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Burns: Three things we learned from a loss in Dallas

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning desperately needed a win on Thursday to stem the tide of losing that has crept into their game of late.

The Lightning traveled to Dallas having lost four of their last five games. Getting a win against Dallas wasn’t going to be easy either considering the Stars came into the game tied for first place in the Western Conference.

The Bolts put together one of their better performances of the season over the first 40 minutes of the game. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sustain it for the duration.

Tampa Bay held a one-goal lead three separate times on Thursday but were unable to close out the Stars. Dallas rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the third period, scoring twice in a little over two minutes to win 4-3 and send the Bolts to their fifth loss in their last six games.

With the regular season nearing its conclusion, the Lightning have suddenly gone from a team comfortable in its playoff positioning to one looking over its shoulder at teams catching up to them in the standings. When they wake up Friday morning, the Bolts find themselves in third place in the Atlantic, four points behind division-leading Florida. Meanwhile, Philadelphia, the last team out of the playoffs currently, has gone 8-1-1 over its last 10 games and is only five points back of the Lightning.

What can the Lightning do to get back in the win column? And was last night’s loss a complete breakdown or just a couple missed opportunities from a different result?

We’ll take a closer look at last night’s loss in Dallas in today’s 3 Things.

1. PLAYING NOT TO LOSE

For two periods, the Lightning played inspired hockey. Perhaps energized by squaring off against arguably the top team in the Western Conference, the Bolts put together one of their finest performances of the season through the first 40 minutes.

Tampa Bay matched Dallas’ frenetic pace, turning the game into a race to see who could skate the fastest with the puck. The Lightning worked hard to get into the dirty areas of the ice. They positioned themselves at the front of the net for tips on pucks. They stayed there to scavenge for possible rebounds. They played a gritty, hard-nosed game and didn’t back down when the Stars turned up the physicality.

The Bolts took a 3-2 lead into the second intermission because of the way they took the game to Dallas.

Then they came out of the locker room for the third period and played not to lose.

The result?

Dallas scored twice midway through the period to take a much-needed victory away from the Lightning, who deserved at least a point from their effort on Thursday.

“It was extremely disappointing,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Especially the way we played for two periods, and we walk in there for a fifteen minute break and come out and play the way we did was a little puzzling to be honest. The guys in the room need to hold themselves accountable. We were doing everything right for two periods then come out and change the way we played. We have to be better than that.”

The Lightning played safe in the third period. They came into the final period with a mindset of protecting their lead rather than building on it.

Against a team as offensively-skilled as Dallas, that was a losing proposition. The Lightning weren’t going to win Thursday’s game 3-2. They needed at least one more goal, maybe two to put the Stars away. Playing safe wasn’t going to get the job done.

“I thought we played like a fragile team that was scared to lose and not hungry to close out or win a game,” Bolts captain Steven Stamkos said. “That’s a good team over there for a reason. They have a lot of guys that can make you pay when you don’t execute, especially in your own zone, so we can’t let that fear of losing creep in at this time of the year.”

2. CHANGING THE MINDSET

After the loss in Dallas, Stamkos talked about a disturbing mentality that’s crept into the Lightning’s game during this recent slide.

“Sometimes…you’re just hoping you get the win instead of making sure you get the win,” he said. “When you haven’t won a couple in a row, it’s adjusting that mindset. It’s working even harder than we did in the first two periods and competing even harder to make sure we close the game out. If we don’t and you let a team like that with that much offensive power stick around in games, it’ll come back to bite you, and that’s what it did tonight.”

The Lightning have lost five of their last six games, this coming after they had won a franchise record nine-consecutive games. Whereas before the Lightning felt they were going to win every time they took the ice, doubt has now overtaken that confidence.

“We’re going through a tough stretch,” Stamkos said. “Confidence is a big thing and you see that when you’re winning a lot of games consecutively or you’re closing these out and finding ways to do that. When it is opposite, the snowball goes the other way and it gets bigger and bigger, but good teams find a way to not let that grow.”

Saturday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes now takes on added significance with the Lightning struggling to find consistency with 11 games remaining in the regular season. The Coyotes are still technically in the hunt for the playoffs as they sit in fourth place in the Pacific Division. But, they’re seven points back of Colorado for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, a deficit that at this point in the season would take a near-miracle to overcome.

Saturday’s game isn’t a must-win for the Lightning, but it’s about as close as you can come to one without actually being one. Returning home from the road trip with three losses in four games, two of them coming to Toronto and Arizona, would be a disastrous result for the Bolts.

“In this league, you can’t cry over the spilled milk,” Cooper said. “We have to get back at it and win a game on Saturday.”

If nothing else, the Lightning need a win on Saturday just to feel what it’s like to win again and get some positive vibes going before the playoffs start in four weeks.

3. POSSIBLE STANLEY CUP PREVIEW?

Ok, so maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves considering the Lightning have lost five of their last six games and have done little of late to inspire confidence in the fan base that a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final is possible.

But, allowing ourselves to dream a little bit, wouldn’t a Tampa Bay-Dallas Stanley Cup Final be a fun series to watch?

Thursday’s game was nonstop, end-to-end action. The difference in the pace of play of the Dallas-Tampa Bay game compared to the Tampa Bay-Toronto game two nights earlier was startling. Whereas Tuesday’s game in Toronto was plodding, Thursday’s matchup versus the Stars was a track meet.

It was a pace that was favorable to the Lightning as they were able to utilize their speed and superior puck skills to generate multiple good scoring chances on goal. Dallas, just as fast and talented offensively as the Lightning, had plenty of good looks at goal too for its part.

The frenzied pace and the constant threat a goal could be scored at any moment had fans on their edge of their seat all night.

And really, isn’t that what you want from a potential playoff series, to be entertained throughout, to not be able to leave your seat because you’re afraid you might miss something?

Thursday’s game between the Lightning and the Stars was one of the most entertaining games of the season. It featured high-scoring, hard-hitting action with a little bit of an edge to the game too as both teams showed their displeasure for one another throughout.

It would be enjoyable to watch the two teams battle it out over potentially seven games with the world’s greatest trophy on the line.

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