Nine times inside the last calendar year the Tampa Bay Lightning have lost a playoff game.
Nine times they’ve followed it with a win.
That includes the opening game of last year’s Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars, and a couple earlier instances this spring. You don’t put together a streak of six consecutive playoff series triumphs without passing some tests along the way, and right now the Lightning are the NHL’s most proficient student.
“We’ve got a pretty proud team and (they’re) pretty driven to win,” said head coach Jon Cooper. “This group has shown a way to adapt.”
That term can be applied broadly, whether they’re adapting to an opponent’s playing style or the cascading circumstances inside a best-of-seven. They’re facing both Tuesday night after barely making a dent against the New York Islanders while dropping the opening game of their Stanley Cup semifinal series 2-1.
While it may not be a must-win situation, per se, it’s the kind of game the defending champs have made a habit of winning.
And it’s going to be a challenge.
The Islanders are as determined as they are organized. They’re hungry to take the next step. And if you include last year’s Eastern Conference Final series, they’ve played the highly skilled Lightning to three consecutive 2-1 games.
On Sunday afternoon, they held Brayden Point to two shots, Steven Stamkos to one and Nikita Kucherov to one. That’s a pretty strong recipe for success given that the lethal Tampa trio has combined for 19 goals in 12 playoff games so far.
When the Lightning reviewed the game tape, they lamented the mental errors that limited their time in the attacking zone. They turned the puck over too much to establish a presence there. But they were also left looking for an adjustment on entries because of the Islanders' tendency to sag back and allow them to gain the zone before quickly closing off open lanes.
“We’ve got to be a little bit more careful on the lines and be more careful with the puck,” said defenceman Victor Hedman. “We’ve got to trust the way we play hockey. The way we forecheck, the way we can play in the O-zone and the way we can defend. We’ve just got to trust ourselves and trust the game plan going into the games.
“If we’re more careful with the puck I like our chances and I like the way we can attack them.”
Hedman has seen it all with this Lightning team. His 121 career playoff games are by far the most by any player in the organization’s history.
And in his mind the main reason this group has found so much post-season success is because of its ability to get comfortable with the uncomfortable moments.
“Since Coop took over (in 2013), we’ve been in this situation a lot,” he said. “It’s easy to panic and kind of feel like we really need to win the next game. We want to win the next game, obviously, but you’ve just got to go out there and play your game.
“You can’t be scared of ... you can’t be scared going out. You’ve got to embrace that challenge.”
What makes this matchup so compelling is the fact both teams seem to be embracing it. The Lightning and Islanders are knocking on the door for a second straight year and they know exactly what weapons the other brings to the fight.
Even with so much at stake, it’s hard to imagine either team being overwhelmed by the moment. There’s too much experience and institutional knowledge inside each dressing room for that to happen.
“We want to see if we can find another level of I’ll say resiliency,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “Another level of bite where we can say ‘You know what? You can raise your level, but we’re going to raise ours here.”’
A 1-1 series heading into the crazy Coliseum will look a lot more appealing to the Lightning than an 0-2 hole. They haven’t faced that kind of deficit since being shockingly swept out of the 2019 playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Cooper believes that loss helped unlock something in his group, the kind of strength needed to hold your mettle when things don’t go your way and an understanding of how much defensive commitment is required to win a championship.
Down 1-0 to the Isles, they’re being tested again.
“They’ve just shown this ability to dig their heels in and I’ll expect no different,” said Cooper. “I can’t sit here and say what the result is going to be, but I know you’ll get a hell of an effort from our guys.”