The Tampa Bay Lightning opened the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday by falling behind in just 71 seconds, then spent the latter part of the game watching the New York Rangers cruise to a 6-2 victory.

While the cause of Tampa Bay’s sub-par defensive performance might be traced back to a nine-day layoff, the Lightning are not making excuses. If anything, the Rangers now have the full attention of the two-time defending champions.

Tampa Bay’s search for better defensive effort will take center stage in Game 2 at New York on Friday as they look to once again avoid consecutive postseason defeats. Tampa Bay’s last 18 playoff defeats, going back to the 2020 playoffs, have been followed by a victory.

The Lightning are coming off their first playoff loss since dropping Game 5 of the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 10. They finished off the Maple Leafs with consecutive one-goal victories and then outscored the Florida Panthers by a 13-3 margin in the second round during an impressive four-game sweep.

The ripple effect of quickly finishing off the Panthers on May 23 appeared evident Wednesday when the Lightning played their worst game since opening the postseason with a 5-0 loss to Toronto on May 2.

“We certainly didn’t have our best,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “It is what it is. We’re not a group that’s going to use that as an excuse. We have to be better.”

Tampa Bay got early tying goals from Stamkos and Ondrej Palat but little else went right in front of standout goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who matched his career worst for goals allowed in a postseason contest.

The most notable instance of Tampa Bay’s defensive shortcomings came on New York’s fourth goal when the Lightning spent over a minute in the defensive zone before Filip Chytil scored his second goal of the second period.

“It’s Game 1,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve been through this before. We’ve won series when we’ve lost the first game and won series when we won the first game.”

Tampa Bay’s last playoff losing streak was its stunning exit following a four-game sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 first round.

New York spent the first two rounds of the playoffs pulling off comebacks against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers overcame a 3-1 series deficit against Pittsburgh and then rallied from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 versus Carolina.

The Rangers scored nine times in the first five games against Carolina and have scored 17 times in their past three games. Chytil has five of his seven postseason goals in the past three games, and his two goals on one-timers helped the Rangers pull away.

The Rangers head into Friday’s game on a seven-game home winning streak since their triple-overtime loss in the series opener to Pittsburgh on May 3.New York is attempting to become the sixth team in the past 25 seasons to win at least eight straight home playoff games and the first since the 2013 Los Angeles Kings.

“Obviously, it’s nice for the confidence to score some goals,” New York’s Mika Zibanejad said. “We’ve been on the other end of it. It’s still just 1-0 (in the series).

“It’s a new game on Friday and we’ve got to get back to playing our game and try to take some positives from this game.”

The Rangers also are seeking a 2-0 series lead for the first time since the 2014 conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens. Chris Kreider scored early in Game 1 on Wednesday ahead of third-period goals by Artemi Panarin and Zibanejad.

“They’re a good team over there,” New York’s Frank Vatrano said. “We can’t let our foot off the throttle. We just have to keep playing one shift at a time, one game at a time, stick to our game plan.”

–Field Level Media