TAMPA — Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper sat at a podium Sunday morning nearly eight hours before the puck dropped at Amalie Arena, wearing a light grin as he answered the question he had been peppered with since Friday night’s Game 1 loss: How would the Lightning respond?
It was a typical question for the losing squad in the Stanley Cup playoffs, one coaches have had to answer hundreds of times over, and Cooper did so with ease.
“I anticipate us playing a better game,” Cooper said, pausing before finishing his thought. “I do. But I anticipate Washington playing a better game, too.”
And Sunday night, the Capitals did just that.
It didn’t matter that Tampa Bay had a history of bouncing back after Game 1 losses, sporting an impressive 10-3 record before its crushing 6-2 loss Sunday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Capitals.
It didn’t matter that it had a team filled with playoff experience, with two former captains plus its current one in Steven Stamkos and a player in forward Chris Kunitz who has won four Stanley Cups. It didn’t matter the Lightning had home-ice advantage for the series.
For the first time all postseason, the Lightning finds itself in trouble.
“We are kind of getting away from what has made us successful in the past,” Stamkos said after Sunday’s game. “It is tough because this time of the year, especially when you start the series at home and you drop the first two games, it is disappointing, but it is over with now. We have to find a way to play a lot better and more consistent.”
In a two-game hole, Tampa Bay will travel to Washington for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday, needing at least a split on the road to keep its Stanley Cup hopes alive. In NHL history, road teams that take a 2-0 series lead in the conference finals have an 18-1 series record.
“We defended this entire playoffs up until these last two games, and that is why we have had success,” Stamkos said. “We haven’t defended with the same urgency and [are] leaving our goalie out to dry.”
Before Sunday’s thrashing, all signs pointed to a Game 2 comeback. Tampa Bay had just won four straight games against the Boston Bruins in the previous round after suffering a 6-2 loss in Game 1 of that series. The Lightning was good enough to respond. Sunday night was just about execution.
And even after the Lightning let a goal slip in off the stick of Capitals forward Tom Wilson 28 seconds into Sunday’s game, Tampa Bay still felt like it could win. Two questionable calls against the Capitals led to power-play goals by Brayden Point and Stamkos to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead 10:22 into the first period — Game 2 was looking up.
Then the Washington show began. And as the night went on, Tampa Bay saw chance after chance slip away. The Capitals scored five straight goals, one a demoralizing power-play goal from forward Evgeny Kuznetsov with less than three seconds left in the second period in front of a sellout crowd that was already feeling queasy. The onslaught just kept on coming.
“It is always tough when you give up a goal that late into the period,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “You want to hold on and come in and it is different, 3-2 or 4-2. It is the playoffs. It is hard to get back in games.”
Afterward, once the fans had headed to the exits and the Tampa Bay locker room started packing up its equipment, Cooper was back at the podium, facing the same question: How would the Lightning respond?
“You win the [next] game,” Cooper said. “That is what we have to do.”