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The Lightning Believe the Answers Lie Within

After a stunning defeat in Game 1, the Tampa Bay Lightning believe they have the power to change the tide in the series.
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"That's not the Tampa team we prepared for," said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe of his opponent, the morning of game two. 

"We're expecting to see them tonight" 

Keefe certainly has a point with that one. The Tampa bay Lightning might have taken the ice at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night, but the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions were nowhere to be found, allowing the Maple Leafs to completely dictate the pace of the game for all 60 minutes while effectively being neutralized almost immediately from puck-drop. 

Going up against a team with offensive superstars the likes of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, Toronto did wonders in keeping Tampa's big guns out of high-danger areas, surrendering only a select few grade-A chances that the Lightning were simply unable to capitalize on. 

Heat map courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com

Heat map courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com

From the Leafs' side of things, it was as close to a perfect performance as you'll ever find from this group. 

From the Lightning's, their defeat is viewed as a self-inflicted wound. 

"We let them off the hook," coach Jon Cooper admitted. 

"It was an easy night for them" 

The upside to the approach the Lightning has taken in assessing the series opener is that it comes with an underlying sense of control. The Lightning don't believe they're facing some unstoppable force incapable of ever being contained. Rather, they've opted to look internally for answers, operating under the mindset that they're only a few tweaks away from righting the ship, with the solution ultimately lying within their own room. 

You can't blame them for thinking that, either. 

The Lightning arguably play their best hockey with their backs against the wall. Not since their infamous first-round sweep at the hands of the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 has Cooper's squad dropped consecutive playoff games, with goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, in particular, winning his past 14 straight contests coming directly off of a defeat. 

There are many adjustments the Lightning will need to make ahead of game two if they hope to keep that improbably rebound streak alive. But the buck stops in net. And Cooper knows it. 

"The goalie finds a way to get himself dialed in in these situations," Cooper said of Vasilevskiy on Wednesday morning. 

"Not that he doesn't in other scenarios. But give him 60 minutes of a game, and especially put a few by him, he's a pretty proud guy. When he's got his focus in like that in those scenarios, he's pretty tough to beat" 

The focus that Cooper mentions there seemed notably absent from Vasilevskiy throughout most of game one. The 27-year-old struggled mightily to track the puck in his own zone for most of the night, the most damning evidence being when he bit on a Mitch Marner deke that left him almost entirely outside the crease on Toronto's third goal before misplaying the puck directly onto Auston Matthews' stick to make it 5-0 later on. 

It was a rare lapse from a netminder who has been otherworldly for the entirety of his young career. And as history shows, he's unlikely to repeat it again. 

One aspect of the series Vasilevskiy can't control is the physical element, which played a major factor in game one by leaving Lightning players bloodied and cranking the combined penalty minutes between both sides up into the hundreds. Frustration clearly crept out from a team that hasn't really been embarrassed in the past two years. And as the Maple Leafs continued to impose their will in the corners and between the whistles as time wore on, the Lightning found themselves knocked further and further out of their rhythm. 

Like everything else, though, Cooper sees it as a simple fix. 

"The physical aspect of our game is a part of our plan," explained Cooper. 

"The past couple years, that's been a big staple of ours, to wear teams down. We wanted to be more physical in the game. We just weren't. But it's part of it, That's part of the grind." 

"If you're not doing it at all, it becomes an easy night"

The Maple Leafs' physicality certainly played a big role in stifling the Lightning's efforts. But the underlying value came in how each hit, scuffle, or routine bump between either side ignited the crowd and propelled the home side during moments in which they otherwise might have faltered. 

Cooper doesn't believe the raucous Scotiabank Arena faithful played much of a factor in the Lightning's performance on Monday, as loud as they did get. But he did admit to the noise that comes with playing playoff hockey in the center of the hockey world, particularly off of the ice, as being tough to shut out.

"It's hard to ignore because it's on every TV station," laughed Cooper. 

"We'll tell our guys: don't watch TV or use cellphones or go on social media. Because you want that in the city. You want it to be buzzing. But you don't want to hear guys pick players apart" 

"I'll tell our guys: if you want to enjoy this stuff on social media, do it at the parade" 

If the Lightning hope to hold a third consecutive parade this year, the journey towards it begins tonight. This is a team that has proven time and time again just how capable they are of turning the page. And in order to head back home on Thursday to an even playing field, they'll need to do it again tonight. 

They certainly seem to believe they can. 

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