TAMPA, Fla. — After a need to sweep away a bad memory replaced the hopes of a series sweep he carried into Thursday night, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper understood his young team remains imperfect with room to grow.
"Everything is a learning experience. Everything is new for us," he said. "We’ve never been up 3-0. We’ve never been down three games to two. … They’re great experiences for our guys. I know we have much more in us."
They better show it in a hurry.
Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens awoke from their eight-game slumber against the Lightning and roared back with a 6-2 rout at Amalie Arena in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Canadiens, as expected, played with bite to earn their first victory over the Lightning this season and force a Game 5 on Saturday at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens, as expected, showed the urgency of a wounded predator after the Lightning earned a thrilling Game 3 victory Wednesday off Tyler Johnson’s stick with 1.1 seconds left.
But the Lightning, for all but brief flashes Thursday, had the appearance of Sunday morning after a wild Saturday night. Their hair stood frazzled, their breath smelled and they stumbled around in a stupor throughout most of the first two periods, all while watching the Canadiens build a 5-0 lead. This was ugly.
For all the talk Thursday morning about matching Montreal’s intensity, for all the chatter about meeting the challenge and answering Cooper’s call to play sharper than their Game 3 effort, the Lightning produced a dud.
"We’ve got to be better," Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos said. "We’ve got to be sharper. Just coming to compete, we’ve been passive these last couple games. So as a team, we’ll address that and just be better next game."
The reason there’s a next game at all is because the Lightning paid for lackadaisical execution. Call it physical fatigue. Call it mental wear after being forced to take the ice on consecutive days because of a scheduling quirk.
Whatever the reason for the result Thursday, the bottom line is this: Tampa Bay remains in a comfortable position with a 3-1 series lead, but there are plenty of teaching moments for Cooper to choose from before the puck drops again. The last thing the Lightning should want in returning to Tampa after Game 5 is the Canadiens nipping at their heels.
"We’ve just got to hit the reset button here," Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said.
Where to start on the reset?
For the second consecutive night, the Canadiens owned a comfortable shot advantage, this time out-firing the Lightning 40-24. Bishop, meanwhile, had his worst game of the series, as evidenced by Cooper’s desire to pull him for Andrei Vasilevskiy in the second period after three goals were allowed on 14 shots. And Tampa Bay’s offensive attack had the teeth of a fly as Montreal built its massive cushion.
Sure, the Lightning won one of two games at Amalie Arena this week, and that victory will remain a standout memory if Tampa Bay advances to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2011. But it’s easy to make the argument that the Canadiens, not the guys in blue, were better in at least four of the six periods here.
Now Montreal has reason to believe it can continue its momentum at home.
So Game 5 will stand as a key moment in Tampa Bay’s evolution. The Lightning, before this round, had never held a 3-0 series lead under Cooper. They must learn to develop a kill bite. They failed Thursday, and the longer they delay in finishing off the Canadiens, the more life Montreal will gain.
History, of course, stands in Tampa Bay’s corner. One-hundred eighty teams have faced a 3-0 deficit in the NHL postseason, and only four have lived to advance. Frankly, it would be stunning if the Canadiens topped the Lightning four straight times after losing the first eight meetings between these teams this season.
Still, until Montreal loses its pulse, Tampa Bay’s work remains undone.
"Things happen in the course of a game," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "I think we try to prepare the same way. Everyone is giving 100 percent when they’re on the ice. Physical mistakes happen. We need to calm down on the mental ones."
As Boyle spoke, "Passports!!!" was written in blue marker near the top of a white dry-erase board in the front of the Lightning’s dressing room. Instead of earning rest before starting the next step in their Stanley Cup chase, they’re booked for another trip north. Instead of gaining peace of mind that they ended a rival’s season, their mission stands incomplete.
This was no night for a broom. Instead, as far as the Lightning are concerned, a dustpan to dump this memory will do.