EDMONTON -- The evidence that the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to make this an interesting Stanley Cup Final can’t be found as much in what they did as what they didn’t do.
Namely, they didn’t seize on any of the excuses easily on offer after a 4-1 loss here to the Dallas Stars in Game 1.
The most clear example came on the Jamie Oleksiak goal that stood up as the winner. The puck was clearly fired into the Tampa zone from the wrong side of centre ice by Miro Heiskanen, which was accompanied by an animated response from the Lightning bench in real time.
Yet, by the time everyone had a chance to double-check the receipts, a collective set of amnesia had taken hold.
“I didn’t really see it,” said Tyler Johnson.
“I didn’t look at the play,” said Yanni Gourde. “I don’t know.”
“To be honest, I can’t really remember the play,” said Kevin Shattenkirk. “Sorry, me either.”
As dull as those quotes might read in print, that’s exactly the response a team needs following an emotional loss. The Lightning had a built-in explanation for why this game might not have turned out in their favour, but the true reason for a 1-0 series deficit was found more in the slow start and a strong goaltending performance by Anton Khudobin than anything else.
Tampa didn’t respond particularly well to the 48-hour turnaround after winning the Eastern Conference Final and couldn’t reverse a 3-1 deficit even while outshooting Dallas 22-2 in the third period.
The Oleksiak goal was a back-breaker. The lineseman didn’t raise his arm for icing when Heiskanen fired the puck in from the wrong side of centre, which is almost certainly why Victor Hedman never got below the faceoff dot to get the puck there.
“Well you wouldn’t be asking the question if you didn’t think the same that we may have thought. But it’s a moot point now. So you can’t go back and change the call,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
They also couldn’t go back and find more purpose in the opening minutes. Dallas dictated the pace, grabbed an early lead and parked the bus.
That raised some questions about a Lightning team that has given up the first goal in six straight games. However, they’ve responded with the 1-1 goal each time, and lost their grip here in a second period where Dallas regained the lead.
“I’m just disappointed in the fact that we got away from our strengths,” said Lightning defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “They’re a great skating, great structured team, but I think we could have played to our strengths a little bit better. Simplified our game and get going north a little bit more early on and allow ourselves to so-called find our game with our forechecking and our offensive zone play.”
Those will be key talking points before Monday’s Game 2 at Rogers Place.
When the Lightning look at this Cup opener with clearer eyes, they’ll focus on creating more chaos in front of Khudobin. The power play will be a natural focus after going 0-for-3 in the third period and seeing it fall quiet late in the Islanders series.
“He’s a very good goalie,” said Johnson. “When he’s on, he’s on. I thought we generated some pretty good chances and he made some really big saves. Did we do enough? No, because we lost the game. I mean we’ve got to do more. We’ve got to do more than score one goal.”
Still, deep down, there were no excuses in this loss. Tampa didn’t play with nearly the same verve it had in the previous rounds.
But the Lightning have been buckling in for a real series.
“I think we probably dipped our toes in the water a little bit and watched them skate around for a bit,” said Cooper. “It’s too bad, but you’ve heard me say it a million times: Turn the page and move on.
“Short memory in the playoffs.”