TAMPA, Fla. — There’s one way to recall this one: Oh-so close. You count the missed chances in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday, the inches that separated defeat from victory, lick your wounds and recover for Game 2. Friday, there will be another test at Tampa Bay Times Forum. The Tampa Bay Lightning can fly to Canada with this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series even at one game.
But they were oh-so close to a steal.
What were you thinking when this headed to overtime? A black-and-white look at what happened in the first three periods suggested the Lightning were fortunate to be alive. They were outshot 35-16. Montreal produced constant pressure against goaltender Anders Lindback.
Still, center Steven Stamkos scored two goals. Winger Nikita Kucherov and center Alex Killorn added one each. The Lightning made the Canadiens sweat.
"It’s a little hard right now," Lindback said, after allowing the game-winning goal to winger Dale Weise 18:08 into overtime. "I’ve usually got to take a moment to sit down and reflect and see something when you’re watching (the replay). But obviously right now, I’m just disappointed we didn’t win."
There should be disappointment. This was a heavyweight fight that went blow for blow from the moment the puck was dropped. The loser, no matter if he wore blue or white, was going to feel deflated. This was typical playoff hockey: Tough, scrappy, a game with scars.
How could anyone be surprised?
The four games between Montreal and Tampa Bay this season were as close as they come. The Lightning won the series 3-0-1, but that record is deceiving. One victory came in a shootout, another in overtime, and one of the goals in a 3-1 triumph happened with an empty net.
Anyone who has followed the Atlantic Division knew these teams were like twin brothers, with near identical height and weight, slugging it out for attention. They look so much alike, with Tampa Bay earning 101 points in the regular season to Montreal’s 100. You must squint to tell the difference.
"I think at the beginning, we might have been a little too excited — just scared to make plays and stuff like that," Killorn said. "But as the game wore on, we handled it pretty well."
That’s a fair assessment. Though little separates the Lightning from the Canadiens, some have dubbed them the plucky team from Florida against Canada’s storied franchise — the former king that has won 24 Stanley Cup titles, though none since 1993. Some wondered if this moment is too big for Tampa Bay’s youngest members.
The Lightning are green, but they can win this series. The Canadiens are beatable. Near-misses like Wednesday, when they could have won with fewer mistakes, will make them tougher and more aware. The Lightning have played far better in recent months. Wednesday, they nearly committed robbery.
"We had our chances to win the game, and we didn’t," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Could we have played better? Yeah, of course this wasn’t our best game."
So a checklist for Friday should be this: Clean up the silly turnovers, create more sustained pressure on goaltender Carey Price, cut down on the threats to Lindback, don’t allow Wednesday’s letdown to become Friday’s defeat. All are doable.
This is an interesting test for the Lightning. Their dressing room was quiet Wednesday night. The upbeat music that was a staple after practices the past two days was silenced. There were long faces from Stamkos, Killorn and Lindback. The bitter feeling was clear.
"Whatever happens in a game happens," Stamkos said. "Obviously, I try to make plays and produce out there. Obviously, it wasn’t good enough tonight."
No, it wasn’t good enough tonight. But a loss like this doesn’t have to be a dead-end, a reason to worry about days to come. The Lightning should be encouraged that they were pushed around for much of three periods yet were a bounce here or there from victory.
This will sting. It should. But it’s not the season’s end. They call it a best-of-seven series for a reason. Any educated follower knows Montreal and Tampa Bay are too alike not to fight for at least five, six, seven games. This will go far.
"We kept shooting ourselves in the foot time and time again," Cooper said.
Cooper knows that these are the playoffs. Self-infliction can’t happen often. The margin for error in these games is too small, too unforgiving. The Lightning must play better Friday.
So you chalk this up to one that got away. There are precious few seconds to sulk in should-have-been dreams. There’s one way to recover after a game like Wednesday’s. You consider how close you were and prepare for the next fight.