Burns: Three Things we learned from a season-opening loss

by 24USATVOct. 13, 2021, 7 a.m. 17
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The only thing that didn't show up Tuesday night, it would seem, was the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tampa Bay's newest decoration for its home arena showed up too, the 2021 Stanley Cup Championship banner rising to the rafters in front of a packed house, a departure from last year's ceremony that was held in front of just 3,800 fans and two months after the regular season started due to Covid protocols.

The crowd showed up, 19,092 strong, AMALIE Arena reaching its maximum capacity for the first time since March 5, 2020, a week before the 2019-20 regular season paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a campaign that would culminate in the first of the Bolts' back-to-back Cups.

The Stanley Cup showed up at AMALIE Arena, the spoils of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2021 Stanley Cup victory on full display.

The opening game of the 2021-22 regular season was all about showing up.

"It was a dud," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said matter-of-factly.

The Pittsburgh Penguins spoiled Tampa Bay's celebration, outplaying the Bolts in nearly every way possible in a resounding 6-2 victory to begin the new season. The Lightning never led in the contest. The Penguins built a 3-0 lead then added three empty-net goals as the Bolts made a furious push at the end to try to salvage something from the game.

The Lightning lost a season opener for the first time since 2013-14, their stretch of seven-consecutive wins in openers snapped Tuesday.

"We're just going to throw that tape out," Pat Maroon said.

Here's what we learned about the 2021-22 version of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a disappointing start to the season.

1. A CELEBRATION TO REMEMBER

The pre-game ceremony was about the only positive Tampa Bay could take away from Opening Night.

Bally Sports Sun pre-game host Paul Kennedy narrated a recap of the Lightning's run through the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs while a video montage of each series played on Lightning Vision.

The fans booed when the Florida Panthers were mentioned.

They cheered when Ross Colton's shot went into the net, clinching the Cup in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against Montreal.

Then, one by one, the members of the 2021-22 Tampa Bay Lightning were introduced, each player lauded by the crowd as they formed a circle around center ice.

The Stanley Cup made its way to the ice. Behind it was a long box, out of which rose the new banner that would eventually rise all the way to the rafters.

The Lightning hosted nearly the same scene to start the previous season. Except when they unveiled their 2020 championship banner that Opening Night, there were no fans in the building. Two months later when a small portion of fans were finally allowed to attend, the Lightning hosted a proper banner raising, but with only about one-fifth of the seats occupied, it didn't have the same electricity as if a full crowd was there.

Not so on Tuesday. The arena was jammed with fans taking in the spectacle.

"That was fantastic," Stamkos said. "That was something that we all were looking forward to in front of our fans here, family that were in attendance. That was special. We didn't quite get that last year. Guys were really excited about that. I thought it was a great atmosphere. And then that was about it for us tonight in terms of great things."

The Lightning stood on the ice and watched as the banner went up. There were thoughts of the sacrifice it took to earn it, the memories made, the special group that was able to achieve greatness by going back-to-back.

It was a time for reflection.

"It's a huge accomplishment for our group," Maroon said. "We deserved to watch that banner get raised. We deserve it. We earned it. Obviously, it's not the result we wanted tonight, but I think when you look at the banner go up in the rafters, we think back at how hard it was to win and what a special group we had. It was a special night for us and the fans to witness something go back in the rafters, going back-to-back."

Then it was time for the game.

Unfortunately, the positives for the Bolts, unbeknownst to them and the fans, were all-but exhausted by that point.

2. A KICK IN THE BUTT

On Tuesday night, Tampa Bay was a shell of the team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups and is positioned once again to challenge for hockey's holy grail.

No matter what the Lightning tried against the Penguins, it didn't seem to work.

"We tried to find answers and we couldn't," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It was like we were stuck in mud the whole night. It was tough because I really haven't seen that out of us in a long time. It's going to happen, but in game one is not really when you're expecting it to happen."

There was no flow to Tampa Bay's game. Passes were delivered to no one. They didn't manage the puck well. They turned the puck over with regularity. They couldn't get off many uncontested shots against the Penguins and they struggled to get inside to test netminder Tristan Jarry. By the end of the first period, Pittsburgh owned a 14-7 advantage in shots, although the game was still scoreless at that point.

Just 12 seconds into the middle frame, however, Jeff Carter stopped Andrei Vasilevskiy's rim attempt behind the Bolts' net and fed Danton Heinen in front. Heinen had an open net with Vasilevskiy out of position and converted to give the Penguins a deserved lead.

Former Lightning center Brian Boyle, who couldn't find a team last season but signed a one-year contract with Pittsburgh earlier in the day, got in alone on goal and shot five-hole through Vasilevskiy to extend the Pens' lead to 2-0 a couple minutes later.

"I think Pittsburgh just came out, and we were flat," Maroon said. "We weren't hungry. We lost battles. They were moving their feet. They were predictable. We weren't predictable. It was just one of those things."

One sequence in particular was emblematic of Tampa Bay's night. The Lightning were entering the offensive zone with speed on an odd-man rush down by two. Corey Perry carried the puck over the blue line and tried to drop a pass for a trailer.

Except the puck bounced off Brian Dumolin's discarded helmet that had been knocked off the defenseman's head about 30 seconds earlier and laid motionless in the Lightning offensive zone.

"They outworked us," Stamkos said. "We were chasing the puck all night. You've got to give them credit. Hopefully that's just a little bit of a wake-up call for our group that you've got to go out and execute. We had success the last two years for a reason. We didn't show that tonight to have success."

Tampa Bay generated next to nothing offensively until it pulled goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy down 3-0 with over six minutes remaining. The Lightning finally got on the board with Anthony Cirelli tipping Victor Hedman's point shot for the Bolts' first goal of the season. But Pittsburgh quickly responded with an empty-net goal. The Penguins added two more empty-netters after Alex Killorn cut their lead to 4-2 with another extra-attacker goal.

"They beat us to every puck," Cooper said. "They worked harder than us. They were better than us in every facet of the game. If it wasn't for our goalie, it probably would have been way worse. They came here to win a hockey game. We came here and watched a banner raising and then watched a team want to win a hockey game. We did a lot of watching tonight. That was pretty much it."

3. THE BULLSEYE EFFECT

Tampa Bay knew coming into the season as the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion it was going to get every team's best shot.

The Lightning talked throughout training camp about how they would have a target on their back.

But perhaps just how much teams would be gunning for them wasn't quite understood until Pittsburgh put it on them Opening Night.

The Bolts hadn't played the Penguins since February 11, 2020, before the first of their back-to-back Cups. With a shortened season, reconfigured divisions and limited travel, the Lightning only saw seven other teams during the 2020-21 regular season.

This season they play every team in the NHL at least twice. A lot of those teams that haven't seen the Lightning in quite a while now suddenly want a piece of them. They want to prove themselves against the League's best.

"You don't quite see that as much last year," Stamkos said. "We're getting a taste of all the other teams in the league again. It's getting back to a normal schedule. Anytime you play the defending champs, you're going to get the other team's best. It's not an excuse by any means. We've got to expect it. We've got to elevate our game. I believe we'll have a good response game. We usually do after games where we don't really bring it."

Pittsburgh was without its two biggest stars for the opener in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both injured. But perhaps that served more to galvanize the underdog Penguins than it did to deter them. They played a simple game and relied on their hustle and determination to beat the Bolts to loose pucks and win battles.

"It all comes down to work ethic and puck battles and supporting each other," Maroon said. "The system stuff, we can draw it up all we want, but it just comes down to who wants it more. Pittsburgh wanted it more. It's going to be like that all year against us. People are going to want to beat us and take it to us every single night."

The challenge for the Lightning, Maroon said, is to match other teams' desperation level. It can serve as a motivator for the Bolts knowing every time they take the ice, the other team is looking to punch them in the mouth.

It just wasn't on Tuesday night for whatever reason.

"It better refocus us," Cooper said. "One thing about this league, being around a little bit now, the start means a ton…We've notoriously gotten off to a pretty good start. That's what you need to do if you want to make the playoffs. Tonight was a step backwards, but it's game one. I'm not going to guarantee the result, but I would expect a hell of a different effort (next time out) than we had tonight."

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