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FIRST ROUND

Lightning must find another level in Game 4 against Blue Jackets

Presidents' Trophy winners aim to avoid sweep, not lacking confidence

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

COLUMBUS -- What has happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is stunning.

"Obviously, we didn't picture ourselves being down 0-3," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "It's a surprise to us."

How could it not be?

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

The Lightning did not lose more than two games in a row at any point in the regular season. They've lost the first three games in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets all in regulation by a combined score of 12-5.

Game 4 of the best-of-7 series is at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, TVAS, SN360, FS-O, SUN).

The Lightning averaged a League-high 3.89 goals-per game in the regular season, including 5.67 in three games against the Blue Jackets. They are averaging 1.67 per game in the series.

None of the Lightning's top three scoring forwards from the regular season - Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point - have a point in this series after combining for 318 (127 goals, 191 assists) in the regular season.

Kucherov, the League's leading scorer with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), will play after he was suspended for Game 3 for boarding Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara in a 5-1 loss in Game 2 on Friday.

Video: Blue Jackets keep shocking, take 3-0 series lead

The Lighting's power play, No. 1 in the regular season at 28.2 percent, is 0-for-5 with a shorthanded goal against. They didn't get a power-play opportunity in Game 3, a 3-1 loss.

Tampa Bay's penalty kill, which was tied with Columbus and the Arizona Coyotes for No. 1 in the League in the regular season at 85.0 percent, is 50 percent in this series (4-for-8).

"It's a lot to digest right now," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.

Around the League, though, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of surprise that the Lightning are in this predicament, facing the obstacle of their first must-win game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It's not because people expected them to lose or thought their regular season, with a record-tying 62 wins and 128 points, was a fluke. It's more because expecting anything to be the same in the playoffs as it is in the regular season is foolish.

"When they say the playoffs are a new season, you have to respect that," said Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who was set to play in his 162nd career playoff game Monday.

"Everything that you've accomplished during the regular season has been wiped off the table. Everybody starts with a zero. All the stats start with zero. I think that's one thing people like to talk about, having always one team being the favorite, the other team being the underdog, but there is no such a thing.

"You can be talking about teams that have this skill, that type of player, but if you do that you only bring motivation for the other team to do their best and bring their best and they usually do."

Video: Blue Jackets beat Lightning, go up 3-0 in series

Chara is right about that. The Blue Jackets have arguably not played any better or more consistent this season than they are against the Lightning in this series.

And Washington Capitals center Lars Eller isn't surprised by that. He said the Blue Jackets weren't getting enough respect for the type of team they are entering the playoffs (7-1-0 in their final eight regular-season games) and writing them off because they were playing a historically successful team was ignorant.

"I had a sense that if they could find their game, they're suited for that playoff style of hockey," Eller said. "I think it was just a matter of time for them of getting everything to click a little bit and they seem to be doing that right now. So, I'm not surprised because I know they had another level in their game."

Here's the thing, though, and it's driving the Lightning's optimism right now:

They have another level too, and they think they may have found it in the third period of Game 3, when they started to execute some skilled plays, had an attack mentality, scored to make it 2-1 at 4:40 and outshot Columbus 14-7 before Cam Atkinson scored an empty-net goal with 1:00 remaining.

It was the type of period the Lightning put together so often during the regular season, only typically with another goal or two to show for it, maybe even a power-play opportunity, too.

They didn't get either, but that third period has buoyed their confidence and their belief.

"It's something to build on and that's what we need right now is something positive," Callahan said. "We got that in the third period and now we need to build on that and continue it right from the start of Game 4."

It would help if they got something positive out of Kucherov, Stamkos and Point.

"I take a lot of pride in that, but in saying that, those three games are over and done with," Stamkos said. "We have a chance as a group and myself as an individual to have an impact on the next game to try to spark something for our team.

"No matter the situation, no matter if you've been playing great or not playing great, you always have a belief coming into a game that you can do something to help your team win. That's the belief I'm going to have in myself and in our team in Game 4."

NHL.com staff writers Tom Gulitti and Mike Zeisberger contributed to this report

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