matt Niskanen said. “If they win one or two here, boy, the momentum switches big time.”
For the Lightning to win one or two games, they’ll need to get better production out of captain Steven Stamkos, who has one even-strength point, and better play out of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who hasn’t been at his best.
“Regardless who’s in the net, you’re going to give up these chances, it makes it hard on your goaltender,” Cooper said. “And believe me, he’s the last guy we’re pointing fingers at.”
If the Lightning can’t figure out how to fix many of their problems from the net out, it’ll be a short series. Cooper sounded confident of a turnaround.
“There’s a really good group of guys there,” Cooper said. “They’ve got a ton of experience and when their backs have been against the wall, they’ve shown a propensity to fight back. This is a tough one. We lost two at home and it’s definitely not an ideal situation. But we’re not done. It’s not over.”