Jon Cooper is confident the Tampa Bay Lightning will be fine.
Experience tells the coach and his players they shouldn’t be overly concerned about losing the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals at home.
The way the Washington Capitals are playing, though, it could be more difficult to rebound from a shabby performance this time.
Game 2 is Sunday night, and Cooper expects the Atlantic Division winners to be at their best.
“It’s unfortunate how we played a couple of these Game 1s in the last couple of rounds, (and) dug ourselves a small hole this series,” the coach said after a workout Saturday at the team’s suburban practice facility.
“I guess the positive side is we’ve been here before, so we’ve seen this. But we can’t keep playing with fire and dropping these Game 1s, which we’ve done. All of a sudden you’ve thrown home ice advantage back at them. Now you’ve put pressure on yourself. You got to go win games on the road, which you have to do anyway in the playoffs, but your margin for error gets smaller and smaller. We’re really going to need a good effort (Sunday).”
The Capitals won the opener 4-2, ending an eight-game playoff losing skid to Tampa Bay dating to the 2003 postseason.
Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Jay Beagle and Lars Eller scored for Washington, while rejuvenated goaltender Braden Holtby stopped 19 shots to help the Caps improve to 6-1 on the road this postseason.
The Lightning didn’t take solace in breaking through for a pair of third-period goals.
“We dissected the game a little bit,” Cooper said. “There were so many good things we’ve done in two rounds of hockey that I think if you bottled up all the bad things in those first 10 games it would be about half of what we did in that one game last night.
“You fueled the fire of a good team, and that’s what Washington is. I thought a lot of their opportunities we just handed to them, and a lot of our opportunities were stomped out just by our not sticking to our plan of what’s worked.”
The Capitals, in the conference finals for the first time in the Ovechkin era, said they can’t afford a drop-off in performance.
Beating two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh gave them momentum heading into the series.
Coach Barry Trotz, mindful that Tampa Bay lost Game 1 of its second-round series 6-2 to Boston only to strom back and win four straight games, reiterated it won’t be easy to build off the Caps’ success in the opener.
“You get a little bit of confidence, obviously,” Trotz said at the team hotel Saturday. “At the same time we’ve got to realize Tampa Bay is going to have some desperation in their game. And, we better have some desperation in our game.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s All-Star goaltender, yielded four goals on 25 shots in two periods after entering the series with an 8-2 record, 2.20 goals-against average and .927 save percentage through two rounds.
The Lightning are confident they’ll play better in front of him in Game 2. The Caps expect the goaltender to bounce back, too.
“One thing you got to remember, this is not the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s not one and done,” Cooper said. “It’s the best of seven, so you get a chance to make some adjustments to improve your game and really get a look at the other team. … It’s hard to play flawless hockey all the way through.”
The Caps don’t expect the Lightning to panic, either.
“Obviously, it doesn’t matter what we did in Game 1 when it comes to Game 2,” Beagle said.
“I would imagine there will be a really good push back from a really good hockey team. We’re going to have to stay focused, not get ahead of ourselves,” Oshie concluded. “I can’t imagine we’re going to see the same Tampa team we saw in the first period the rest of this series.”
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