Friday, 4 a.m.
Intellectually, you understand.
Mentally, you get it.
Philosophically, you can live with it.
On the other hand, this is the hockey team you picture in the playoffs. And futhermore, yuck.
The Tampa Bay Lightning was clobbered Thursday night. Think bug against a windshield. Think grapes against the bottom of a foot. Think pimples against a teenager.
Splat, in other words.
The Lightning fell 5-0 to Toronto, a team that had fallen behind the Bolts in the wild-card standings. The Bolts were home. They were riding a five-game winning streak. Their goalie was playing light's out. There were so many advantages, in other words.
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And then the Bolts were symbolically punched in the nose. And by the time the night was over, it had its worst loss of the year. There have been two other five-goal losses (Washington and Columbus, but at least the Bolts scored in both of those.) In this one, nada. The Maple Leafs were a hungrier team, a sharper team, a better defensive team.
Lately, Tampa Bay has looked the part of a playoff team. It pointed in 15 of its previous games, and the defense had played better, and Vasilevskiy was on his finest streak of the year.
But this time? This time, the Bolts looked like just another AHL team on a morning skate. It didn't do a lot very well, especially defensively.
“The thing that was missing was the defending. That was what we weren’t doing,” Coach Jon Cooper said. “It was just the little ten by ten area in front of our net was the only area on the ice we didn’t play. Clearly that’s the most important part. That’s what’s unfortunate. We’ve been so good defending of late, hence why we’ve had success. We didn’t tonight. It’s too bad because it looks bad on Vasilevskiy, but there’s not much he can do when you’ve got guys just tapping them in and winning battles against us there. What can you do? Missed opportunity for us, but we’re going to wake up tomorrow with the same amount of points we’re out of a playoff spot as we started today so just got to turn the page and move on. That’s it.”
Mentally, you figure the Bolts need success on Saturday night. Otherwise, this could be the week that does them in. Tampa Bay had pulled back into a tie for the final wild-card spot, but Toronto snatched that away Thursday night.
“It’s one of those four-point games,” said Alex Killorn. “We’re still close with them in the standings. Now they jump us, but there’s a lot of hockey left to play. We’ve been on a nice little run here. I think we have to put things in perspective, but also
know that these games are huge. These next couple of games. Washington is a huge game. We’ll put it behind us. We’ll take what we need from the game, watch the video, learn some things. All we can do is be better against Washington.”
For the Bolts, it starts with defense. That was the reason that Andrei Vasilevskiy was pulled from the game in the second period. A coach can't pull his defenders and ask his offensive guys to play both ends.
"We were in all alone a few times and just didn’t even get shots off," Cooper said. "Pucks are rolling on us. Probably, maybe a product of trying too hard. Maybe a little frustration set in, but we had some good looks. We had a heck of a lot more better looks than I think that they did. We didn’t give them a ton of scoring chances, just every one they had went in the net. It was a product of us just not defending. We were just too far away from our net. We weren’t men down low. It cost us so just learn from it and move on.”
That's the thing about a playoff race. Every win convinces you that all wounds are healed, and every loss suggests that all leaves should be canceled. After a night like this, you want to ask Steven Stamkos how the knee feels, don't you?
Twelve games left.
If the Bolts are going to make the playoffs, it's time to go to work.