The Tampa Bay Lightning woke up Thursday morning, and the sun was shining.
"Well, it is Tampa," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper reasoned correctly.
After a night to digest their shocking Game 1 defeat to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs opener, a loss in which they inexplicably allowed a three-goal lead to slip away for the first time ever in team postseason history, the Lightning came to one jarring conclusion:
Most of their wounds were self-inflicted.
Sure, Columbus should be commended for the way it never folded in the face of incredible adversity. Down three goals to one of the NHL's best regular season teams in history, on the road in a hostile environment, forced to rally against a squad that put together one of its finest periods of the season in the first period, the Blue Jackets stuck to their gameplan and got to work chipping away at Tampa Bay's armor of invincibility.
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When Seth Jones scored from the slot on a power play with 5:55 to go to provide Columbus its first lead and complete the comeback, a mixture of concern and disbelief swept through the AMALIE Arena crowd.
In the Lightning locker room, the prevailing emotion was anger, anger at allowing a three-goal lead to slip away in a playoff game and anger at playing the way they did to allow that lead to slip away.
"I actually thought our biggest foe last night was us, that's what it was," Cooper said during Thursday's media availability session at the Ice Sports Forum. "Columbus had no quit in them, and good on them. There's a reason that team made the playoffs, but our biggest obstacle was ourselves."
In a way, the manner in which the Lightning built a 3-0 lead by the first intermission was almost too easy. Tampa Bay completely dominated the opening 20 minutes. The Lightning limited the quality scoring chances to basically zero. They capitalized on the numerous opportunities they created by putting three pucks past a shaky (at least early) Sergei Bobrovsky. They were more physical than a Columbus team that was expected to bring the fight to the Bolts as a way to check their multitude of skill players. And goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy looked completely comfortable in net, smoothly turning aside every shot sent his way.
Perhaps the Lightning felt they had an opportunity to bury the Blue Jackets, to send a message in Game 1 by putting a thumping on them and demoralizing them for the remainder of the series.
But that's exactly where the contest got away from the Lightning. By pushing for more goals, they abandoned the structure that allowed them to keep the Blue Jackets off the scoreboard in the first period. And once Columbus was able to capitalize on one of the Bolts' mistakes for their first goal, the momentum started to shift in the game and Columbus was able to sustain that momentum all the way through to a series-opening victory.
"In games during the (regular) season, that tends to be a mindset, but it can't be a mindset in a playoff atmosphere where it's tough to score goals and momentum shifts can change so quickly," said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, who scored the opening goal in the series, the third time in his career he's scored the first goal in a Lightning playoff series. "We have to be more aware of that. We have to realize that we're up 3-0, we don't need to score another goal to win the game. We have to protect the lead."
Which is not to say the Lightning should go into complete shut-down mode once they build a lead. As the head coach on the opposing bench famously said when he coached Tampa Bay to the franchise's only Stanley Cup to date, safe is death.
But rather it's about focusing on the defensive end of the ice first, absorbing the opponent's expected pushback with the proper structure and creating offensive opportunities out of the opponent opening itself up in an attempt to get back in the game.
"It's just not putting yourself in tough spots," Killorn said. "You still want to give yourself the ability to score, but you don't want to risk that by making stupid plays defensively. You want to keep doing the right things. When we scored those goals, we earned those goals and we just want to keep doing that."
Tampa Bay's push for a fourth goal led directly to Columbus getting back in the game. Ryan McDonagh carried the puck from his own end into the offensive zone and down near the goal line where he surveyed his passing options. The smart play probably would have been to take the puck behind the net and allow his teammates to get back in their structure with a defenseman so far low. Instead, McDonagh spotted Erik Cernak skating free into the slot and thought he could set up the rookie defenseman for a potential one-timer from the slot that could have been the nail in the Blue Jackets' coffin.
McDonagh's pass to Cernak was tipped away and deflected to Nick Foligno, who started a break the other way with a pair of teammates joining the rush and Cernak racing desperately to get back into the play to try to break it up.
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Foligno, however, was too far ahead and scored on the breakaway.
From there, Columbus got a foothold into the game and started the journey of rallying to win.
"A lot of times, just chipping it in is the best thing that's for the team to go forward," Killorn said. "One turnover can create such a momentum change in the game, so you don't ever want to give a team the ability to come back."
The comforting thought for the Lightning is they know what they did wrong and they have the ability to fix it for Game 2. And if they play for 60 minutes the way they played the first 20 minutes in Game 1, they'll be tough for any team to beat.
"I can guarantee you no one in the locker room's happy about last night," Tyler Johnson said. "We've all been here before. We've been through a lot of games together, battled through a lot, lot of different situations to where we know what we need to do. We know what we're capable of doing. It's a good thing that we play tomorrow."