Blake Coleman and the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to have to focus on having faster starts to games if they’re going to count on enjoying better finishes against the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final.
A Lightning team that led the NHL in scoring for a third straight season is suddenly having difficulty generating an early spark. Tampa Bay hasn’t led in regulation in three straight games, and given up the opening goal in six straight outings.
“You don’t want to put yourself behind the 8-ball that frequently,” Coleman said Sunday, a day after the Lightning sleep-walked through two periods of a series-opening 4-1 loss.
“You can’t afford to be caught sleeping in the first period. I think we came out a little tentative and sluggish, and then our play was a little sloppy,” he added. “Obviously, work on our start.”
And fast, given that the NHL’s condensed playoff schedule features Game 2 on Monday, followed by Game 3, Tuesday.
Fatigue is an issue for the Lightning, who played their seventh game in 13 days, and following one day of rest after eliminating the New York Islanders in overtime to clinch the Eastern Conference final on Saturday.
Tampa Bay looked unprepared in facing the hard-hitting, tight-forechecking Stars, who were coming off a four-day break. After trading goals in the opening period, Dallas struck twice in the second, before the Lightning found their legs in out-shooting Dallas 22-2 over the final 20 minutes.
It was hardly enough, with Anton Khudobin stopping 35 shots and continuing to build on what’s been a revelatory postseason for the journeyman backup starting in place of Ben Bishop.
“We knew what we were up against. We were just shooting ourselves a little in the foot,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Give them credit, they got to the strength of their game more than we did.”
One glimmer of hope is the growing possibility of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos nearing his playoff debut after missing six-plus months since having surgery to repair a core muscle injury. Stamkos has been practicing with the team, and even took the ice to celebrate the Lightning winning the East title.
Coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos “is inching his way closer,” but declined to specify whether he’d be available for Game 2.
“I guess there’s always a chance, but as of now, I don’t think so,” Cooper said. “But that’s why you’ve got to tune in and find out.”
Stars coach Rick Bowness, a former Lightning assistant under Cooper, fully appreciates the difference Stamkos can make.
“Listen, he’s a great player. He changes the whole look on the power play, so that’s a big factor,” Bowness said. “We’re expecting him to play at some point, and we’ll just have to see how he’s utilized. But immediately, you’re concerned with the impact he’ll have on their power play.”
The Lightning can use a boost.
Their power play has fizzled in going 0 of 14 in the past four games, and their leading scorers are suddenly slumping — and limping.
Brayden Point has a goal and assist in his last four games, while missing two with an undisclosed injury. Nikita Kucherov, who leads the playoffs with 26 points (six goals, 20 assists), has managed just four assists in his past five.
The Stars, who blocked 26 shots and had 50 hits in Game 1, have shown a knack for flustering their opponents. It began from the opening faceoff, with Dallas players delivering hits on Point.
Defenseman Zach Bogosian came to Point’s defense and wound up being out of position on Joel Hanley’s opening goal. Pat Maroon showed his frustration by firing the puck into the Stars bench at the end of the second period, which resulted in a 10-minute misconduct.
Dallas forward Jason Dickinson saw how effective the Stars were in wearing down the Lightning.
“You can see it out there, guys get frustrated, they’re slumping their shoulders, they’re slamming their sticks, they’re slamming doors,” Dickinson said.
“Is our goal to frustrate them? No. Our goal is to stop them from creating chances, and frustrating them is just an effect of that,” he added. “Obviously, it’s going to have an impact on their mentality and morale. But we’re just going out there trying to play our game.”
The Lightning are counting on their ability to bounce back. They’ve yet to lose consecutive games this postseason, and responded to win four straight after losing Game 1 of their second-round series to Boston.
“Some of the games we lost, we felt we were our own worst enemies,” Cooper said. “We felt we made some errors, and other teams have capitalized on them. That’s what happens in the best league in the world. We look at it. We move forward. The group’s dialed in. I expect better tomorrow.”