Tampa Bay whips New York at its own game.
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop stopped all 26 shots he faced behind a masterful defensive effort to get the shutout. He was challenged pretty hard by the talking heads in the media after allowing 10 goals total in the previous two games of the series, and he smothered what few chances the Rangers developed tonight. He was especially strong in the First Period as the Lightning played a classic road strategy where they successfully weathered the home club's early charge. In the end, U of Maine Justice reigned supreme, and were I a superstitious man I might be advocating having Nesterov hit Bishop in the tender bits during warm-ups before every game from here on out if that's the performance you end up getting out of it.
13:29 TB Filppula (3), (Stamkos, Stralman)
18:22 TB Stamkos (7), (Palat, Kucherov)(PP)
I am absolutely shocked at this result. Not so much that the Lightning won, mind you, but how they won was absolutely amazing. The Lightning essentially followed the Rangers' own recipe and baked up a sweet confection filled with defensive dominance. The Lightning typically do not play well without the puck. They are a possession team and they have looked lost for most of the past couple of years in games where the other team tilts the ice against them. Tonight, playing against an amped up Rangers team fresh off a 5-1 win on their home ice in MSG, they played a nearly flawless, defense-first road game where they comfortably absorbed the Rangers' pushes and eventually manufactured the goals they needed on a counter rush and late on the power play. At the heart of it all was a Herculean effort by the team's much-maligned penalty kill, which went 4-for-4 tonight and made the Rangers look positively non-threatening on their last 3 chances with the extra man. These are things I'm fairly certain the Lightning were not constructed for, and yet they executed that style with amazing efficiency. And, once they had that 2-goal lead, they put the lid on in the Third Period with a calmness they absolutely failed to muster in their Game Three victory that ended up getting pushed to Overtime.
So, I'll say this: If the Lightning continue to prove they can win games like this consistently when they don't have the lion's share of possession, I don't know how you can beat them in a 7-game series. They continue to shore up every major hole and weakness in their game little by little as these playoffs move along. Bad PK last year? Looked pretty good most of these playoffs. Non-existent power play all regular season? Now they're getting key goals at key times. Waiting on your franchise cornerstones (Stamkos and Hedman) to rise up and be the team's best players along with Bishop? Sure looked that way tonight. When you layer learning to play a strong defensive game without the puck and learning how to protect leads in tight games on top of that, they're on the verge of becoming positively terrifying to play against. And, imagine this: Vladislav Namestnikov, Jonathan Drouin, and Slater Koekkoek aren't even regular contributors to this team, yet. They'll be even more talented at this time next season. I won't throw the "dy" word out there quite yet, but you can see where this might be progressing. They haven't played their best hockey consistently yet, and yet they've still managed to put the veteran-laden President's Trophy winner on the ropes after disposing of the presumptive MVP netminder in the previous round and NHL royalty in the Red Wings in the opening series. It just shows how incredibly talented this team is.
Now, here's another test for the Lightning. Much like the Montreal series, you don't want this game to go to a Game Seven in their barn. You don't want to step foot in New York again until next season. Now: finish them. Put the offensive jump from Game Four together with the defensive play from Game Five and the finishing from Game Two and Game Three and put the Rangers away. Do so, and the team punches its ticket for the Stanley Cup Finals. To paraphrase Tyler Johnson, how cool is that?
Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 1 hit in 8:02, with his ice time limited in a tight game on the road with the team not holding last change. I have to say, I'm pleased how he's tightened up his game in the defensive zone after looking a little loose in that department in the Montreal series. He could be a monster in another year or two once he gets a full regular season in to develop further at the NHL level.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 18 shots for the OT loss. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but I can't really fault Ben on either goal.
5:20 TB Paquette (11), (Killorn, Drouin)
16:50 STL Tarasenko (26), (Stastny)
1:16 STL Schwartz (18), (Butler, Elliott)
That hurt bad. That hurt really bad. The Lightning absolutely dominated almost the entire game. They outshop St. Louis 31-17 in regulation, and the chances were about that lopsided. Elliot made about a half dozen sparkling saves for the Blues and the Lightning continued to sputter on the PP, going 0-for-3 on the game. They just could not get the insurance marker and allowed the Blues to tie it off a clean faceoff loss by Brian Boyle, and in OT the defense just got out of sorts trying to stop a 2-on-2 rush situation, and in the end they left 1 point they should've gotten on the rink.
Jonathan Drouin had a helper and was +1 with 1 hit in 15:42. He also set up Cedric Paquette with a long stretch pass in the Third Period that nearly became the key insurance marker, but Elliot stood up to the task. Tonight's game marks Drouin's graduation from prospect status on the website.
Luke Witkowski was +1 with 1 hit and 2 blocked shots in 14:20. He plays like a guy who understands his athletic limitations and plays efficiently within his boundaries. He moves the puck quickly to make sure he doesn't put himself in bad spots. He'll give a guy a pop if its there, but he won't go running out of position to do it because he knows he doesn't necessarily have the recovery speed to get away with it. He's just played like a smart, lower pair stay-at-homer so far.
Bishop saves the day.
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 35 shots for the victory. With the Lightning playing flat as a pancake in front of him, Bishop made a handful of key stops to give his club the time to pull away in the Third Period. Make no mistake, though, Bishop was the margin in this one and the game was closer than the scoreboard indicates.
19:36 TB Connolly (9), (Morrow, Garrison)
10:02 TB Paquette (10), (Drouin, Killorn)
11:43 TB Filppula (10), (unassisted)
16:34 CBJ Johansen (19), (Savard, Murray)
I can't help but be a little alarmed at how flat the Lightning have played recently going into games against lower-tier opponents like Carolina, Columbus, etc. There's some bad habits and a little bit of laziness/lack of focus (particularly on their continually awful PP) that crops up in these games that you don't see as much of against the big boys like Detroit. The mark of the really elite clubs is that they play their game regardless of who they're lining it up against, but that hasn't been the case lately for the Lightning. They'll need to get over that if they want to progress to the next level on their way to becoming a championship caliber team. Finding some sort of identity/concept on the PP would be a nice addition, too.
Cedric Paquette had a goal (GWG), 3 shots, and 1 hit in 13:53. He was also 67% on draws. That's 5 goals in the last 3 games. Tonight was Cedric's 41st game of the season, which graduates him from prospect status here on the website. We've been online (officially) since the '05-'06 season, and in 9.5 seasons of hockey I can't recall a prospect hitting their graduation threshold with this kind of flair. You can't help but feel wonderful for the young man who was an overage 4th rounder who got passed over completely in his first draft year and had to work so hard to improve his skating to make it to the league, where he's now flourishing.
Jonathan Drouin had a helper and was +1 with 1 shot in 13:29. It's lost in the meteoric rise of Cedric Paquette, but Drouin's got 4 helpers and is +4 in the last 3 games, as well. He's got 1 more game to go to graduate from prospect status on the website, too, and he's showing signs of finally starting to settle into the league now.
Luke Witkowski was +2 with 1 shot in 12:33. Not noticable = very good for a rookie defenseman.
Ben Bishop rebounded from his subpar performance against Carolina to allow just 1 goal on 28 shots for the victory. He was very sharp after shaking off the All-Star Break hangover he had in the last outing.
2:03 TB Paquette (7), (Killorn, Garrison)
11:59 DET Helm (9), (Ericsson, Datsyuk)
19:23 TB Paquette (8), (Drouin, Killorn)
4:18 TB Stamkos (27), (Stralman, Drouin)(PP)
11:03 TB Paquette (9), (unassisted)(SH)
17:39 TB Barberio (1), (Sustr, Johnson)
News of the Tampa Bay Lightning's demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated. As has occurred several times so far this season, this team seems to have the ability to raise their level of play to match the challenge at hand. Tonight they faced a Red Wings team that has been playing really well and had taken a 1 point lead on the Lightning in the division after a really poor performance against cellar-dwelling Carolina coming out of the All-Star Break. Momentum-wise, this appeared to be a tough mountain for the Lightning to climb.
But, in the end, the Lightning absolutely dominated the Red Wings. After a shaky First Period in which Ben Bishop had to play well to let his team overcome some turnover and defensive zone coverage issues, the Lightning took control of all facets of the game. Shots on goal. Scoring chances. Special teams play. They rolled the Red Wings, and sent Detroit (and their fans) back to Michigan with tails firmly tucked between their legs.
Tonight's victory put the Lightning at the end of the 5th 10-game segment of the season at 66 points, 6 points ahead of the minimum they need to have to be comfortably on pace for the playoffs. They gained 2 additional insurance points in this segment and are slowly inching their way to a position where their focus can turn from clinching the playoffs to loftier aspirations. It starts with the next 10-game segment and our well-worn mantra: "12 in 10, do it again."
Cedric Paquette had his first career hat trick and was +3 with 5 shots and 2 hits. He was also 67% on 12 draws. As noted a few games back, he looked due, and his goal against the Hurricanes appears to have opened up the floodgates in dramatic fashion. The man we affectionately call Dump Truck has 1 more game to go to graduate from prospect status on the website. I kind of wish he had hit the 41 game threshold for the season tonight, because tonight's performance would've been quite the mic drop moment for a prospect.
Jonathan Drouin had a pair of helpers and was +2 with 2 shots and 1 hit in 16:49. He rebounded from an awful turnover early in the game that led to Bishop having to bail him out on the ensuing 2-on-0 chance given to the Wings. From there, though, he was dangerous offensively and his line with Paquette and Killorn put all kinds of pressure on the Wings all night long. Drouin's got 2 more games to go until graduation from prospect status on the site.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot in 14:58. He got caught in no-man's land on Detroit's first goal, failing to pick up Helm as he circled from behind the Lightning net, and he had some defensive zone coverage issues. He's taken a little half step back in the past couple of games, which coupled with the improved play of Barberio tells me perhaps more seasoning needs to be in the cards for Nesterov.
Hangover in Carolina.
Ben Bishop allowed 4 goals on 22 shots for the loss. This was one of the rare nights Bishop was clearly outplayed by his counterpart at the other end of the rink. His failure to make the Third Period save on Tlusty on a puck he should've gotten really put a fork in any Lightning hopes to pull it out tonight.
0:22 CAR E. Staal (16), (J. Staal)
6:05 CAR Gerbe (5), (Lindholm, Bellemore)
14:05 TB Paquette (6), (Drouin, Sustr)
8:27 CAR Faulk (9), (J. Staal)(PP)
14:06 TB Boyle (10), (unassisted)(SH)
7:53 CAR Tlusty (12), (Faulk, E. Staal)
Tonight was just a confluence of a number of things, and it's probably important not to overreact too much to the result, even though it's clearly a loss against an opponent the team should beat. First, and most obviously, the team had an All-Star Break hangover. It took them 8 minutes to get into the game, and the 2 goals they spotted the Hurricanes in that time period turned out to be the difference. That was aided by some bad puck luck against the team. Carolina's first two goals were of the very greasy variety. And then you had Bishop playing really subpar relative to his usual standards. You just have to expect those three things won't happen again with higher stakes against Detroit next time out.
Cedric Paquette had a goal and was +2 with 3 shots, 2 hits, and 3 blocked shots in 13:16. He was also 50% on draws. You could make an argument he was the Lightning's best player tonight, although that might be a low bar to clear. Paquette is now 2 games away from graduation from prospect status on the website.
Jonathan Drouin had a helper and was +1 with 2 shots and 1 hit in 16:19. He came out flying tonight, especially in the First Period. He had 5 attempted shots on goal, and he was rewarded with increased ice time. Drouin is now 3 games away from graduation from prospect status on the website.
Nikita Nesterov was -2 with 2 penalty minutes, 1 shot, and 2 hits in 15:56. I don't think he was as bad as the -2 indicates, but I also don't think he was influencing the game positively to the same degree he was leading into the break.