Following a 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning seemed to lose sight of the things that have made them so successful in the postseason the last two years. Leaving shooting lanes wide open from the point, defensive breakdowns and sloppy turnovers leading to odd-man rushes were just a few of the things they struggled with on Wednesday night. Quite simply, it was a mess. That doesn’t mean that the sky is falling or that the series is over after just one game because, in fact, it was just one game. This is a familiar hole Tampa has dug for themselves in the past, but not one so drastic that they can’t find a way out of it.
After being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019, the Lightning have not lost back-to-back playoff games. In fact, out of the 10 straight series they’ve won, they have found themselves down 1-0 in four of those series – vs. the Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars in 2020, vs. the New York Islanders in 2021, and vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2022. Two of those series (Islanders and Maple Leafs) went the full seven games but the Lightning emerged victorious both times.
To take it even further, since the first round against the Blue Jackets in the 2020 Bubble, the Lightning have won 16 consecutive games following a loss in the playoffs. Not only that, but they are allowing just 1.625 goals per game in those wins after allowing 3.8 goals per game in the losses preceding those victories – including four of the 16 where they allowed five or more goals.
You could see Nikita Kucherov visibly frustrated throughout the game as he was unable to capitalize on opportunities to score against Igor Shesterkin. This, like the losses, is nothing new. He has a propensity to become frustrated and disengaged at times but tends to bounce back the following game. Over the last three postseasons, he has 81 points and a plus/minus of plus-19. If it weren’t for Andrei Vasilevskiy’s outstanding play in net during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kucherov is likely the Conn Smythe winner. He’s sitting at 15 points this postseason and looking for his third consecutive of 30-plus points. Coming off of those 16 losses, he has 29 points, which translates to 1.8 points per game, and has scored in all but two of those games. When the chips are down for the Lightning, he finds a new gear and reminds everyone that he’s one of the best players in the game.
There’s no question that Shesterkin was outstanding in Game 1 while Vasilevskiy struggled with little help in front of him. That’s what a long rest period will do to a team, but especially a goalie. You would be hard-pressed to find a goaltender in the NHL that responds as well or as quickly as he does – and don’t think for one moment the “Igor’s better” chants won’t give him some added motivation for Game 2. Allowing more goals in Game 1 than he did in the entire second round is not going to sit well with arguably the best goalie in the world.
Lightning Need “Inspiring” Defense In Game 2
The New York Rangers are the best shot-blocking team in the playoffs, blocking 249 shots in 15 games. They put that on full display in Game 1, sliding into shooting lanes and taking open looks away from players like Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman on multiple occasions. This is what the Lightning have done so well over their Cup runs and they failed to do so on Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden.
The Lightning have blocked 199 shots this postseason – 16.5 blocks per game – but they were not quick to get to the shooting lanes the same way they were against the Florida Panthers. Players were losing their defensive assignments and leaving wide-open shooters and lanes to pepper Vasilevskiy all day. And when they did finally gain possession of the puck in their defensive zone, they couldn’t clear it – most notably Anthony Cirelli failing to clear the puck when the Rangers had nearly two minutes of offensive zone time, leading to Filip Chytil’s second goal of the second period to put New York up 4-2. They have to return to the sacrificial style of defensive hockey that Stamkos called “inspiring.”
The other issue is the giveaways. The Lightning played sloppy hockey and gave up multiple odd-man rushes – two of them leading to goals within the first 90 seconds of the first and third periods. They finished with 28 giveaways in Game 1 and that’s far too many against a team as opportunistic and fast as the Rangers. Even when they had the “big guns” out, so to speak, Kucherov and Stamkos each had some awful giveaways while Hedman had trouble getting the puck under control and setting up the offense. Instead, there were neutral zone giveaways for long stretches and giveaways when trying to escape the defensive zone, like the one by Cirelli.
We know how good the Lightning are at stretch passes, creating seams, and finding each other on the ice – but those opportunities were taken away by the Rangers’ outstanding closing speed and ability to read where Tampa was about to go with the puck. Credit to the Rangers, but they also didn’t look nearly as crisp or fluid as Tampa’s offense typically does.
It’s a Long Series
We’ve seen time and time again this Lightning team bounce back and play their style of hockey. Now, two streaks are on the line – Tampa’s 16 consecutive wins following a loss and New York’s seven-game home winning streak. Something has to give and if the Lightning come out on top in Game 2, they will steal home-ice advantage and head home to potentially take a commanding lead in the series. If the Rangers are able to do what no team has done since 2019 and give the Lightning back-to-back losses, then Tampa will find themselves having to win four out of five against the hottest goalie in the NHL and a team that seems to believe that it’s finally their time.
James has been covering sports – primarily the NFL and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – for nearly ten years. In addition to covering the Tampa Bay Lightning for The Hockey Writers, he is currently the co-host of the Locked On Bucs podcast and YouTube show and writes for various NFL outlets. When he isn’t writing or podcasting, he is focused on his son’s hockey schedule with the Jr Miami Redhawks. He currently resides in Dayton, Ohio with his wife and four sons.