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How Lightning can rebound in Game 2 of 1st-round series vs. Panthers

SUNRISE — Losing their playoff opener to the Florida Panthers Sunday won’t quell the Lightning’s belief they can go on a long postseason run.

They looked overmatched early in their 3-2 loss at Amerant Bank Arena, but like the battle-tested team they are they stuck with their process and leveled play in what became a tightly contested, one-goal game ultimately decided by small details.

“Our process was good,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “But good wasn’t good enough, so we have to improve on that.”

The Lightning lost their 2022 postseason opener 5-0 in Toronto but came back to win the series in seven games. This is a different team, but the core knows momentum can shift quickly from game to game in the playoffs.

“We have to come out and play a much better game, but there’s certainly no panic in here,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve been on both sides where we’ve won the first game and lost the series and plenty of times where we’ve lost the first game and won the series. So, it’s just about executing the next game for us.”

Panthers coach Paul Maurice on Monday called Game 1 “an intelligent, physical game” by both teams. The defenses were stout, with neither giving up many open looks. Both teams were physical from the start, but without the saber-rattling that can take focus away from a game.

“They finished checks that they could get to, but they didn’t run around to do it,” Maurice said of the Lightning. “And I felt the same about our game. But there wasn’t the kind of explosion of emotion every time a big hit was thrown. Both teams kind of understood. We’ve been in those kinds of games all year. They’ve been in the (Stanley Cup) final three times the last four years. They get it.”

Still, the Lightning find themselves battling from behind. Here’s what they have to do in Game 2 to even the series.

Build on the positives

Take away Game 1′s first 16 minutes, played primarily in the Lightning end, and the game was mostly even. After outshooting Tampa Bay 8-0 during the opening stretch, Florida held a narrow 20-19 advantage the rest of the way. A Panthers power-play goal was the difference in the end.

If the Lightning can build on the little things they did over the final 44 minutes and create more offensive chances against a Florida team that, statistically, was the stingiest in the NHL in terms of goals allowed during the regular season, they can progress from there.

Tampa Bay needs more looks. It sounds simple, but establishing its forecheck game, and getting pucks and bodies to the front of the net to make goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky uncomfortable should help create more opportunities in the offensive zone.

“It’s not like we can continually roll in here and say we’re going to put up six against Florida,” Cooper said. “So, a little bit more, I guess, urgency and execution in the offensive zone will help us.”

Stay physical but disciplined

The Lightning gave the Panthers three power plays, which isn’t egregious, but when they’re not getting many man-advantage opportunities the other way, it takes a toll. A couple of the penalties called against Tampa Bay could have been questioned, especially in a game as physical as Sunday’s. Particularly the holding call on Nick Paul late in the second period that led to the go-ahead goal early in the third.

But the Lightning can’t let the officiating get into their heads. They need to play with the same aggressiveness they did in Game 1 but make sure to cut down on the stick plays that can draw whistles. It’s a fine line, but all about smarts and positioning, which is difficult against a team as fast and fundamentally sound as the Panthers.

“We just have to do a better job of staying disciplined,” Stamkos said. “I thought for the most part, both teams were pretty disciplined. And I think that’s the key.”

Previous games between the teams have been riddled with penalties because of the fuel each brings to the rivalry, but the Panthers toed the line well between being physical and staying out of the box. They were the second most-penalized team in the league in terms of minor penalties, so calls should even out. But the Lightning need to do their part to let that happen and create more chances for their top-ranked power-play.

More offensive zone time for top line

The Lightning’s top line can do a lot of things, but being hemmed in its own end for long periods of time does not play to its strengths. It is at its best with the puck on its sticks, moving north and creating space with its speed. But the Panthers took that space away in Game 1.

Nikita Kucherov had just one shot on goal. Brayden Point spent most of the game with just one, and Anthony Duclair had none. The three rarely had the puck in the offensive end and had even fewer looks at the net. Such a lack of scoring chances is not a winning formula.

The Lightning will have to make it simpler with a dump-and-chase game. Get the puck behind the Panthers and get it back on the forecheck and create offense that way. The top line can do it, and Kucherov and Point embrace that style when they know it leads to bigger things.

Keep breakouts simple

The Panthers’ forecheck can be suffocating, and we saw moments — especially early on — when they used it to force turnovers in the Lightning end, sustain offensive zone time and create chaos.

Tampa Bay on Monday called up defenseman Max Crozier, and Cooper said he might have to play in Game 2 depending on who is available. Right-shot defensemen Erik Cernak and Nick Perbix briefly exited Sunday’s game, and Perbix did not practice Monday, though the team called it a body maintenance day.

That could mean an all-rookie third pairing of Emil Lilleberg on the left side and Crozier on the right. They had strong chemistry as partners in the AHL, and that carried over to their time with the Lightning. They earned the staff’s trust because they kept their breakouts simple, while adding some sandpaper to the lineup. The Lightning have used a lot of defensive pairings this season, but the chief goal has to be getting the puck out of the zone without turning it over and fueling Florida’s offense.

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