TAMPA, Fla. — Steven Stamkos is sitting in his practice stall, and the Tampa Bay Lightning captain is thinking: Was there anything he liked about his team’s Game 1 loss a night earlier against the visiting Washing Capitals?
“Hmm,” Stamkos says, after a Saturday afternoon off-day practice, “to be honest, it probably wasn’t a game where you look back—it might not have been as bad as you thought.
“But it wasn’t that great, either.”
If you ask fellow Lightning forward, Tyler Johnson, it was far from great. Very little went right in that 4-2 loss to the Capitals on Friday night at Amalie Arena. “We didn’t do anything we wanted to do,” says Johnson, the Spokane, Wash.-born forward, who assisted on Tampa’s second goal on Friday. “We didn’t stick to our game plan.
“And quite frankly, it was probably one of our worst games.”
Well, it was either not as bad as they thought, or it was one of their worst, but what the Lightning can agree on is they have to be a heck of a lot better in this Eastern Conference final, which continues with Game 2 on Sunday night at Amalie Arena.
And though they’re now down 1-0, there’s zero panic in this Lightning dressing room, among this group that put together the best regular season record in the NHL. After all, they were in this same boat last series against Boston, before rattling off four straight wins to get here. Stamkos called his team a “calm group,” twice.
“It’s just a response,” the captain says. “I mean, we had it last series, kind of similar start where we didn’t come out very well, and knowing the importance of winning that next game on home ice. We’ll look to do that [Sunday]. I think our execution needs to be a lot better, and that’s execution with a game plan and execution when we’re trying to make plays with the puck. We’ll look to be better.
“There’s nothing we can do about that first game now, that’s a good team over there and they deserve that win for sure. We’ve got to go out and deserve a win [Sunday].”
There were a couple encouraging aspects of the Game 1 loss for the Lightning, though you have to look hard to find them. Tampa Bay did convert on the power-play in the third period, when Stamkos wired a one-timer past Braden Holtby, and then Ondrej Palat scored with seven minutes to go. And after giving up four goals in the opening two periods, the Lightning kept the Capitals off the scoresheet in the final frame. “I thought we played a little bit better in the third, but at the same time, it’s a little bit of a different game—it’s already 4-0,” Johnson says. “So we just gotta get back to playing our game.”
That means breaking out with speed and competing harder, if you ask Stamkos. “I don’t know if it’s coming off a little bit of a break and there’s just not that sense of urgency, there’s not that sense of where we are and how hard we’ve had to work to make it here,” the 28-year-old says. “We all watched the tape we had a good solid practice today and the response level needs to be there [Sunday].”
Defender Ryan McDonagh, whose 22:44 in ice time was second for the Lightning, behind only Victor Hedman, says this group doesn’t need to do anything fancy to get back to winning. “Hit a guy that is open right in front of you, make the simple play, get pucks deep and use our speed on the forecheck to create some havoc,” McDonagh says. “We didn’t get much forecheck going. Credit them, they broke the puck out really well against us and took away our speed through the neutral zone. But we’ve got to find a way to get to our strength a little bit more.”
Certainly the Lightning boast a depth across four lines of forwards that the Capitals don’t have, especially in the absence of Nicklas Backstrom, who’s missed the last two games with a hand injury.
“We’ve relied on our depth all season, we’ve relied on our experience all season,” Stamkos says. “There’s no situation that we probably haven’t been in in the last couple years.
“This is one we’ve been in before, so we just need to play better. There’s really nothing that we’re going to throw at them that they’re going to be surprised about. We just have to play better and we’re looking forward to that challenge [Sunday.]”
After all, this group has been here in the Eastern Conference Final three of the last four years. At the start of Friday’s game, the giant jumbotron at Amalie Arena displayed: “We’re back.”
Then a second line flashed up: “Where we belong,” and the crowd went bonkers.
“You don’t get this far by playing scared,” Stamkos says. “You play knowing the situation and you play with that healthy anxiousness, if you will, to get back and even the series up.”
So, expect a different Tampa Bay Lightning team on Sunday. And nobody on this roster needs to pause to think that question over.
“I expect it to be way different,” Johnson says. “We’re a very confident group, we know what we have in here, we know what we can do. And we have a lot more to do.”