by Jon Jordan on 04/21/11 at 11:39 AM ET
When you’re outworked for the majority of a game and the end result doesn’t end up going your way, there shouldn’t be much in the way of surprise at the outcome.
And the reality of it is, that’s what happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night.
As double-overtime games go, this one wasn’t that close. The score may have ended up tied after 60 minutes and beyond but the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins controlled the play throughout and, when that happens, you just can’t expect to win.
So enough labeling of last night’s game four loss for Tampa Bay as heartbreaking, if that’s what you’ve been doing.
It wasn’t theirs to win.
Not when puck battles are lost in all three zones all night long.
Not when a team that was overeager early in game three overcompensates in the following act, toning down the emotion enough out of the gate last night to take on the appearance of a disinterested group.
Not when two-and-a-half of the three goals allowed fall right into the lap of the goaltender.
To be fair, Dwayne Roloson battled last night, as he has his entire career. He had to, quite frankly, with what was happening in front of him, especially early on. And, at times, he was the Lightning’s best player, as a goaltender often has to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs for a team to succeed.
But when the 50 saves a goalie makes are outweighed by the three goals allowed, by and large, he wasn’t good enough.
And Roloson wasn’t, though he certainly wasn’t alone.
Tyler Kennedy never should have been allowed to walk into the low left circle as freely as he did before scoring the game’s opening goal, but Roloson has to have that shot from that angle.
Several missed opportunities to clear the zone handcuffed the Lightning early in the second before a Ben Lovejoy point shot was kicked right out into the high slot by Roloson and right onto the stick of a red-hot Arron Asham, whose rebound chance deflected off a skate before trickling past the Lightning netminder for a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead. Fluky sort of goal, yes, but the scoring opportunity itself was created by a juicy rebound (after a series of team mistakes).
And James Neal’s double-OT winner, obviously, came on a shot that any goaltender would want to have back at any time in any game. Unfortunately for Roloson, that one will be magnified more than it should be because of when it happened and the consequences thereof. But even this glaring mistake doesn’t fall on his shoulders alone – not after an intentional offside and an icing call in succession kept the play dangerously in Tampa Bay’s end before the clincher.
Again, Roloson had more than his fair share of shining moments in the game. Were it not for his intermittent heroics, the Lightning climbing back into this one would never have been possible. But people aren’t going to remember this game four for that. Not at all.
Instead, they’ll bemoan wasting the rescue efforts of Martin St. Louis, who was just being Martin St. Louis once again, scoring a game-changing goal to get the Bolts on the board and breathing life into a team –and a building – that had none to that point.
They’ll also cry shame for Sean Bergenheim – who had a fantastic game himself – not seeing any just reward for his efforts, including the game-tying tally that went for naught.
And they’ll remember a goal (or two… and a half) that never should have reached the back of the Lightning net. Because that’s always all too easy to point out… (And because, in this case, there’s a legitimate beef there.)
If this series gets away from Tampa Bay, as it is now so close to doing, folks will reflect negatively on the ants-in-the-pants appearance of the early part of game three and, worse yet, the polar opposite look of the beginning stages of last night’s game four as turning points. After all, those two losses came on home ice and those two particular fingers are pointed at the group, collectively, which is a responsible implication.
But some will also point to a still-goalless Steven Stamkos, who hasn’t exactly been bad in the series, or even in his scoring slump as a whole. He just hasn’t been good either. And, as a goal-scorer, when you aren’t scoring goals, it’s really difficult for people to notice anything else.
How many can make the argument that this series wouldn’t at least be tied at 2-2 with the inclusion of a timely Stamkos marker or two? The Lightning were an intimidating 26-6-3 in the regular season when #91 dented the twine; a very blasé 20-19-8 otherwise. In the playoffs, with a scoreless Stamkos, they’re now 1-3 and on the brink of elimination. So, it makes sense that his name will continue to pop up in negative banter.
But on the other side of this very series, the Penguins are managing to get things done without offensive production from two all-world players of their own, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lost to injury. How they’ve managed to do so is pretty simple, really. They’ve become a team that consistently wins individual battles and does the little things to near-perfection. They capitalize on an opponent’s mistakes and clamp down defensively with the lead. They are intense but not reckless, they stay disciplined but are not passive, and they get great goaltending.
They are, lo and behold, a team that knows how to play in the playoffs.
That is a knowledge that comes with experience and the Lightning are getting quite the lesson in as much right now.
The loss in game four can be called a heartbreaker, only in the disappointing sense that the chance to win was there. There’s something to be learned from that as well and it will all prove invaluable for this group, in the long run.
But Tampa Bay is undoubtedly behind on the playoff learning curve presently and now, they’re left with no margin for error at all.
Playoff experience has illimitable value indeed but this team has talked openly about not being satisfied with simply being there, adopting a seize the moment-type of attitude and “Hunt it now” as a motto.
The lesson’s been preached and the Bolts have no choice but to be a quick learn now.
Because the moments are dwindling and the hunt is a single loss away from being over.
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