The Tampa Bay Lightning boarded a plane bound for Washington D.C. Monday afternoon not knowing what their season will look when they return home later this week. A 6-2 defeat Sunday night in Game 2 put them in a 2-0 hole against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final. It’s an outcome that many did not expect to see.
But as you would expect, there weren’t any white towels being waved by Lightning players; more that they were looking for answers while also knowing what they need to do in order to turn the series around.
They need more speed on the forecheck. They have to find ways to beat the Capitals’ 1-1-3 formation in the neutral zone. Their 5-on-5 play needs to improve having been outshot 53-40 at even strength and seeing three of their four goals in the series come on the power play. When they’ve made good zone entries, shot attempts have almost been one-and-done and then they’re back on their heels defending a transition the other way.
Through two games, the Capitals are dominating possession (57 percent Fenwick) and living in and around Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“He’s been awesome for us all year. He’s made a lot of good saves in this series, too,” said forward Brayden Point. “We just have to do a better job in front of him.”
Everything that worked against the the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins through two rounds hasn’t caused a breakthrough versus the Capitals. So the mentality has to be as head coach Jon Cooper laid it out: When you control that high that comes when you’re having success, the same can be done when that success goes away. It’s the first to four wins, not two.
For only the second time since Cooper took over in 2013, the Lightning are facing a multi-game deficit in a playoff series. The last time it happened was his first postseason with the team in 2014 when they were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. And now history is against them. According to the NHL, since 1975 teams grabbing a 2-0 series lead in the conference finals/semifinals have a 39-2 record.
“It’s hard to explain. If you could, maybe we wouldn’t be down 0-2,” Cooper said. “But it’s quick, it goes fast. It’s within 48 hours, the series is two games over, and we’re on the wrong side of that. And so can you judge how a team has played in the playoffs over the last 48 hours or over the last month? Over the last month, we’ve played pretty darned well. We got ourselves to the final four. Haven’t had a last good 48 hours, and we’ve got to fix that.”
Tampa has had success on the road in the regular season and in four games in the playoffs. Game 3 (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) inside Capital One Arena is a chance for the Lightning to get back to the form that got them to this point. Road games are an easy opportunity for teams to keep things simple and get away from — in their situation, at least — a nervous building facing the prospect of an 0-3 deficit.
The Lightning’s core group have played plenty of hockey this deep into the season before and understand wins are harder to come by as the stakes rise. That’s why Cooper found the response to the Game 2 defeat encouraging and a reason for optimism ahead of, as Victor Hedman put it, the “biggest game of the year.”
“I’m just confident in our group. They’ve got 113 points for a reason. 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.
“Just the mood in the room after the game, it wasn’t — it wasn’t depression, it was more kind of an anger of we want to get back — like let’s get Game 3 going here, so that was good to see.”