Or so they thought.
Detroit came in to Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Saturday determined to atone for their late game collapse at the Joe. The Red Wings again built a 2-0 lead in the final period and this time choked the Lightning into submission with a suffocating defense that gave up few chances.
Tampa Bay, now on the brink of elimination, needs to win the next two, including Monday night’s Game 6 in Detroit to continue its run toward the Stanley Cup.
Plenty of things that went right for the Lightning in the regular season have suddenly disappeared. The three biggest?
1. REGULAR SEASON SCORING DOESN’T EQUAL PLAYOFF SCORING
The 2014-15 Tampa Bay Lightning scored more regular-season goals than any other team in franchise history.
The previous record of 246 established in 2005-06 was shattered when the Bolts netted 259 goals this season. Tampa Bay had more goals than any other team in the NHL (Dallas, with 257, was second) and averaged 3.16 per game.
In the playoffs, however, the Lightning attack has been systematically dismantled by a veteran Detroit team that has given the Bolts little room to maneuver on the ice.
The Red Wings were a middle-of-the-road defensive team during the regular season, their 2.57 goals-against average ranking 15th in the league.
Aside from Game 2 when the Lightning put five on the board, which, increasingly, is looking more and more like an anomaly, the Bolts haven’t been able to generate much of anything against Detroit in the postseason though. Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek, who split time with Jimmy Howard during the regular season and wasn’t handed the starting job for good until the conclusion of the regular season, has shut out Tampa Bay twice in his postseason debut.
But in reality, Mrazek hasn’t had to work all that hard as the players in front of him have done an outstanding job limiting the Lightning’s chances on goal. And when the Bolts do get something on frame, Mrazek has been steady in cleaning it up.
“They play their game,” Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. “They’re a good team, really good in the neutral zone, really good at staying above, covering guys. It makes it tough. We need to work as a unit on the ice, and we have to have the will and the heart to get there. At points of the game, I just don’t think we had that for whatever reason.”
The Lightning need to find that will in the next two days or their season will be over.
2. HOME-ICE DISADVANTAGE
When the Lightning rallied to win Game 4 in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, the thought was the team would return to Amalie Arena where they’ve been nearly unbeatable all season, win Game 5 in front of their home crowd and give themselves two chances for the fourth and final victory of the series.
Unfortunately, in the postseason, the Lightning’s home-ice advantage has been anything but.
In three playoff games at Amalie Arena, the Bolts are just 1-2, a far cry from the sparkling 32-8-1 record they compiled at home during the regular season, the best home record in the league.
Tampa Bay was the only NHL team to win 30 or more games at home (Nashville, who was knocked out of the postseason by Chicago on Saturday, was second with 28).
The Lightning’s 32 home victories set a new franchise record, obliterating the old mark of 25.
All of which has meant very little to the Detroit Red Wings.
On Saturday, Detroit became the first team this season to shut out the Lightning on their home ice.
Now Tampa Bay will have to win once again at the Joe, a place they’ve struggled in recent times up until the final six minutes of regulation and overtime of Game 4, and again at home to salvage the season.
It’s not an impossible task, but it’s certainly not ideal either.
“Obviously, this is not over,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “All we can do is win the next game. We just have to have the mentality that we’re going to bring and play our best game so far this year. I know we’re a really, really good team, and when everybody’s working in the same direction, I don’t think we did that tonight and that put us in a lot of trouble.”
3. CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT
Neither team has been able to get a foothold in the First Round series and win two consecutive games, both sides taking turns trading victories.
That bodes well for the Lightning in Game 6.
Not so much Game 7.
How much does that Game 1 loss, one in which the Lightning outshot Detroit 46-14 but still fell 3-2, hurt now?
When it appears the Lightning are about to seize control of the series, they stumble. After the Game 1 loss, the Bolts came out and played one of their best games of the season, demolishing the Red Wings 5-1 in Game 2, which was immediately followed by one of their worst performances in a 3-0 Game 3 loss in Detroit.
That slide continued for the better part of Game 4, until the Lightning awoke in the final six minutes of regulation to pull out an improbable overtime win.
The momentum from that comeback was lost somewhere on the return flight from Detroit to Tampa Bay, though, the Red Wings again regaining control of the series with Saturday’s blanking of the Bolts in Tampa.
“I’m very disappointed in the way we played,” Stralman said following the loss Saturday night. “Home ice, Game 5, it’s not acceptable to have that sort of a game. We played well for the first five, eight minutes in the first period, and in the third I thought we played well. That’s 25 minutes out of a 60-minute game. That’s not going to cut it against a team in the playoffs. That’s just the bottom line.”
The Lightning have made a habit during the postseason of playing well in spurts and then disappearing.
Now, they’ll need to find a way to play 120 consecutive minutes of good to great hockey or their summer vacation will start sooner than expected.