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Lightning back off, into a loss

TAMPA, Fla. – This was just plain bizarre. The Tampa Bay Lightning tried to go total rope a dope – against the Chicago Blackhawks, of all teams – for an entire third period Wednesday night. It’s Game One of the Stanley Cup final and you’re sitting back trying to protect a 1-0 lead?

That’s playing not to lose. At this point, you play to win. The Blackhawks have proven that over and over.

Let the Blackhawks stay close and they find a way. It happened again Wednesday in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay that, as openers go, has to rate as an absolute crusher for the Lightning. Tuevo Teravainen scored with 6:32 to play to get the Hawks even and Antoine Vermette won it on a screened shot with 4:34 to go.

Those are the vitals that leave the Lightning with a ton to think about prior to Game Two here Saturday night.

The Blackhawks outshot Tampa Bay by only 8-5 in the third period – but shot attempts were 21-9 and Tampa Bay hardly pushed into the zone at all. It made no sense after the Lightning had 18 shots on goal and 36 attempts through two periods.

“We didn’t make plays. We didn’t create any zone time,” said Tampa captain Steven Stamkos. “We were just giving them the puck and letting them make plays. They got a bounce and a seeing eye shot. It wasn’t like they did anything spectacular. We just sat back a little bit too much.

“We didn’t have much pressure and gave up too much time and space. It was chips and flips and getting rid of the puck, not making the confident plays we made in the past.”

Tampa Bay’s first shot on goal came with 8:22 left and it was a doozy. Ryan Callahan had a clear breakaway but Corey Crawford stoned him and that kept the Hawks alive.

Teravainen then made two great plays, first firing at the net through traffic to tie the game and then stripping J.T. Brown of the puck in the Tampa zone and feeding Vermette for the winner. Vermette, the trade acquisition from Arizona who landed as a healthy scratch in the Western Conference final against Anaheim, now has two game-winners in the Hawks’ last five games.

“I played against them quite a bit knowing there’s a lot of pride and character in this room,” Vermette said. “You’ve got to keep battling no matter what. It’s nice to be on that side. That was a great illustration with the way we try to play, establish our speed and move our feet, especially in their end.”

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper didn’t want to hear much about his team sitting back, even though it was the theme of his players’ talk in the dressing room.

“I thought we hung in there. Sometimes you’ve got to get more than one,” Cooper said. “If we’re going to give up two in a game, we should have a chance to win. Tonight we played almost a half-ice game. Against a team like Chicago, we can’t let them keep coming at us like we did. Still, reel off the grade A’s they had. It’s not like oh my god, it’s like they had chance after chance after chance.”

Point taken. Jonathan Toews had one shot on goal in the game. Patrick Kane had none in the final 40 minutes after three in the first period. Chicago forwards had just 14 in total for the game.

And it’s true the Lightning lost Game One against both Detroit and the New York Rangers, too. History was against Chicago, though, as Tampa was 9-0 when leading after two periods in the postseason and no road team had won a game in the final when trailing after two periods since New Jersey won at Dallas in Game Four in 2000.

Amalie Arena was just a complete nut house at the start of this, a spectacular atmosphere for the first final game here since the Lightning hoisted the Cup in Game Seven nearly 11 years ago against Calgary. Protecting your home ice is a pretty basic tenet in the NHL and the Lightning did it better than anyone during the NHL regular season.

So it’s been strange how the Lightning have oddly lost their mojo in the Sunshine State during the playoffs.

The Lightning are just 5-6 at home in the playoffs – including four games that they’ve lost by four goals – and 7-3 on the road.

It’s a weird turnaround for a Tampa team that was 32-8-1 at home during the regular season for the best record in the league but had an 18-16-7 road mark that was the worst among all playoff teams.

Nothing calms the nerves and gets the crowd even more whipped up than an early goal. And Alex Killorn provided it for the Lightning with an ooh-and-ah special at 4:31 of the first, back-handing a puck out of mid air and bouncing it past Corey Crawford.

The kid from Harvard worked over the puck like he was acing an exam in advanced physics. It was the first goal of the series and it’s one you might see on the highlight reels pretty much forever.

Tampa Bay was clearly hoping to make that one last 55 minutes. Bad thought. Stamkos seemed to foreshadow lead protection with his words in the morning.

“It seems on the road we’re OK with it being a 0-0 game or one-goal game,” he said. “We take that on the road. … It doesn’t need to be a show just because we’re at home. We just have to find a way to win.”

Being fine with a tighter approach is exactly what Cooper talked about for his team, which led the league in goals during the season.

“I don’t know if we take a more workmanlike approach to road games. We understand 0-0 is fine with us going into the third,” he said. “We’ll take a chances with our group. … Do we get caught up in our atmosphere and the crowd and everything that’s going on? We might. We’ve been a pretty free-wheeling group when we’ve been home.”

Nobody says the Lightning should have gone hog-wild in the third period. But sitting back and doing nothing got them nowhere either.


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