TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Lightning are back home after splitting the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, feeling good about themselves, though hardly satisfied.
“We’ve got to play better to win this series, there’s no doubt,” coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday, adding the team has yet to “put our best foot forward” against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I think now that we’ve played them two times, we know a little bit more what to expect,” Cooper added. “But I know we’ve got more in the tank than what we’ve showed.”
Game 3 is Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
“By no means am I sitting here saying: ‘Oh gosh we’re a way better team.’ Not at all. They have a lot to do with it as well,” Cooper said. “You don’t get to the conference final by fluke. They’ve got a really good team. There’s a reason they’ve had the best record since February, whatever it is, and they’re playing well.”
The Lightning have been one of the NHL’s most resilient teams during the playoffs, so they’re confident they have the resolve to bounce back from a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 2 to regain the edge in the best-of-seven matchup.
Cooper is more concerned with eliminating mistakes that have contributed to a lack of scoring opportunities, as well as playing better defense in front of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s filling in for injured starter Ben Bishop.
Bishop left Game 1 with a lower left leg injury and is day to day. And, although Cooper said he’s optimistic the Vezina Trophy finalist will be able to return at some point in the series, it doesn’t seem likely Wednesday.
Not that the Lightning lack confidence in Vasilevskiy, who had 38 saves in Game 2 on Monday night.
“I feel bad for Vasilevskiy. That kid just plays lights out for us every time, and we just haven’t played very well in front of him. We seem to hang him out to dry at times during games,” Cooper said.
“We limited a lot of chances in the second period, but the first and the third were just way too many chances against,” Cooper added. ” Clearly, he was the reason the game was so close.”
The young goaltender settled after allowing two early goals, giving Tampa Bay a chance to dump the Penguins into a 2-0 series hole until Sidney Crosby scored the first overtime playoff winner of his career just 40 seconds into the extra period.
“He was unreal … obviously the guy who kept us in it,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He’s been phenomenal.”
Crosby couldn’t have picked a better moment to snap a personal scoring drought.
The goal was his first since Game 4 of the opening round against the New York Rangers, a puzzling eight-game slump the Penguins hope is behind their star.
“To be in the playoffs … it’s a great opportunity, and to score and contribute, it feels good,” Crosby said. “But it’s one game, and whether you win 5-1 or 3-2 in overtime, it’s one win. So you’ve got to keep that in mind.”
Although Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said he didn’t detect any growing frustration within Crosby, he conceded it was good to see him finally find the back of the net.
“I think it’s a big boost for Sid,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s a big boost for our team.”
While Cooper stressed that Tampa Bay can play better, he doesn’t want anyone to get the impression that he’s disappointed in the way his team – who’s been without injured star Steven Stamkos the entire playoffs – has performed.
The Lightning, trying to reach the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year, advanced in five games in each of the first two rounds. And, they have yet to lose consecutive games this postseason.
“We’ve played our hearts out,” Cooper said. “We sit here today and we’re 9-3 in the playoffs. That’s as good a run as we’ve had in regular season. so it’s pretty tough to be hard on our guys. But in saying that, we have to have a better response (Wednesday night).”
Center Tyler Johnson agreed.
“Coming back 1-1, if you told us we were going to do that before (the series began), most of us would have taken that,” Johnson said. “It’s a good thing. But at the same time, we know we have to be better.”