Monday night’s embarrassing loss in Game One to the Toronto Maple Leafs wasn’t a surprise. It was an expected result given the Tampa Bay Lightning’s inconsistency throughout the season. At their best, the Lightning can beat anyone; however, too often this season; they’ve failed to maintain that level of play. Careless mistakes, boneheaded decisions, and an inability to snap out of it have been there since day one of the regular season. It’s too soon to rule them out of the series, but the Lightning has dug themselves an ugly early hole to start their chase for a three-peat championship.
Game One was a culmination of two main aspects:
- Toronto unleashed years of frustration in one of the franchise's best games ever played. It wouldn’t have mattered who they went up against; the Maple Leafs were going to make a statement—Tampa Bay just happened to be their victim.
- Tampa Bay has not shown any semblance of consistency for more than four-to-five games at a time this season. Sure, that can turn into a run, but the same issues that plagued them during the regular season came up on nearly every goal in Game One.
Yet, at the same time, it’s only one game, and we’ve seen the Lightning have a stinker in a series before and come back. One shouldn’t have that level of blind optimism given the team’s play this season, but a benefit of the doubt is always warranted for a team that has shown it can win in any way like the Lightning.
That doesn’t change the fact that this Lightning team has little to no margin of error if they want to pull off a feat the NHL hasn’t seen in 40 years.
That said, Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn’t lambast his team after a dismal Game One, he gave a standard lawyer-esque response after the game.
“I’m not so sure they had to play particularly well to beat us tonight,” said Cooper. “You’ve got to win four, and you don’t want to give teams any freebies, and we probably gave them a little bit of a freebie tonight. I think it’s hard to judge either team tonight.”
Cooper is correct that Toronto didn’t have to play well to win last night. The Leafs could have brought their C-game, and they still would have slapped the Lightning decisively. That’s how bad Tampa Bay’s opening game was, and the culprits were littered throughout the lineup.
Mikhail Sergachev looks like an entirely different player this season, in the worst way possible. He’s been careless with the puck all season, and his positioning looks to have regressed. Last night, he gifted Mitch Marner a near sure goal early in the first period after failing to make a D-to-D pass behind the goal line properly. He took two ugly penalties that led to goals that should have never happened if he had been in the proper position. He struggled to keep up with Toronto’s skaters and was detrimental to Tampa Bay’s usually strong transition game. Whether it’s a confidence issue is unclear, but Sergachev has been a liability on the backend for most of the 2021-2022 season, and the Lightning needs him to be the player he was in the past two seasons.
Nikita Kucherov, as gifted as he is, reverted to his sulking demeanor after a rough first period. He still generated good chances because he’s that talented, but Kucherov is at his best when he is a silent assassin. A player that can’t be affected by bad breaks or physicality. When Kucherov is off his game, he can appear petulant, disengaged, and overly obsessed with making bizarre passes that create turnovers. That Kucherov cannot be the one who shows up in this series. He’s shown over two spectacular playoff runs what he is capable of, but Game One was a reversion.
Brayden Point continues to look as if he is struggling with some kind of injury. His maintenance days leading up to the regular season’s conclusion brought attention to it, and his overall play in the first game only magnified it. Cooper shifting Point to the wing to alleviate defensive responsibilities on him signals that we’re not getting the best version of him. Given their center depth, Tampa Bay can afford to do this, but Point is at his best when centering a line and driving play.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made some key stops early in the game, but the defensive play in front of him left him out to dry far too often. There are only so many odd-man rushes or breakaways any goaltender can stop, and it’s difficult to parse Vasilevskiy’s performance given those circumstances.
Victor Hedman is Tampa Bay’s anchor defensively, but the storied defenseman had a rough outing in Game 1. His bizarre decision that led to David Kampf’s shorthanded goal to make it 3-0 Toronto is the most significant outlier, but Hedman looked off all game. He wasn’t his usual game-changing self and appeared to be chasing. The Lightning needs Hedman to be the best defender on the ice, and he wasn't on Monday night.
To his credit, the Big Swede doesn’t appear to be phased after a poor start to their postseason.
“You’ve got to be able to shut out the outside noise and focus on our own group,” Hedman said. “You lose a game; it’s going to be, ‘How do you react to that?’”
Even with all of the issues that plagued the Lightning on Monday night, the most significant turning point came from their inability to capitalize on Toronto’s penalties. Specifically, Kyle Clifford’s immeasurably stupid major penalty for hitting Ross Colton in the back that gave Tampa Bay a five-minute power-play early in the first period.
Tampa Bay’s zone entries were atrocious, their neutral zone transition failed to adapt, they lost every puck battle, and they had no answer for Toronto’s aggressiveness. The Lightning utterly wasted a golden opportunity to gain some momentum and pressure Toronto’s defense. Instead, it was the Leafs who generated more shots, chances, and momentum for what was one of the best penalty kill sequences I’ve ever seen.
“Some plays that were clicking in the last stretch of the season were hitting a stick, hitting a skate,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “It could have been a really different game if we had scored early on that, so it was a missed opportunity.”
How does Tampa Bay react? Categorically, they got their asses handed to them by a hungry Leafs team that wants to shed their half-decade of playoff failure. Game One showed Toronto was willing to step up and make a statement. Now, it’s up to the Lightning to respond and remind the Leafs there is a reason they’re the two-time defending champions.
“We’ve been on both sides of this fence. It’s about keeping yourself together,” Cooper said. “The series, it never goes your way the whole time. When adversity hits, how are you going to handle it? We’ve had history in the last couple years where we’ve been able to handle it. In 2019, it broke us. We learned from that. Just because you’ve gone through it, it doesn’t mean, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before.’ It’s still hard work. And that’s what our group has been good at. They understand the work they have to put in.”
That hard work starts in the defensive zone, where the Lightning failed to make anything challenging for the high-flying Leafs.
“We need to get back to our identity as far as keeping the puck out of our net,” said Ryan McDonagh. “They had some odd-man rushes, some breakaways. That’s not winning hockey.”
We’ll see how Tampa Bay responds, but the underlying issues will continue to happen unless the players start doing the little things correctly. That’s what led them to two consecutive Stanley Cups.
“It’s going to be a long, long series,” said Stamkos.
Game Two is on Wednesday.