TAMPA — Who are the Tampa Bay Lightning?
Are they the team that shredded the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in five games apiece to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, a team of efficient defense, dynamic offense and remarkable depth?
Or are they whatever was on the ice for two home losses to the Washington Capitals, defeats that put them squarely on the wrong side of history? Since 1974-75, only two teams have rallied from a 2-0 hole in 41 conference final/semifinal series. But that hole is where Tampa resides after a 6-2 loss on Sunday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Who are the Tampa Bay Lightning? Not even they can tell you anymore.
“If there is one thing I can sit here and say about these two games, it’s that we just played tentative and a little bit slow. We didn’t get 113 points by playing that way. We didn’t win the first two rounds by playing that way. These first two games, that’s the way we’ve played,” coach Jon Cooper said. “By no means am I sitting here saying, ‘Oh, it’s all us, not them.’ They’ve got a really good team, they’re feeling it, playing with some confidence right now. It’s a little surprising for us that we’re not because we sure had confidence coming into Jersey, we had confidence coming into Boston, and right now we’re just not making the plays we need to make.”
The Lightning started Game 2 well, playing aggressively offensively and taking a 2-1 lead into the second period on the strength of two power-play goals. But they’ve been skated out of the series at 5-on-5, with the Capitals holding a 7-1 edge in scoring at even strength, and were again for the last 40 minutes Sunday.
“It’s hard to compare different series, but they’re doing a good job. They move the puck well. They get it out clean from their own zone. It seems like we can’t establish our forecheck the way we want to,” defenseman Anton Stralman said. “I guess the big difference, and now I am going to compare, is rushes. We didn’t give up many rushes in that Boston series, and now we are. That’s execution of the game plan and structure.”
It’s also a lack of execution from the Lightning, who haven’t been able to sustain pressure on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. That comes back to a lack of confidence, according to Cooper.
“We’re a lot of one-and-dones. So give them credit: Once that first shot gets through, it doesn’t seem that we’re getting that second chance that we like. We’re getting a little bit of zone time, but either we’re passing when we should shoot or shooting when we should pass,” he said. “But ultimately, we’re turning the puck over too much, something we didn’t do the first two rounds. When you do that, it’s hard to generate anything. Your guys are going one way, and now all of a sudden they’re coming back at you. That’s been our issue.”
When the Capitals are on the rush, the Lightning defense that was so effective in the previous two rounds just wilts.
“We’ve defended well this entire playoffs before these last couple of games, and that’s why we’ve had success,” said Steven Stamkos, who had one of the goals for Tampa in the 6-2 loss. “These past couple of games, we haven’t defended with the same sense of urgency, and [we’re] really hanging our goalie out to dry. They had a lot of quality chances. You can’t do that this time of the year.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has given up 10 goals on 62 shots, hasn’t been the reason the Lightning have lost the first two games of this series, but he also hasn’t been the goalie he was in the previous round. His over-aggressive play on an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot on a Capitals’ power play late in the second period resulted in a goal that crushed the spirit of Tampa — because it was the second time in two games the Capitals had scored a power-play goal with less than 10 seconds remaining in a period.
“Going into the third, we were energized,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I’m not so sure they were because they got stung twice here. It does have an effect.”
“That’s the game-changer, I think, today,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s always hard when you give up the goals at the end of the period.”
“It’s tough. They’re deflating,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said.
But Cooper felt the game was swung when the Lightning’s 2-1 lead was erased after their top line failed to convert a 3-on-1, and Devante Smith-Pelly, a fourth-liner for the Capitals, tied the game on another odd-man rush.
“The odd-man rush we had and didn’t do absolutely anything with it other than turn it over, and it ended up in the back of our net. That’s where the game swung,” he said. “We were up 2-1, and it ended up 2-2. If you do something with that rush, it goes 3-1, who knows where that game goes after that. So that’s where it changed.”
That there were multiple candidates from this game for most demoralizing moment is telling. The Capitals haven’t just taken the first two games of this series; they’ve taken away the very identity of the Lightning, leaving them flustered.
“They look like they’re frustrated a little but over there,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “We’ve got to keep playing hard, keep playing fast and stay on them.”
As they limp to D.C. for Game 3 on Tuesday, facing a seemingly unstoppable Capitals team and a ticking clock on their playoff run, one question overshadows all others: Who are the Tampa Bay Lightning?
“Let’s see who we really are,” Stamkos said. “We haven’t had to really deal with [adversity] so far in the playoffs. Now we are, so we’ll see what type of team we are.”
Or what team the Capitals will allow them to be.