After Game 5 loss, Lightning know mental blunders have to go
TAMPA, Fla. -- The night began as Big Ben's return. It ended as a big letdown.
To start, Ben Bishop skated on the ice at Amalie Arena to a massive roar after a mystery injury kept the Tampa Bay Lightning's top goaltender out of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. To end, he slid away with the rest of his team after a massive missed opportunity to draw within one victory of a title.
Bishop wasn't perfect Saturday in Tampa Bay's 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a result that will give a wild Windy City crowd a chance to huff and puff and blow the Lightning's season out Monday in Game 6 at the United Center. But don't blame him. Don't blame a fluky first-period collision with defenseman Victor Hedman near the circle that resulted in winger Patrick Sharp's goal. Don't blame Bishop's overall effort -- 27 saves on 29 shots -- after the execution in front of him was sloppy too often.
"We made a couple more mistakes than they did," Bishop said, "and they capitalized on their chances."
For a day that began with so many questions about Tampa Bay's goaltender situation, there aren't many lingering reasons to wonder why the Lightning find themselves down 3-2 in this best-of-seven series. They played undisciplined, even lethargic at times. After they tied the score at one in the second period on center Valtteri Filppula's goal, there were too few prime pushes on goaltender Corey Crawford in the third. Business was left undone.
Big Ben needed bigger around him. Now the Lightning feel a large wall pressed against their backs.
"We've been in this position before just a month and a half ago in the Detroit series," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, referring to the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in which Tampa Bay won Games 6 and 7 to advance. "This team has found a way. That's why we are where we are right now. We've been in so many different situations during this playoffs, whether we've been up 3-2, or down 3-2, we've gone through this now."
Life didn't have to be this way. Tampa Bay's first period was unacceptable. The Blackhawks outshot the Lightning 14-5, but that discrepancy only reveals some of the warts. Tampa Bay was loose with its passing and ineffective with its offensive execution, both curious developments given the setting and timing of this matchup.
There were two off days between Games 4 and 5. The Lightning, at points, played like they were dragging through the second leg of a back-to-back assignment. It's possible to survive a stumble like this in December. Not in June.
Here's a dose of reality: Tampa Bay lost its seventh home game of these Stanley Cup playoffs. The Lightning dropped eight regulation contests at Amalie Arena throughout the entire regular season.
Home sweet home?
More like, "What gives?"
"Obviously, you're not going to play great every shift," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "We came into the room (after the first period) and were fortunate probably only being down one. We had a chance to come back. We did, we tied it. We go from there. It's not easy out there. We'll find a way to regroup like we always have this year. We've got no choice right now."
Yes, the choice is simple for Tampa Bay: Either avoid more lapses in execution and scratch out a victory Monday in Chicago or see the Blackhawks place an unwanted postscript on the Lightning's season.
Close but not good enough.
Tampa Bay still has time to write its own historic ending, but its margin of error is gone. Frankly, Bishop played well enough for the Lightning to win Saturday, but one goal of support doesn't cut it. It's no coincidence that Tampa Bay has managed just a single score in each of its losses in this series.
The Lightning need more from Stamkos, who had one shot in Game 5. They need more from center Tyler Johnson, who had one. They need more from center Alex Killorn, who had two.
There may be a temptation to wonder if the Lightning could have won had reserve goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy played, if The Collision from the first period hadn't happened, if the play between the pipes had been tighter.
Forget it. Focus elsewhere.
When a razor-thin difference determines so much, like it has in all five games of this Stanley Cup Final, all parts must be as sharp as possible.
On Saturday, the Lightning were too dull at key points. They had a chance to earn a large victory within the warm comfort of home. Instead, a big task awaits them on the road, where the temperature by Lake Michigan will feel a bit chilled.