Contrition? Yes, Lightning will have a little if they blow this up

Tampa – Hockey fans understand misery. In a roundabout way, they embrace her.

When you worship the Stanley Cup above all else, the pain and anger of the default can be a trophy in and of itself. You measure your sincerity by the amount of anxiety you put in your coffee.

So, no, it won’t be the end of the world if Lightning fails in Game Six against Toronto tonight. Even the big teams sometimes stumble on their way up to the top.

However, I can’t help feeling that something unique is upsetting at this moment. If things don’t change quickly tonight, the Lightning will have booked the Stanley Cup trophy with disappointing first-round meltdowns.

Now, it is unrealistic to expect the win to continue forever, but it is not unreasonable to hope that the team will maintain its position until the end. It is the difference between disappointment and regret.

And right now, Lightning would be facing a long summer of regret.

“It’s obviously uncharacteristic for us,” said veteran striker Pat Maron, describing the self-inflicted wounds that helped put Lightning 3-2 behind in the series.

But here’s the problem:

Not all is uncharacteristic of the 2021-22 Lightning. Unforgivable, yes. Uncharacteristically, no.

This team committed too many penalties, blew too many performances, and lost too many games against high-quality competition in the regular season. And that’s exactly what we saw against Toronto.

It was a little annoying during the regular season, but it was disastrous in the post season.

Coach John Cooper went out of his way to say that Lightning gave Toronto the freebie in Game 1 and then suggested the same after Game 5.

So how can a seasoned team, a team that includes Cup winners Norris, Vesina and Hart, a team with their name engraved on the Stanley Cup in each of the past two seasons, give up two of their first five games of a series?

“When I say we customized the game, I’m saying we gave Toronto opportunities to cash in, and to Toronto’s credit, they cashed in,” Cooper said.

“We burned some of the things we do instead of making it win the hard way – they beat us at our game – and so maybe that’s a little disappointing. Maybe in years past, other teams didn’t capitalize when we broke up, so I didn’t feel like that.”

Lightning’s gentle analytical behavior after losses seemed like a plus when they inevitably bounce back and win the next match. But in the end, they will need to score two victories together.

And waiting until Matches 6 and 7 to do so is not the wisest course of action.

In the past decade, the NHL has seen a series move into Game 6 with a total of 96 times. The late team won both games 6 and 7 only 22 times. The last time Lightning was late was in Game Six in 2015. They came back from behind to defeat Detroit in the first round and lost to Chicago in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.

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So how did a team with so much star power find themselves in this position today?

The popular theory is to blame the balanced scoring loss that Tampa Bay used to get from his third streak who has since left, but it’s not quite that simple. The problem is not the scoring. It blocks goals.

The Lightning team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups because they can play closing defense when necessary. In 45 playoffs over the previous two seasons, they allowed the team to score three or more goals less than 38 percent of the time.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs scored three or more goals in every game of the series.

You can blame the number of power plays Toronto has given, but those whistles aren’t being blasted into the void. Lightning quickly figured out what the standard would be for penalties in this post-season, yet they continued to commit meaningless violations.

Tampa Bay scores at a higher pace than in the past two seasons, but they’ve gone from giving away 1.96 goals per game in 2021 post-season to 4.00 against Toronto.

“I always say this: If you give up two goals or less, you give yourself a really good chance of winning,” Cooper said. “You give up three and the game will be in doubt. Now you are playing with fire. We scored enough goals to win matches; we just give up so much.”

This is not how lightning season was supposed to end. Emerging strains do not achieve with faltering leads and jammed box boxes.

The players in the Tampa Bay locker room know this. And Game 6 is their last chance to prove that they are still a special team. It’s their last chance to avoid looking back with regret.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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