The Tampa Bay Lightning opened the Stanley Cup Finals in impressive fashion. They soon learned that finishing strong is what matters most when facing the Chicago Blackhawks.
Shortly after Game 1 was in the books, all the Lightning could do was lament how they sat back and let Chicago snatch the early edge in the championship round with a 2-1 win.
The Lightning have been billed as a younger version of the Blackhawks. Like Chicago, Tampa's strength resides in its skating, skill and forward depth. The big difference is Chicago has won two Stanley Cup titles over the previous five seasons and has learned all there is to know about what it takes to win this time of year. That includes the ability to grind out victories even when it gets off to a rough start.
Early in Wednesday's opener, Tampa was able to dictate the pace and gave the home crowd something to cheer about before the game was even five minutes old.
Alex Killorn sent the Lightning fans into a frenzy at 4:31 of the first period when he surprised Corey Crawford with a brilliant display of hand-eye coordination. With his back to the net from below the right circle, Killorn whacked a fluttering puck of mid-air to beat the Chicago netminder.
However, Crawford was perfect the rest of the way, giving his club the opportunity to rally for the victory. Then, as they've done so many times before, the Blackhawks suddenly made the opposition pay for letting them hang around too long.
Two quick strikes in the latter half of the third period would prove to be the difference. The first came from the stick of rookie Teuvo Teravainen, who scored with 6:32 left in the third. Less than two minutes later, Teravainen forced the turnover that led to Antoine Vermette's winning goal with 4:34 remaining.
Teravainen squared things with a blast from the top of the left circle, beating Tampa goaltender Ben Bishop, who was screened and didn't appear to see the shot. The 20-year-old Finn swiped the puck from Lightning forward J.T. Brown moments later to set up Vermette for his game-winning wrister from between the circles.
From there, Chicago was able to do what Tampa wasn't able to do -- hold onto a one-goal lead and come away with the win.
In terms of thrilling Stanley Cup victories, Wednesday's triumph wasn't even close to the best we've seen from Chicago. It's going to be difficult to ever beat the club's 2013 title-clinching win over Boston for pure drama. That's when Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland scored only 17 seconds apart in the final 76 seconds of regulation to deliver a 3-2 win. In a flash, the Bruins went from the verge of forcing a Game 7 for all the marbles to watching the Blackhawks celebrate a championship on their home ice.
Unlike the Bruins, the Lightning still have plenty of chances in this series to make up for their collapse. However, the Blackhawks have grown accustomed to being the ones who make the most of their opportunities.
"Finding a way today is a good illustration of what this team's all about, said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "Finding ways to win, probably a good example of that tonight."
While the Blackhawks ultimately found a way to win it was the Lightning who opened the door for them. Outside of Ryan Callahan's breakaway chance in the third period, which came less than two minutes before Teravainen's goal, the Lightning put little pressure on Chicago during the final stanza.
In general, the Bolts made life easier for Crawford as the game wore on. They put 10 shots on goal in the first period and eight more in the second before only registering five shots in the third.
"We sat back a little too much," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. "Tough to do that with a team with that much skill. You let them have the puck with minimal pressure, they're going to make some plays."
There are plenty of positives for Tampa to take from Game 1. They're obviously capable of pushing the pace against the Blackhawks, but the real trick is sustaining that tempo for an entire game.
Of course, figuring out the right formula isn't going to be easy because the Lightning are going to have to learn how to beat the Blackhawks on the fly. And after coughing up Game 1, the Bolts can't afford many more hard-luck lessons or they'll simply become the latest team to find out they don't have what it takes to beat Chicago
"Could we sit here and say, 'We're going to hem the Chicago Blackhawks in for 60 straight minutes?' Kind of hard to do," acknowledged Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "Nobody's found a way to do it yet."