Instead, the Lightning stunned the Pittsburgh Penguins, previously 5-1 at home in the playoffs, by a 3-1 count Friday night and announced in the wake of a peculiar and sometimes nasty game that they are not to be ignored in their bid for back-to-back Stanley Cup finals berths.
"Game 1's always huge," said Tyler Johnson as he headed for the Lightning bus late Friday night, limping noticeably thanks to a questionable knee-on-knee hit late in the first period courtesy of the Penguins' Chris Kunitz.
"We haven't done as well as what we'd like. I think we've been talking about it a lot; we wanted to get a better start, especially being on the road, especially being against a good team against Pittsburgh. You can't really just mail in a game against them; we had to come out hot, and I thought we did that."
The Lightning entered Friday night's game 2-4 in Game 1s dating to last year's playoffs. Friday night marked a positive departure from that trend, and it came in spite of the fact Vezina Trophy nominee Ben Bishop was taken from the Consol Energy Center ice on a stretcher with 7:35 left in the first period of a scoreless game after seemingly catching his skate near one goal post and falling awkwardly in his crease.
Head coach Jon Cooper said that X-rays came back negative -- "Nothing structurally wrong, which is a relief" -- and that while Bishop was clearly injured -- he was grabbing at his lower left leg and writhing in pain on the ice -- they are hoping for the best for arguably their premier player during the regular season and into the playoffs.
"It's one of those moments where he's been so great for us, and no one knew what was happening," said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, who scored the first goal of the game with less than two minutes to go in the first period. "No one knew what was wrong with him. And for him to get carted off like that, it's typically pretty serious. But I just went up to him and said, 'We got this.' "
As emotionally jarring as it was to see a close friend and teammate leave the game on a stretcher, the Lightning's players refocused and denied a Penguins team that entered the conference finals with the most potent offense in the playoffs.
Lightning backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, as he did a year ago in the Stanley Cup finals when Bishop was likewise injured against the Chicago Blackhawks, came in and didn't miss a beat.
The Lightning did an excellent job of keeping the Penguins from getting at Vasilevskiy early, giving up only one shot in the first period and nine more in the second. When he did face more sustained action -- the Penguins fired 16 shots at him in the third -- he was excellent, finishing with 25 saves on 26 shots.
"When bad things like that happen, we know we have Vassy backing [Bishop] up," said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who set up the Killorn goal with a nice stretch pass that seemed to catch Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta by surprise. "You can't say enough about how he played. He was calm back there. He made some great saves for us."
The Penguins dominated even-strength play against the New York Rangers andWashington Capitals in the first two rounds but could not get passes to connect and could not get shots through to the Lightning net in Game 1. By the end of the night, the Lightning were credited with 20 blocked shots and the vaunted Penguins offense looked merely mortal.
"I don't think they saw our best today," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "I know this team has set a high standard for their play. You know, I don't think it was our best game, and that's what we need in order to have success at this point in the season."
Last series, when Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was suspended for a game for a dangerous hit on Marcus Johansson, and Olli Maatta and Eric Fehr were also out of the lineup, the Capitals could not take advantage. The Penguins went on to enjoy a 3-1 series lead and ultimately dispatched the regular-season champs in six games.
This likewise was a game in which the Penguins should have exploited the loss of Bishop.
Instead, it was a Tampa team that has proved to be among the most resilient in the NHL and drew strength from its own adversity to draw first blood.
"It's very upsetting and disappointing to see a guy on our team go down in obvious stress," said Lightning forward Brian Boyle, who was part of a penalty-killing unit that limited the Penguins to one goal on four opportunities, including successfully killing a five-minute major to Ryan Callahan just 2:50 into the game for boarding Letang. "But you have to kind of put it aside and focus on the task.
"Things happen. Unfortunately for us, we've had to deal with it this year quite a bit. We've got some depth. We've got guys right through the lineup we can trust and play in all situations. Everybody did a pretty good job."