TAMPA, Fla. — Well, things don’t look good for the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s the takeaway from a 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, and there aren’t many ways to dress this up. There will be at least two more games in Canada. A rally can happen. This isn’t over yet.
But living beyond this round looks a whole lot harder now.
Game 2 of these Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Tampa Bay Times Forum was strange. The night began with energy for the Lightning. They had eight shots about seven minutes after the puck dropped. They finished with 11 in the first period after totaling 16 in regulation in Game 1. The crowd was pumped, with most fans wearing t-shirts to "white out" Montreal. Things looked good.
Then the second period came, and everything went flat. It was like a balloon deflated, then popped. First, there was a power-play goal from center David Desharnais. Then winger Rene Bourque scored on an athletic move that beat defenseman Sami Salo and goaltender Anders Lindback, who missed a poke save. There was no serious threat afterward.
"This is not ideal," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "This is not what we wanted."
But this is what the Lightning face, and the feeling is awkward. Cooper and his players said all the right things after the game. They said they are confident that they can recover. Center Steven Stamkos said these first two games are a "lesson learned." Winger Ryan Callahan said if they win Game 3, it’s a brand-new series.
Still, this must be a shock for the Lightning. Their four regular-season matchups with the Canadiens were close. They won three of the games, two either by overtime or a shootout, and no team had enjoyed a lead larger than two goals before Friday. This result felt like an outlier.
Problem is, outliers count in the postseason. Per the NHL, teams that have fallen behind 2-0 have rallied to advance just 37 times out of the 291 series in which this deficit has happened. Montreal has been the superior team so far. Tampa Bay has dug this hole, largely because of sloppy play, and the Canadiens have been opportunistic.
So life doesn’t look good for the Lightning with this series ready to shift north. As expected, they don’t want to hear it.
"The main message is for us to just believe and stick together here and, obviously, try to keep the series going," Stamkos said.
Lightning players held a meeting in the dressing room after the game, so that message Stamkos talks about should have been delivered with pointed words. The players who spoke to reporters didn’t look broken or beaten down. Of course, they weren’t happy. But they weren’t ready to wave a white flag just yet.
"We’re scrapping a lot," Cooper said. "I’m confident in our group."
That confidence must translate to wins soon. Before the game, Cooper refused to call Game 2 a "must-win" scenario. Instead, he called it one "we need."
It was interesting wordplay, but it was his way of taking pressure off his team.
Well, Game 3 will be a "must-win." It’s possible to win. It’s hard to believe, even with top goaltender Ben Bishop out with a left elbow injury, that Montreal is three goals better than Tampa Bay. These teams are too similar. It feels like this series should go at least six games.
But the Lightning must prove it. Now.
It’s easy to make the argument that they have underachieved in these games at home. They were fortunate to push the Canadiens to overtime in Game 1. They were unable to bottle the aggression from Friday’s first period and have it carry over to the second and third. These were missed chances.
"I know it’s cliché, but you focus on that Game 3," Callahan said. "That’s all you can control. These two are behind us."
These two games should be shredded and buried in the mind of anyone who wears a bolt. For them, the series must begin in Montreal. For them, they must find some way to stop the Canadiens from scoring at least four goals a game. For them, they must find some way to slip the puck past Carey Price and make him look human, much like they did Wednesday. It’s possible.
But there’s no time to delay. The end of Game 2 made Game 3’s urgency more obvious. After Bourque’s second goal, which happened late in the third period to make the score 4-0, Montreal fans chanted and twirled those white t-shirts like they were rally towels. The Lightning’s home had become the Canadiens’ haven.
"It’s a game of breaks," Cooper said, "and I thought they got the breaks they needed, and we didn’t."
The Lightning must change their fortunes fast. They must return the favor in Montreal.