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EDMONTON — The way Jon Cooper sees it, his Tampa Bay Lightning were missing two main ingredients which turned out to be a recipe for failure in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final.
"We didn’t have our legs. And we didn’t have our minds," the longest-tenured coach in the NHL said Sunday afternoon of what went wrong in Saturday night’s 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars inside the hockey bubble here in Edmonton.
"Sometimes you can get away without having one of those. But you can’t get away without having both."
And so a favoured Lightning club, which mostly breezed through the first three rounds in series wins against Columbus, Boston and the New York Islanders, now find themselves facing some early adversity as they prepare for tonight’s Game 2 (7 p.m. CT). They’ll look to continue a playoff pattern in which they followed up four previous losses with impressive victories.
"We’ve been able to bounce back, guys have learned from their mistakes. Some of these games we’ve lost we’ve thought we were our own worst enemy in those games," said Cooper. "This group’s dialed in, so I expect a better effort (Monday)."
Dallas was the superior team for 40 minutes in the opener, building a 3-1 lead and then sitting back on the lead for the final frame. The result was a lopsided third period in which the Lightning outshot the Stars 22-2, yet couldn’t beat goaltender Anton Khudobin. The only goal was an empty-netter by Dallas.
"You cant afford to be caught sleeping. I think we just came out a little tentative, a little sluggish, and our play was a bit sloppy. We’ll work on our starts. I thought we got better as the game moved on. I would expect more of our game in the third period moving forward," said Tampa forward Blake Coleman.
"Nobody’s proud of the way we played. And we have a very proud group. I expect every guy to look in the mirror and bounce back and play better than we did in Game 1. When we have four lines rolling we’re a hard team for anybody to contain in this league. I would expect us to take the fight to them moving forward. I’m excited to see the response from the boys.
"It’s one game, but we’ve learned a lot about our opponent already. Now we know what to expect, we know what we’re in for. I expect this to be a long and hard fought series."
Could the Lightning soon be getting a boost with the return of their captain? Steven Stamkos hasn’t played a hockey game in more than six months after suffering a lower-body injury during informal training skates in July. But he’s been an active participant in recent practices, and optimism is growing.
"I know it’s killing him more than anyone else to not be in the lineup. He’s inching his way closer, no doubt," said Cooper. "You don’t get this many chances to be where we are. He wants to be a part of it on the ice. He’s fighting his way to be back. We’re hopeful he’ll be able to come back at some point in this series."
Even if he’s not 100 per cent, getting one of the best pure scorers of his generation back could be a game-changer.
"Stammer’s a superstar in this league, obviously. To some extent it doesn’t matter how much time off he’s had. If you see Stammer you’re going to see the best of him. That’s the way he is. He’s going to give you everything he’s got. Honestly, an 80 per cent Stammer is better than most players in this league, still," said Coleman.
Dallas is certainly expecting to see him at some point, along with a much stronger effort from an opponent they certainly won’t take for granted despite drawing first blood.
"He’s a great player, changes the whole look of the power play. You take three penalties in one period like we did (Saturday) night, they’re going to do some damage with Steven out there and his ability to one-time the puck," said Stars coach Rick Bowness, who doesn’t mind giving up a large quantity of shots provided they aren’t of a high quality nature, which was mostly the case on Saturday.
Still, Dallas knows Tampa Bay has plenty of firepower at their disposal, with or without Stamkos.
"They’re great players, and they’re going to get their chances. You have to minimize as much as you can. I think we did a pretty good job of that. Try to keep them on the outside as much as you can, and pressure them as much as you can all over the ice, so they don’t have a lot of time," said Bowness.
"When it doesn’t go your way it can be frustrating. But I would expect for Tampa to dig in a little deeper and I think we’ll see a much better game out of them (Monday)," added Stars captain Jamie Benn.
There were 106 combined hits in Game 1, with Dallas playing the body on Tampa early and often. It was a sound strategy, considering the Stars hadn’t played for five days, while the Lightning had only ended the Eastern Conference Final 48 hours earlier.
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