Lightning’s chance for promising start instead yields to frustrating finish

TAMPA, Fla. — To start the night, there was the thunderous roar, the high hopes from the Amalie Arena crowd of grabbing the Eastern Conference Finals by the throat and an expectation that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s offense would rev to its familiar RPMs.

To end, Tampa Bay’s energy had long petered out with poor puck luck, and the lingering New York Rangers fans threw a party, their chants of "BIIIIISHOP!" and "HEN-RY!" hanging over the ice like a verbal fog.

To start the night, the Lightning had a chance to assert their will and grab a commanding 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.

To end, Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist skated off as rejuvenated stars, with the Rangers prepared to fly home packing positive vibes.

"We didn’t capitalize on our chances. They did," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said, appropriately capturing Game 4 in those eight words after New York’s 5-1 victory, a result that evened this series at two games apiece. "In the first two periods, we had some good looks. They just didn’t go in."

That thought seems simple, but hockey boils down to pushing the puck into the net however possible. The Lightning earned a franchise-high 108 points in the regular season because they succeeded in tallying goals with dangerous efficiency, closing with an NHL-best 3.16 per game. Then in this series, they made Lundqvist go as far as switching his locker with reserve goaltender Cam Talbot before Game 4 to try to mix things up after The King allowed six goals in both Game 2 and Game 3.

On Friday, though, it was as if the Lightning tried to shoot dice into a small round hole. Call it poor puck luck. Call it mind-bending missed opportunity. Call it frustrating misfire.

Whatever the label, the Lightning saw chance after chance in the first two periods come and go everywhere but in the back of the net.

There was Nikita Kucherov’s shot that sailed high. There was Tyler Johnson’s shot that smacked the cross bar. There were shots by Nikita Nesterov and Johnson that were snuffed near the goal in a fast sequence. There was Alex Killorn’s shot that missed despite space for him to work. There was Ryan Callahan’s shot that struck the cross bar as well.

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All of those pings and misses happened before Stamkos finally broke the spell with a laser past Lundqvist’s right arm 11:30 into the second period. Still, that spark proved to be well short of what was needed after the Rangers answered that score with goals from Chris Kreider, Keith Yandle, Marty St. Louis and Nash.

"I thought we deserved a little better, especially in the first 40 minutes," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said.

"We just couldn’t find the back of the net."

Because of those smaller missed opportunities — the Lightning outshot the Rangers 19-6 in the second period but began the third behind 3-1, for goodness’ sake — a larger chance slipped through Tampa Bay’s grasp. That’s the real meaning to be drawn from this night.

Above all, New York claimed a psychological victory Friday. Lundqvist, who finished with 38 saves, was given a reason to believe in himself again after Tampa Bay had toasted him so often this season. Ben Bishop, meanwhile, has allowed 10 goals combined in the past two games after surrendering that many in six contests against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

"It’s a funny game," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

"People are going to wake up in the morning and look at the box score and say, ‘Oh, wow, Tampa got waxed.’ But I think if you were in the building, you probably wouldn’t see it that way."

It’s a funny game all right. It can be unforgiving, too.

"It’s a best-of-three series right now," Killorn said. "I think we’d take that if you told us that earlier on. I think we’ve done well in that building (Madison Square Garden), and I think that’s going to be a good challenge for us."

Yes, the challenge will be there Sunday when the Lightning try to recapture their offensive mojo in Manhattan and climb within one game of the Stanley Cup Final. Their opportunity to claim control Friday was missed, and they can’t allow one blown chance to become another.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.