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The Lightning cough one up, and we all get a nervous rash

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 9/16/2020 By John Romano, Tampa Bay Times

There is no reason to be concerned.

(Unless that Brayden Point injury continues to keep him down.)

There is no reason to suspect the Lightning are in trouble.

(Unless you believe momentum was seized by the Islanders on Tuesday night.)

There is no reason to believe Tampa Bay would lose a playoff series to an inferior opponent.

(Unless John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets continue to haunt your nightmares.)

Okay, I can see why Lightning fans might have a mild case of the crazies this morning. Tampa Bay was a goal from clinching a return trip to the Stanley Cup final, and instead lost 2-1 in double overtime to the Islanders in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final.

“It would have been nice to close it out tonight,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said, “but we have the next game.”

This whole nutty Cup quest has been in high gear since 2015 in Tampa Bay, and the number of blunders, bad breaks and disappointments are now stacked quite high. So even though the Lightning still have two chances to win one game and advance, it wasn’t going to take much to spread the sense of unease throughout the entire bay area this morning.

Just a miscue by defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in the middle of the ice, and a two-on-one rush that left goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy out to dry. Anders Lee snatched the puck away after a whiff by Shattenkirk, raced up the left side, then deftly passed to Jordan Eberle, who stuck it out of the reach of Vasilevskiy’s glove just three minutes before midnight.

And just like that, the doubts have booked penthouse suites in a lot of people’s heads.

It doesn’t matter that the postseason is supposed to be hard. It doesn’t matter that this is the first time the Lightning have even reached a Game 6 this postseason after closing out the first two rounds handily in five games. It doesn’t matter that Tampa Bay has looked like the best team in the Eastern Conference since everyone gathered in the bubble in Toronto more than a month ago.

If you have neurotic tendencies, all that matters today is that recent Tampa Bay teams have had a bit of, um, a sketchy history when it comes to actually trying to clinch the Eastern Conference title. The franchise is now 2-8 in possible clinchers in the conference final, including five consecutive losses since 2016.

“I know how this team reacts to adversity. We’ve been through this before, a lot of us in that room,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who scored Tampa Bay’s lone goal. "There’s ups and downs in the playoffs, I’ve said it before you’ve got to stay even keel.

“You have to have your focus on the next one, that’s the only way you can get through a playoff run is don’t live in the past and don’t look forward.”

Except fans around here have some pretty vivid memories of the past.

You might recall the Lightning were a victory from reaching the Stanley Cup in 2016. And they lost two in a row to Pittsburgh. They were a victory away again in 2018. And lost two in a row to Washington. And on Tuesday night they were a shot from finishing it a number of times, and yet continually hit the goal posts as if they were purposefully trying to ratchet up the suspense.

Nikita Kucherov could have won it early in the second overtime after an Ondrej Palat shot bounced off the chest of goalie Semyon Varlamov and dropped achingly close to the right side of the net. Kucherov somehow reached around 223-pound Scott Mayfield and rocketed a shot off the post as he fell to the ice behind the goal.

Minutes later, Anthony Cirelli came flying toward the goal on a rush but was shut down by Varlamov just a few feet from the net.

The logical way to look at that is to say Tampa Bay played a good game on Tuesday night, and simply came up a little short. The obsessive way is to say the Lightning just gave the Islanders new life.

“We didn’t come into these playoffs thinking we were going to go 16-0,” coach Jon Cooper said. "We just came into these playoffs with the mindset we’re going to win 16 games. And the way you have to win those games is defend the way we’re defending.

“We keep doing that, I’ve got a lot of faith in this group.”

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©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

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