Inexplicable mistakes rob Lightning of fruits of a decent effort.
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 31 shots for the loss. Played very well in a goaltending duel, but lost on an inexcusable mistake by his best d-man.
3:10 FLA Marchessault (7), (Yandle, Barkov)(PP)
1:15 TB Palat (2), (unassisted)
15:32 FLA Smith (3), (unassisted)
19:24 FLA MacKenzie (1), (Yandle)(EN)
Bishop was the game's third star.
The Lightning played better than the scoreboard indicated tonight, as they really matched and exceeded the Panthers' intensity level and had one of their better forechecking nights of the year from about midway through the First Period on. Luongo held serve for the Panthers long enough for Victor Hedman to make the inexplicable mistake of allowing his pocket to be picked at the Lightning blueline allowing the winning goal to be scored against. It squanders an effort that, in my opinion, showed marked improvement from players like Palat and Johnson who have struggled to find their form early in this campaign.
Brayden Point had 2 shots and 1 hit in 15:15.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 shot and 3 hits in 11:11 as his minutes suffered with the return of Nesterov in the 7 d-man lineup.
Lightning get some get back. Payback.
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 38 shots for the victory.
14:39 NJ Severson (2), (Hall, Zajac)
2:25 TB Boyle (3), (Hedman, Brown)
8:27 TB Hedman (3), (unassisted)
5:01 TB Point (1), (Kucherov, Filppula)(PP)
14:14 TB Kucherov (4), (Stamkos, Stralman)
The first twenty minutes of this game had the same unfortunate tinge as far too many contests against the Devils often do. The Devils stifled the Lightning attack in a boring frame and eventually took the lead on an opportunistic rebound goal off a shot generated from a turnover. There was much hand wringing. Fortunately, the Lightning took control of the final forty minutes of this game an ultimately made it a laugher. The method of the final forty should be instructive for the Lightning, as they manufactured their second and third goals off of, gasp, offensive zone faceoff wins. Recall, the Lightning may have lost the Stanley Cup against Chicago two years ago when the Blackhawks were able to create possession and chances against the run of play in order to manufacture wins and eventually take control of the series. Last year, the Lightning found themselves within an eyelash returning to the Stanley Cup Final when they ran out of gas and were unable to win offensive zone faceoffs to generate some cheap possession and chances like the Blackhawks did against them the year prior. Let me make this very clear: the Lightning's ability to win offensive zone faceoffs when they're a little stagnant at 5 on 5 and keep the other team from winning them when they have control of a game from a possession standpoint is one of the last pieces to the Lightning's championship puzzle. If they keep showing me faceoff wins and chances manufactured off of them, I'll eventually show you a Stanley Cup Champion some time in roughly June of 2017. Dead serious.
Point had his first NHL goal, 3 shots, and 1 hit in 14:38.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 shot and 4 hits in 14:48. What, no helper?
Lightning manufacture a point in their first game back from a long road trip.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 31 shots before allowing 2 of 10 to convert in the penalty shot session for the Shootout loss.
4:01 BOS Carlo (2), (Bergeron)
10:47 BOS Spooner (2), (Krug, Krejci)(PP)
15:09 TB Hedman (2), (Kucherov, Filppula)(PP)
4:38 BOS Pastrnak (6), (Bergeron, Marchand)
8:30 TB Johnson (3), (Stralman, Stamkos)(PP)
10:04 Johnson (4), (Coburn, Koekkoek)
BOS- Nash, Hayes
The Lightning were unsurprisingly a little flat in their first game back from a long road trip. Using the power play to overcome that flatness, along with decent goaltending, is a pretty textbook way to weather the storm. The inability to score on a 4-on-3 power play in OT to steal the second point was regrettable, but under the circumstances there are some silver linings to take out of the contest.
Brayden Point was +1 with 4 shots, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 17:05. He also had Tampa Bay's lone goal in the penalty shot session, where he's been money so far this season.
Slater Koekkoek had a helper, 2 shots, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 13:20. That's three assists in his first two games up with the team this year, for those keeping score at home. Keep raising his minutes up.
Lightning break into November with a vengeance.
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 27 shots for the victory. He made a handful of critical situational saves in the first 40 minutes to allow the Lightning to establish the monster lead and then stood on his head in garbage time to run up his save percentage. It was a really good night for Ben.
3:21 TB Kucherov (2), (Stamkos, Hedman)(PP)
12:18 TB Kucherov (3), (Hedman, Killorn)(PP)
13:34 TB Stamkos (7), (Koekkoek, Kucherov)
6:17 TB Boyle (2), (Callahan, Filppula)
9:30 TB Brown (1), (unassisted)(SH)
11:19 TB Filppula (4), (Kucherov, Koekkoek)
19:30 NYI Seidenberg (3), (DeHaan, Tavares)
That game was everything the Lightning desperately needed and more to complete the road trip and the first 10 game segment of the season. The Lightning put arguably their best skating lineup onto the ice, and put forth a better effort to apply back pressure in the neutral zone to control the balance of play nearly the entire first 40 minutes of the game before garbage time set in. They also were opportunistic, using the penalty on Calvin DeHaan for a head shot on Jonathan Drouin to get the early power play goal they needed to exorcise their First Period scoring demons and get the flood gates open. It didn't come without a price, because it's safe to assume Drouin immediately went under observation for a concussion, but the Lightning at least made the Isles pay a terrible price for the infraction.
With the win, the Lightning finish the first 10 game segment with a winning 12 points that hit the minimum they need to comfortably be on playoff pace. 12 in 10, now do it again.
Brayden Point had 1 blocked shot in a very quiet 17:27 of ice time.
Slater Koekkoek had 2 helpers and was +2 with 2 penalty minutes, 1 hit, and 2 blocked shots in 13:12 of meaningful ice time. Your Honor, I rest my case. There's no doubt who should be playing between Koekkoek and Nesterov. None. Koekkoek is a stud. He's Hedman Lite. He's big, he moves like a thoroughbred, has solid offensive instincts, and he mixes in some physical edge. Nesterov is exactly none of those things right now. A blind man could make this lineup decision. Truly.
Fourth game in five nights for the barnstorming Lightning.
Ben Bishop allowed 4 goals on 26 shots for the loss.
5:54 TB Nesterov (1), (Filppula, Drouin)
19:25 NSH Fisher (1), (Neal, Subban)
5:56 NSH Subban (1), (Ribeiro)(PP)
12:37 NSH Ribeiro (1), (Forsberg)(PP)
15:18 TB Filppula (1), (Bishop, Wisniewski)
3:07 TB Conacher (1), (unassisted)
15:37 NSH Bass (1), (Neal)
I'm having flashbacks of when Koules and Barrie owned the team and they signed up for a zillion preseason games every year to try to make a little extra scratch because they were so strapped. That's not the case with Vinik, but this is just a lot of games and a lot of travel in the span of less than a week.
Matthew Peca had 1 shot, 1 hit, and 3 blocked shots in 14:20. He was also 46% on 13 draws.
Mitchell Stephens had 1 shot and 1 hit in 13:07. He was also 38% on 8 draws. Kind of interesting to see him play center rather than wing, which may be the better fit for him as a pro.
Yanni Gourde had 1 hit in 12:16.
Jeremy Morin had 1 shot in 9:10.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 hit and 2 blocked shots in 20:13. I need to go back and add up all his ice time this week, but suffice it to say he might deserve some sort of iron man trophy. Tonight the Lightning decided to give him a full load after easing him in with the mid teens of minutes earlier in the week. 3 games in 5 nights is still a lot of work.
Luke Witkowski was +1 with 11 penalty minutes, 1 shot, and 1 blocked shot in 14:12. Witkowski also deserves an iron man trophy of his own.
Syracuse Crunch clamp down on Panthers B squad.
Kristers Gudlevskis stopped all 21 shots he faced for the shutout victory. This is an excellent start for a netminder who just got a prove it contract who may have an NHL backup opportunity looming in his future once the Lightning sort out their starting situation up top.
3:54 TB Morin (1), (unassisted)
14:48 TB Point (2), (Morin, Bournival)
Gudlevskis, Jeremy Morin, and Slater Koekkoek were the game's three stars. Kudos to the Lightning equipment guys for having the sense of humor to stick Morin in #33. He's one letter away from being a Lightning all-timer. Made me double-take, for certain.
If the Lightning preseason opener was a showcase for the team's junior prospects, tonight was an opportunity for many prospects earmarked for the Syracuse Crunch. And, on first blush, I'd think new coach Benoit Groulx will be pleased with what he saw tonight.
Matthew Peca had 2 shots and 1 blocked shot in 19:37. 90% on 10 draws is pleasing to the eye. I remain convinced that for Syracuse to go anywhere, Peca's going to have to become a big time AHL player. He'll have a little more help this season with Brayden Point in Syracuse, but as an older and more experienced guy, he's one I suspect needs to become one of the leaders for the Crunch.
Tanner Richard had 2 hits in 16:49. 13% on 8 draws is a little cringe-worthy stat line on draws. He's on the clock now to make a push and earn a look in the NHL. Not sure he really flashed enough tonight.
Brayden Point had his second goal in as many games and was +2 with 3 shots in 14:02. He was also 45% on 11 draws. The Lightning are already trying to tamp down expectations because they know Point needs seasoning and experience, but his raw talent is undeniable.
Yanni Gourde had 2 penalty minutes and 2 shots in 16:58.
Mike Halmo had 4 penalty minutes, 1 shot, and 2 hits in 11:48.
Gabriel Dumont had 3 shots, 2 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 10:57.
Daniel Walcott had 1 shot, 3 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 18:43.
Dylan Blujus had 3 shots and 4 blocked shots in 18:34. Blujus is a guy who somewhat falls into the same boat as Richard. He needs to start making a push to challenge Witkowski to become the Lightning's first righty callup from Syracuse.
Jake Dotchin was +1 with 2 shots, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 17:48.
Slater Koekkoek was +1 in 16:40. The Lightning have played Koekkoek in both games, which is telling, but they've also resolved not to give him a gigantic load of minutes in these games as they might've been tempted to do. That tells me they're easing Koekkoek into a marathon rather than putting him through a sprint of a look-see.
Valiant Third Period comeback bid by Junior Lightning gives hope for the future.
Kristers Gudlevskis allowed 2 goals on 23 shots before giving way to Adam Wilcox, who allowed 1 goal on 15 shots for ye old backdoor loss. It was a respectable outing for both netminders who get additional time thanks to the World Cup of Hockey.
19:07 CAR Br. Sutter (1), (Foegele)
10:26 CAR Wallmark (1), (Kuokkanen)
11:28 CAR Skinner (1), (Stempniak, Pesce)
11:28 TB Point (1), (Johnson, Hajek)
18:41 TB Imama (1), (Vermin, Cerelli)
Brayden Point was the game's third star.
This is going to be a strange camp/preseason because of it being chopped up by the WCOH. The silver lining is some extra time for potential future contributors like Point, who didn't embarrass themselves tonight. Among those prospects, the ice time was as follows, revealing more who the organization wanted to take a long early look at for the future than who they trust and are thinking about from an NHL roster standpoint for this season...
Brett Howden was -1 with 2 shots and 1 blocked shot in 17:50. He was also 44% on 9 draws.
Point had a goal and was +1 with 1 shot in 15:38. He was also 57% on 7 draws.
Anthony Cirelli had a helper and 1 shot in 15:36. He was also 39% on 18 draws.
Joel Vermin had a helper and was +1 with 3 shots and 1 hit in 15:19.
Mathieu Joseph had 1 shot and 1 hit in 15:04.
Dennis Yan had 2 penalty minutes in 12:40.
Boko Imama had 1 goal, 3 shots, and 2 hits in 10:28. He also killed 0 Hurricanes with his fists... this time.
Libor Hajek had a helper and was +1 with 1 shot, 2 hits, and 1 blocked shot in a hefty 20:45.
Luke Witkowski was -1 with 1 shot, 3 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 18:59.
Matthew Spencer was -1 with 4 penalty minutes, 1 hit, and 3 blocked shots in 18:51.
Slater Koekkoek had 2 shots, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 16:23.
Despite Stamkos' return, Lightning run out of gas and run out of time.
Eastern Conference Finals
Pittsburgh Wins the Series 4-3
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 2 goals on 39 shots for the loss. The winner was a pretty awful softie on a puck off the end boards that he failed to squeeze and was jammed in short side. I feel absolutely ill for the young man that it became the margin, although soft goals usually are. His 37 saves gave the Lightning an opportunity to pull this out despite getting grossly outworked for the bulk of the game. Put it another way: if you gave me the option to lock the Penguins in at 2 goals allowed or roll the dice, I probably would've taken the former. If Ben Bishop had been healthy for this series would the Lightning have advanced? Perhaps. But it'd be foolish to say the Lightning lost the series because of Vasilevskiy, because he gave them an opportunity in pretty much every game.
1:55 PIT Rust(4), (Kunitz, Malkin)
9:36 TB Drouin(5), (Filppula, Hedman)
10:06 PIT Rust(5), (Lovejoy, Malkin)
Steven Stamkos' return to the lineup tonight was a pleasant surprise, and I thought it gave a very tired Lightning team a little bit of an energy injection they desperately needed. They played arguably their best defensive period of the series in the First Period and had a handful of opportunities to break through for the important opening goal, but they couldn't find the opportunistic finish. That's too bad because in the Second Period things started to come unglued for the Lightning defense as breakout after breakout up the wall got picked off and jammed up and the Penguins outpossessed the Lightning 3:1. They got the all important first goal on a botched Lightning line change that led to a coverage mistake and Rust hitting the top corner from the high slot coming into the zone. Jonathan Drouin tied the game with a little Drouin magic on a great play on the rush where he pulled up on the wing at the hash mark, careened to the middle of the ice, and eventually ripped a high corner shot past Murray. The celebration was short-lived as Rust got the soft goal on Vasilevskiy just 30 seconds later. Vasilevskiy and the team in front of him had a gritty performance to keep the game close into the Third Period, but they simply didn't have the energy to complete a comeback or the savvy to manufacture a tying goal off a faceoff win. In the end, the Lightning's season ended with 3 lost faceoffs deep in the Penguins zone with the goaltender pulled.
Injuries hurt this team, no doubt. Stamkos did nearly tie the game on a break in the Second Period where he nearly got a shot to leak through Murray under his stick side armpit. But, he wasn't fully up to speed in this game and the morale shot he gave the club only went so far. Anton Stralman looked like a shadow of himself as the series wore on and it became clear he just didn't have the strength in his mending leg to keep up with the pace of the series. And Bishop never returned from his apparent high ankle sprain. It's a remarkable testament to the organization's depth that they advanced as far as they did with those impediments, but it would be short-sighted for the Lightning organization not to look at some of their other failings in this series as they look to improve the club in the offseason.
They did not learn the lesson of the Chicago series last year when it comes to the importance of faceoffs in playoff hockey. Maybe Yzerman thought a healthy Tyler Johnson would be enough to improve the Lightning's outlook in the circles, but in the end the Lightning's centers got their lunch money taken all playoffs long. Pittsburgh won 58% of draws tonight and most of the important ones, to boot. The Blackhawks were able to climb into the Stanley Cup Final last season despite getting slaughtered early in the series in the run of play by manufacturing cheap possession and a few goals off of offensive zone faceoff wins. The Lightning simply don't have that capability and therefore could not manufacture some cheap possession to quell the Penguins uprising in the run of play when they had control of large swaths of the game like in the Second Period tonight. In the offseason, I would expect Steve Yzerman to take a serious look at improving that aspect of the team.
And, of course, the power play continues to be a huge disappointment although the trickle of man advantages the team was awarded in this series hardly made the power play much of a factor against the Penguins. I suspect a rescrambling of the roster could make restructuring of the power play elementary, so I won't harp on the traditional needs to get a decent righty point man or a lefty on the RW half board who can create pressure points lower in the zone.
There were plenty of positives from this playoff run, though, and we should celebrate those, too. The Lightning penalty kill was outstanding throughout the playoffs and the work they did all series long against the Penguins did not get the love it deserved in the media. As a unit, they held off a very good Penguins group dotted with superstar snipers and playmakers. There are many who believe the Lightning's penalty kill numbers in the regular season were solely the doing of Ben Bishop, but I would think the work they did against Pittsburgh might lead to a re-examination of that point of view.
Jonathan Drouin started to become a star in these playoffs, and I think there were enough positive vibes from both the player's and the coach's side of the equation to lead to a mending of the relationship and Drouin staying in Tampa Bay. He was the Lightning's only consistently dangerous player the last two games of the Penguins series and he showed a lot of competitive spirit trying to match the likes of Crosby and Malkin by taking the game into his own hands. Sometimes that led to some overhandling and turnovers, and he'll have to learn to use his teammates a little better moving forward, but you love the initiative he showed. He didn't shrink from the moment, and I suspect he's going to absolutely burn the league down from a scoring standpoint next season.
The Lightning's young defense had a few standouts who came on as the playoffs wore on. The wheat definitely got separated from the chaff as Nikita Nesterov fell to the wayside while Andrej Sustr and Slater Koekkoek got better and better as the postseason wore on. Koekkoek had the greenest of green lights to jump into the play against the Penguins and he didn't embarrass himself in that capacity. He truly is a Hedman Lite type of player and he's only going to get better as he, presumably, cuts his teeth as a first time regular in Tampa Bay next year.
Lastly, the run proved the Lightning's core group of players are going to be an elite group capable of competing for multiple championships for years to come. Hedman, Kucherov, and to a lesser degree Johnson all followed up last year's strong playoff run with equal or better performances as the team advanced into the league's final four for back-to-back years. In the last 12 years the Lightning have won a Stanley Cup, two Eastern Conference Championships, and made four Eastern Conference Finals appearances. It's hard to argue the team hasn't become an elite level group even with some of their star players missing due to injury.
Was this a successful season in the end equation? Honestly, I tend to gauge success for a hockey team based on the banner test. If you win a banner of some sort (division, conference, or league title) that tends to be a good indicator of success. The team fell short on that count this season, but I think I can say I am content with the year under the circumstances, and I'm much more at peace with the way it ended versus the one goal Game Seven loss against Boston in 2011. That team had a little bit of a lightning in a bottle aspect to it and to lose a close game by that little is something that I, as a fan, will take to my grave. Pittsburgh was simply the better team in Game Six and Game Seven this year, so I don't have the same what-if's haunting me at this hour.
That leads to the more difficult set of questions for the offseason, though. Specifically, what happens with Steven Stamkos? Unfortunately, I think the possibility of a Stamkos return was made less likely by the circumstances of this postseason. With the Lightning proving they could make it to within 1 goal and 1 win of the Stanley Cup Final without Stamkos, it seems less likely to me they'll be willing to break the bank and lose roster flexibility just to keep him. Conversely, while Stamkos has said he wants to win and I suspect will be willing to give the Lightning a little home town discount to stay with the team, the NHLPA and his camp are unlikely to allow the kind of deep discount that would be necessary to retain players like Bishop, Hedman, and Kucherov, who also have deals coming up. Put simply: this playoff run may have proven Stamkos isn't a core player at playoff time for the team, although I would argue they wouldn't have made the playoffs without his regular season goal scoring prowess. If the team does indeed let Stamkos go, replacing his goal scoring will be a difficult and important task. The Lightning have learned the lesson over the past two years that the regular season and playoffs are two different animals. They showed they can make a run without Stamkos in the latter half of the two, but it remains to be seen if they can make the postseason without him. If he indeed does depart, the Lightning power play that has revolved around him for some 7 years will undergo a radical alteration, which may be an improvement simply because it will break up the staleness of the team's approach with the man advantage.
The question of Ben Bishop then becomes an easier one to handle: he stays. Vasilevskiy did nothing to embarrass himself in this series and there may yet be a time that he supplants Bishop as the team's starter, but that day hasn't come yet. Bishop's ability to steal games and his big game ability in the postseason are things Vasilevskiy hasn't proven he possesses... yet.
Then there's the question of the three I like to refer to as the Dead Money Trio: Matt Carle, Valtteri Filppula, and Ryan Callahan. Carle ended up a healthy scratch for Game Seven tonight because he no longer possesses the skating ability to keep up with elite level teams like Pittsburgh. Was he better in this year's playoff run that last years? Yeah, but that's a bar so low you could roller skate over it. He looks done as an NHL'er, although his contract still looks like an untransferable albatross. Filppula and Callahan certainly had a little more utility than Carle. Filppula was decent, at times, defensively and on faceoffs. Callahan added a lot of physicality and hustle to the lineup in the postseason. But, at their price points, the Lightning simply didn't get their money's worth from a production standpoint. Both guys make well more than double what Brian Boyle makes and they didn't make nearly the contribution Boyle made as both a goal scorer and in the intangible leadership aspects of the team. The Lightning may do well to begin to look to shed these three contracts over the next couple of years as they begin to mix and match around their true core players to retool for future Cup runs.
The Lightning are, by necessity, going to see their fair share of roster changes because of some of the factors I listed above. But, in all honesty, I would hope Yzerman makes more of a shake up by design, as well. Last year the team really only made one roster change by replacing retiring Brendan Morrow with Erik Condra. I think the lack of new blood and enthusiasm led to some of the uninspired regular season play from the team. Once you've been to within 2 wins of the Stanley Cup, a weeknight game in Buffalo is a bit of a come down. That's where having some fresh faces with some enthusiasm and hunger could have helped pull the team out of its doldrums. That, like the need to improve on faceoffs and the power play, needs to be another lesson learned from this campaign.
Slater Koekkoek was -1 with 1 hit and 1 blocked shot in 15:22. He was given the ice time and the opportunity to go for it and there were moments in the Third Period he rarely seemed to leave the ice. He has the skating ability to be a difference maker for the team, and I think the playoff experience he gained will be hugely valuable for him and for a coaching staff that's just learning about all of the capabilities Slater brings to the table.
Lightning get caught up in a little moment and squander a big chance.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 3-3
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 4 goals on 33 shots for the loss. He might want the second goal he allowed back on the long shot by Letang, although he was screened a little. As I said in the last game, even though Bishop has the gold standard Game Seven road win in MSG last season, I think you have to ride or die with Vasilevskiy until the end of this series, even if Bishop magically becomes healthy in the next two days. I think the young man is even keeled enough to handle the moment. He's been in a similar spot with Ufa in the KHL playoffs a couple of years ago, and didn't hurt his stock in the big moment at all, even though his club fell to eventual champs Magnitgorsk.
18:46 PIT Kessel(9), (Crosby, Malkin)(PP)
7:40 PIT Letang(2), (Sheary, Bonino)
19:34 PIT Crosby(6), (Hornqvist)
5:30 TB Boyle(4), (unassisted)
12:43 TB Boyle(5), (Koekkoek, Drouin)
17:52 PIT Rust(3), (Kunitz, Maatta)
19:06 PIT Bonino(3), (Lovejoy)
Brian Boyle was the game's second star. He's become the team's de facto captain, in my eyes, in this playoff run and shown a ton of leadership along the way. He had the big moment embarrassing Abdelkader in the Detroit series, which I thought was an emotional turning point in that series, and he continues to chip in meaningful goals along the way. I say this in all affection... he's become a bootleg version of Dave Andreychuk. He's not quite as good on faceoffs or on the power play as Dave was in 2004, but he's been just about as good in the leadership aspect for this team.
The Lightning are going to be kicking themselves for the next 40-some hours, if not longer, over the way they mishandled their emotions and their energy level tonight when adversity came. I thought they had a positive, but measured start to the game. They were finding space in the neutral zone and generating good rushes and chances and although they weren't shooting enough for my taste, they looked to be in decent shape because they were getting opportunities. Then they turned a 3-on-2 into an apparent Jonathan Drouin goal and it appeared like the party was going to be on... until replay overturned the goal on an offside call...
Let's get the replay thing out of the way up front. The wave off of the goal did not cost the Lightning this game. The way the Lightning managed their emotions and their intensity level after the wave off of the goal probably cost them this game. Was the video evidence really conclusive enough to overturn the call on the ice? The refs seemed to think so. Is the enforcement of the rule through replay, as currently implemented, a ridiculous one that runs counter to the spirit of the rule and the stated goal of the league to increase scoring? Absolutely. Drouin and the Lightning gained no competitive advantage from the fact the tip of his front skate was over the blue line while the heel was in the air, and his whole back skate was clearly behind the line albeit in the air. By the spirit of the rule, that should've been a goal and the league needs to liberalize how linesmen call it next season and beyond. By the letter of the rule, though, it was what it was. And, it was out of the Lightning's control.
What was in the Lightning's control, however, was their reaction to the wave off, and while the Penguins ratcheted up their intensity level little by little after their reprieve the Lightning seemed to sag for the next 35 minutes of the game. Was I fond of the interference call on Stralman that formed the first half of the 5-on-3 that eventually gave Pittsburgh the 1-0 lead? No. I don't think it's Stralman's fault Kuhnhackl whiffed on picking up the puck of a pass in the neutral zone. Am I a fan of the delay of game call on Hedman where he cleared a puck the full length of the ice on a PK over the boards? No. That rule, in particular, is a stupid one and no player is deliberately clearing a puck 200 feet over the glass on a PK. Common sense should tell us all that, but that rule has been put in by the league to artificially create offense by giving away more power plays and two-man advantages such as what happened tonight. If I were king of the hockey universe, that rule would take a prompt dirt nap, but again, it was what it was. The Lightning couldn't control that, but they could control how they responded to it.
It took the Lightning around 35 minutes to hit double digits in shots on goal in this game, and unlike Game Five, it wasn't like they were taking a ton of shots and getting them blocked. Possession means everything in this series and the team simply didn't work hard enough to generate possession and pressure. That was why they lost the game. The Penguins built the three goal lead at the end of the Second Period when Crosby caught Stralman flat footed at the end of the period and split through the defense for the dagger goal. As I've written many times, in pro hockey a three goal deficit after 40 minutes is a death sentence seemingly 99% of the time. They showed some pride to ratchet up the intensity and cut the lead to 3-2 in the Third Period, but as we've seen over and over again in this sport, getting the second goal is do-able but getting the third goal and eventually the fourth to win is nearly impossible. You cannot let a game get away like that through two periods and realistically think you can get back.
There should be no panic. The Lightning were in this situation a year ago against the Rangers, and although past performance is no guarantee of future results, the Lightning should at least be able to lean on that experience for some emotional stability Thursday night. Bottom line, it's going to come down to which team outworks the other and goaltending. It's just that simple. The team in front of Vasilevskiy have to take care of the front end of the equation and I think he's earned the trust of the organization to know that he'll handle the rest. No panic. No hand wringing. There are 26 other teams in the league, and might be a 27th by the end of tomorrow night, who would kill to be in the position the Lightning are in. Win a game and go to the Stanley Cup Final. If I told you Steven Stamkos would miss the playoffs with a blood clot, Anton Stralman would miss the first two rounds with a broken leg, and Ben Bishop would be wheeled off early in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals with an apparent nasty high ankle sprain, you'd all have taken that deal every day of the week and twice on Sundays and so would I. So, really, it's ok. They just have to bring their best effort to the rink Thursday, and that's entirely do-able.
Slater Koekkoek had a helper and 1 shot, 2 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 12:58. Pierre McGuire was swooning over the Hedman Lite rear guard on the NBCSN broadcast as he continues to eat into veteran Matt Carle's ice time. While McGuire's attention may be annoying to some of us and mildly creepy to others, it was deserved. As I wrote after the last game, his skating ability and athleticism is made for this opponent and Carle's, frankly, isn't. Hopefully, the experience he's gaining now signals he will finally be a regular in Tampa Bay next season because we've waited for over a year now for Koekkoek to ascend and displace some of the stop gaps that have been forming the lower reaches of the team's NHL defense corps.
Lightning defy the odds and seize the series advantage.
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 34 shots for the victory. As with all of his other games in this series, he gave his team a chance and they eventually justified all of his efforts with the comeback win. Now that we've moved past the pivotal Game Five, all talk of Bishop playing in this series needs to be shut down. Ben might go back in for the Stanley Cup Final if the Lightning can close this series out, but for this Eastern Conference Finals series it needs to be Vasilevskiy's crease from here on out.
19:59 PIT Dumoulin(1), (Rust, Kunitz)
1:30 PIT Hornqvist(7), (Hagelin, Maatta)
13:15 TB Killorn(5), (Sustr)
14:25 TB Kucherov(10), (Namestnikov)
19:10 PIT Kunitz(4), (Malkin)
16:44 TB Kucherov(11), (Johnson, Palat)
0:53 TB Johnson(7), (Garrison, Kucherov)
Once again, the Lightning showed championship caliber heart and resiliency coming up off the canvas twice in this game to win in Overtime and take a 3-2 series lead. The team gave away late and early period goals at the end of the First Period and the start of the Second Period and again at the end of the Second Period. A lesser team would've folded under those circumstances, especially given Pittsburgh came into this game with a 46-0-0 record this season when leading after two periods. And, in the final frame, there were times the Lightning looked like they were absolutely running out of gas. This series has been a long grind already. This was not artful or textbook, and the Lightning have a long way to go and a lot of heavy lifting left to do to close this series. But, once again, with their Vezina candidate goaltender and leading regular season goal scorer on the shelf, they did not blink in the big moments and they did not shrink from the challenge.
Tampa Bay was outshot 34-25 in this game, but that didn't tell the whole possession story with the Lightning having 56 shot attempts and Pittsburgh having 54. The zone time in this game was about even. The chances were about even. The energy, up until a few moments in the Third Period when I thought they were starting to get gassed, was about even. That, it's important to note, is exceptional in a road game considering how well Pittsburgh plays in their own barn. I don't think either team's defense can handle the speed and skill of the opposing team, so possession is everything in this series. The more you can generate in the other team's zone, the less your own defense will be exposed. Opportunism and goaltending then often become the margin of victory in tight games like these, and they were the margin again tonight.
Pittsburgh will live to regret playing M.A. Fleury tonight. They will. After being staked to a 2-0 lead, Pittsburgh was an eyelash from making it 3-0 on the power play and the Lightning were teetering on the edge of being blown out. And then Alex Killorn sizzled a shot from the LW boards from a fairly bad angle that rifled short side over Fleury's shoulder. Was it a great shot? Sure. Is that a goal that Fleury can allow in that situation? Absolutely not. He gave oxygen to Tampa Bay and Kucherov tied the game shortly thereafter. The Penguins managed to restake him to a lead at the end of the Second Period, but it was pretty obvious down the stretch of the game that Fleury was the weak link on the ice for Pittsburgh with not one but three near soft goals including a long shot off the rush by Callahan that was an eyelash away from tying the game before Kucherov's eventual tying goal on a wrap around. I was amazed by the northern hockey media's rubber stamping of Sullivan's gamble to put Fleury in for this pivotal Game Five. This guy hasn't started a game in over a month and, frankly, he's never been that good to begin with, especially against the Lightning. He's liable to give up a soft goal or two even when he's in rhythm and sharp. With a long layoff? It was a big gamble and it blew up in Pittsburgh's face tonight, and I wouldn't be shocked if Sullivan goes back to Murray in a panic move to try to correct the panic move he made tonight.
This series moves back to Tampa now for a Game Six encounter that the Lightning would do well to treat with the intensity and urgency of a must-win game. Heck, I'd treat Tuesday's game as if it was an elimination game for the Lightning, not the Penguins. Neither team has the ability to shut down the other and the games are literally coming down to who outworks who for possession and whose goaltender makes the key saves in key moments or not. So, let's not be foolish enough to think there's a lot of hard work left to complete before Tampa Bay can punch its ticket to the Stanley Cup Final again. Tonight was an exciting win, but the team can't afford to relax an iota before there's a handshake line to be joined.
As an aside, the laughable officiating took an even uglier turn tonight in the game as even media commentators were forced to publicly speak out about the blatant penalties that Pittsburgh was being allowed to get away with. Seeking the tying goal in the Third Period, Slater Koekkoek was both bloodied by a high stick and tripped in broad daylight on the same shift. By all rights the Lightning should have been awarded a 5-on-3 power play (I have no doubt Pittsburgh would have if the skate was on the other foot) but the referees looked the other way on the second infraction. Later in the period Kucherov was hit with a high stick in front of the Lightning bench in broad daylight. No call. Later still in the period Koekkoek was tripped again trying to make a breakout pass wheeling out of the corner behind his net. No call. I'm not going to sit here and tell you the referees haven't pocketed their whistles on a few Lightning infractions too in this series. There was a haul down of Rust on the rush just before the second time Koekkoek was tripped. But, the bigger point is that some of the non-calls in the last two games absolutely could have swung the game and the series to Pittsburgh. The high stick on Hedman leading to the Fehr breakaway in Game Four was a travesty and the refusal to correctly call the trip on Koekkoek on top of the high stick may have cost the Lightning Game Five. Others might argue the uncalled can opener on Tyler Johnson in OT of Game Two absolutely did cost the Lightning the game. The league ought to be seriously ashamed of the appearance of gross impropriety in this series and some of the uncalled infractions in this series ought to be grounds for disciplining officials. They just ought to be. Period, point blank.
Koekkoek had 2 shots and 2 hits in 10:17 tonight. He's not getting a ton of shifts, but the ones he's getting are impactful in the offensive zone. Credit to the coaching staff that they have given the green light to Slater, who is a little bit of a Hedman Lite in my opinion, and he was very good tonight at joining the attack and keeping plays going in the offensive zone tonight. The other beauty of Koekkoek at the moment is that he's one of the guys who still has fresh legs as the grind of the postseason is starting to catch up with the Lightning's other skaters.