This season for the Tampa Bay Lightning so far has been a case of two steps forward, two steps back.
The Lightning were feeling good about their play after sweeping the two-game NHL Global Series in Stockholm against the Buffalo Sabres and following with a 9-3 drubbing of the New York Rangers in their first game back in North America for a three-game win streak.
But just when the Lightning felt their game was rounding into form, they dropped two in a row, including Tuesday's 3-1 defeat at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.
Tampa Bay scored the opening goal but saw its offense bog down the rest of the way, partly self-inflicted by numerous turnovers and partly St. Louis locking the Bolts down defensively. St. Louis scored three unanswered goals, Oskar Sundqvist netting the game-winner with 13:44 remaining and Jaden Schwartz adding an empty-netter with five seconds to go for the 3-1 final.
The Lightning managed just 18 shots for the game and only 10 after the opening period.
"That's not good enough," Lightning forward Pat Maroon said succinctly after the game.
What led to the Lightning's second-straight loss?
We'll take a closer look in 3 Things we learned from a second-straight defeat.
Video: TBL Recap: Cirelli provides lone goal in 3-1 loss
1. FAILING THE TEST
Tampa Bay looked at Tuesday's game in St. Louis as a measuring stick game of sorts.
Sure, whenever you play the defending Stanley Cup champions, it's a chance to see if your game can match that level. But the Blues play a style the Lightning would like to get to. Their heavy, physical brand of hockey was a big reason they were able to put together the run they had down the second half of the 2018-19 season and close it out by hoisting the Stanley Cup.
The Lightning don't want to lose their identity as being a fast, skilled team that can damage you in the blink of an eye. But they'd also like to be a harder team to play against like the Blues. That's why they brought in players like Pat Maroon and Luke Schenn in the offseason to bring a more physical element to their locker room.
In a contest where they could find out just how much their game has grown against a team that provided the blueprint for how a heavy team could win a Cup, the Lightning learned they still have a lot of work to do.
St. Louis' relentless physicality wore down the Lightning as the game progressed. The Bolts netted the opening goal at 16:36 after Alex Killorn threw a puck at the net from the corner and Anthony Cirelli jammed it past Blues goalie Jordan Binnington.
Chances were few and far between after that though.
The Lightning managed just four shots in the second period, and the Blues started to grab control, David Perron scoring at 17:24 of the middle frame to draw the Blues back on even terms. The Bolts continued to struggle to sustain any offensive attack, and St. Louis went into the lead for good at 6:16 of the third period.
The Lightning mounted pressure in the closing minutes and had opportunities to net the game-tying goal, but it was too little, too late.
"I honestly think we didn't play that good all the way around," Maroon said. "We turned the puck over a lot, and they're a team that'll wear you down, just wear you down and wear you down below the top of the circles. We gave them every opportunity to make their game really successful. We've got to be better. I don't know what else to say anymore. This team's got to be better. We've got to figure out…how to play the right way, just manage the puck a little better, attention to detail. Want to dump the puck in, want to make the right play, want to make a strong play on the boards, want to sacrifice for your team even if it's getting the puck out, getting the puck in at the blue line. We've got to find ways to do that, and right now it's costing us."
Maroon's frustration was echoed by Lightning head coach Jon Cooper.
"We played poorly. That was it," Cooper said. "As a group, we've grown during the year. We had a really positive trip to Sweden. Came back and maybe things went our way against the Rangers, that normally doesn't happen, we're feeling good about ourselves and go up against a couple big, strong teams here and we went back to a few bad habits. Again, if you turn the puck over, it gives the other team momentum."
Video: Jon Cooper on the 3-1 loss to STL
2. INJURIES PROVE COSTLY
Tampa Bay lost Ondrej Palat for a couple of shifts in the second period when he appeared to take a stick to the hand, the Czech forward remaining on the bench for a bit before heading to the locker room to get treatment. Palat was able to return, however.
Nikita Kucherov wasn't as fortunate.
Late in the second period, Kucherov was checked hard by St. Louis' Brayden Schenn, Kucherov's body slamming down to the ice. While Erik Cernak got in Schenn's face to stick up for his teammate, Kucherov climbed to his skates and immediately headed off the ice and down the tunnel to the locker room.
The Russian right wing wouldn't return to the game, the Lightning announcing after the contest he'd sustained an upper-body injury.
"When you see one of your best players go down, it's tough to swallow," Maroon said. "Cernak did a heck of a job getting in there on Schenn and standing up for a teammate, that's what it's all about. I think we're doing a good job this year standing up for each other, making sure we're not getting pushed around. So, good job for (Cernak) there. Obviously, it's tough to swallow, but hopefully Kuch is okay."
Losing Kucherov certainly didn't help a Lightning team looking to find some momentum offensively. His absence also forced the rest of the forward group to log more minutes, a tough proposition with the way the Blues wear down teams.
Cooper didn't have an update on Kucherov after the game, but the hope is the injury is nothing long term. We should know more about his status when the Lightning hold practice at Chicago's Fifth Third Arena on Wednesday.
"He couldn't return," Cooper said. "He tried, but he couldn't."
Video: Pat Maroon on his Pregame Tribute
3. ST. LOUIS LOVES PAT MAROON
Pat Maroon expected to receive a warm reception when he returned to his hometown to claim the Championship ring he helped the Blues win in 2019 during a special pregame ceremony.
But Maroon probably didn't expect to receive as much love as Blues fans showed him Tuesday, particularly while wearing the opposing team's sweater.
St. Louis fans gave Maroon a standing ovation as he was introduced to the crowd and brought over to near the Zamboni tunnel, where Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was waiting to present the ring.
After the game, Maroon said it was a special night for his family with his wife, son and parents in the stands.
"I didn't think it was going to be like that," Maroon said. "I just want to thank the St. Louis Blues organization and Doug Armstrong…It was really nice of them. It was a good welcome back for me and my family. It was a memory I'll never forget."
Maroon nearly turned the crowd against him early as he almost scored on one of his first shifts. Later in the game, Maroon tried a wraparound but lost control of the puck as he was attempting to stuff it inside the post.
"I don't know how he played his first shift to have that go down," Cooper said. "I thought the crowd was great. Probably a little bit of turn the page for him, but much deserved. He was a big part of that team, and I was really happy for him."