Nesterov, Nikita

NHL Playoff Game Night: 6-15-15 Lightning at Blackhawks

Next year.

Stanley Cup Final
Game Six

TB-0
CHI-2

Chicago Wins the Series 4-2

Ben Bishop allowed just 2 goals on 25 shots for the loss. He didn't allow a great rebound on the first goal because I thought the shot got a little redirected on the way in, and then he was essentially left to fend for himself on the second chance. The second goal was a really a 2-on-1 where Bishop just couldn't push from right to left to have any kind of chance on the Kane one-timer. That would've been a difficult chance to stop healthy, but in light of what we know now, it was impossible. After the game, it was revealed Ben Bishop has been playing with a torn groin since Game Two of the series. I feel sick for the guy that he's played this well in an extreme amount of pain and just couldn't get any goal support. I've heard people in the fan base who are way, way too quick to usher Ben out the door in the next year or two to make way for the wunderkind Andrei Vasilevskiy, but those people might want to take a moment to appreciate the mental toughness it takes to play your way through that kind of injury. That is one tough hombre. He's just a bad, bad dude. Much respect.

First Period
NO SCORING

Second Period
17:13 CHI Keith (3), (Kane, Richards)

Third Period
14:46 CHI Kane (11), (Richards, Saad)

In the end the Lightning were too banged up to play their normal possession game, and when they did have good chances they just couldn't capitalize. Number one on that list was Steven Stamkos, who rang a crossbar in the First Period and then had a breakaway in the Second Period where he came to a near stop dekeing to his forehand before getting stopped by Crawford and then putting the rebound off the side of the net. I may have misheard this, but I think NBC said Stamkos had something like 20-21 scoring chances in the 6 games of this series. That's an obscene number of chances to surrender to one of the two greatest goal scorers of this generation for him to not score a goal. That'll live with him all summer, I'm sure, and that crossbar in particular was just a hair off. 1/16" lower and that's probably down and in, and we may be talking about a Game Seven at this hour. It was that close. For Steven, this is an interesting moment in his career. A lot of the 2014-2015 season was spent trying to get comfortable playing hockey again after breaking his leg against Boston last season. He still scored 40 goals and had a statistically decent playoffs overall, but truth be told there were a lot of times it still felt we were seeing the 85% version of Steven Stamkos. Now, having been through this experience, does this lead to Steven having "the mother of all summers" en route to getting back on the trajectory he was on prior to the injury of becoming the best player in the game?

Getting back to Game Six, how close were the Lightning? How razor thin was the margin between ecstasy and agony in this series? The Lightning were finally getting some zone time in the Third Period to try to tie the game and the chance came into the right circle to Brayden Coburn who breaks his stick on an A- chance, which lead to the odd man rush that put the Blackhawks up 2-0 and broke the Lightning's back. Buzzard's luck if I've ever seen it. Really the Lightning were just 1-2 bounces from winning this series, even with the rash of injuries, and that's what so maddening about what transpired in the last three games.

After the game, along with the revelation about Bishop's injury, it was revealed that Tyler Johnson's been playing this series with the bone that attaches his thumb to his wrist broken, which is why he hasn't been taking faceoffs this series. We'll find out what happened to his linemate Kucherov soon enough, along with Brian Boyle. Stamkos may also be dinged. Callahan obviously had the appendix. Paquette had both his hands shot off several times at different parts of the playoffs. Also, I suspect there may be something wrong with Garrison, although it may have just been fatigue setting in that made him look particularly slow in the past couple of games. I'm sure I'm leaving some guys out. In any event, the cumulative effect of all the centermen getting injured was that Cedric Paquette, a rookie who as it was noted had his hands shot off blocking shots several times in these playoffs, had to take a ton of important defensive zone draws and he absolutely got eaten alive the first half of Game Five and pretty much all of Game Six. 0-for-13 on faceoffs tonight? That seems almost impossible, and yet it happened. That advantage allowed Chicago to manufacture possession and zone time that they otherwise struggled to create in the flow of play and probably ultimately swung the series to them.

All that said, this feels different than the Lightning's last serious run at the Cup in 2011. That team had more of a lightning-in-the-bottle feel to it with certain players (Purcell and Bergenheim) playing over their head and the last remnants of the 2004 Cup team (Lecavalier and St. Louis) making their last real kick at the can together. I felt spent (and more than a little shafted by the officials) after that Game Seven loss in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. I knew they were an eyelash away from winning it all because that series may well have been the Stanley Cup Final that year and I knew it was a long shot for the team to get back the following season with so many older pieces, including the desiccating remains of Dwayne Roloson between the pipes. The other thing was, psychologically, I think that team had bought in to Guy Boucher's system and mystique to such a degree that when they didn't win it all, it was such a shock to their psyche he started to lose that locker room from that moment on in a slow erosion of belief. And for me, personally? I didn't want to deal with hockey for several months after that I was so disillusioned by what had transpired.

Tonight? I'm thinking about what this team has to do tomorrow and every day thereafter until one year from now they're back in this position hoisting the Cup, because I absolutely believe they can do so. This team, structurally, has the bones of a great dynasty. They're incredibly young, incredibly deep, and now they're incredibly experienced. Recall (although I'm not comparing the two) the great Edmonton team of the 80's had to take their medicine from the Islanders before they became a dynasty. And, psychologically, I think Jon Cooper can play off the fact these guys will feel a little angry they might've been cheated at the finish line by the injury bug. This team's belief shouldn't be shaken. It should be galvanized by the fact that they were playing with a bunch of hurt centermen and a goaltender with a torn groin and they still seriously, seriously challenged a historically good Chicago Blackhawks team that has been the class of the cap era. Has been. The Lightning, with the foundation they have, will be, if they commit together that they're going to be. And, that commitment has to start with tomorrow and every day thereafter until one year from now they're hoisting the Cup.

The things that need to change with the Lightning's roster are minor, and many of them will be fixed with time. Jonathan Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov will be ready to be regular contributors at this time next year and young guys like Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown have found out in these playoffs, Paquette in particular, that they can be world class players on the sport's biggest stage. The Lightning will have secondary scoring depth at this time next year, and with health should be better on faceoffs, although it might behoove Yzerman to pick up a veteran faceoff ace somewhere along the line just in case.

On defense, Victor Hedman had his coming out party in these playoffs and may finally take that next step of becoming a legit Norris Trophy candidate next season while Anton Stralman looked like an All-Star in his own right. Jason Garrison and Brayden Coburn offer solid second pair options, albeit they have their clunkers here and there, and Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov will only get better with age. That's six defensemen on a team that, because Cooper likes to play seven defensemen so much, might be best to carry eight. Where are the other two? You hope Slater Koekkoek, who looked darned good in his late season cup of coffee, comes to camp ready to mount a serious challenge for a spot and perhaps you look at signing up a hungry vet to round out the group. The Lightning didn't quite get everything they might've wanted from this year's hungry vet signing, Brendan Morrow, who was Yzerman's second choice behind Jarome Iginla for that slot. If Iginla had signed with the Lightning instead of Colorado, Tampa Bay might be hoisting a Cup right now. Remember, tomorrow and every day thereafter, including July 1st, the Lightning need to be focused on winning every little battle to make sure next year they finish what they started this season. In any event, with Morrow departing, I still like the idea of finding that hungry vet who wants one last run at glory and is willing to take a little bit of a discount rate to do so. The Lightning had that player in Simon Gagne in 2011 and they had Morrow this season. It's not a coincidence, either.

And, between the pipes, did I mention Ben Bishop is a bad, bad hombre? With Vasilevskiy now up at the NHL level, the Lightning should be able to cut back Ben's workload in the regular season more and hopefully conserve some of his mileage for the postseason. Also, given Ben's ended his past two seasons with injuries, I think it's probably time for Ben to up his postseason conditioning game once he rehabs from the groin. That's the same for all of the Lightning players, too. This is a pretty fit group, but Chicago, despite being a lot older, was healthier at the finish line partly because they played shorter series to get to this point but also partly because those guys understand the difference between being fit and being Stanley Cup fit. The Lightning don't need to train for an 82 game season this summer, they need to train for about a 106 game campaign so they won't have as much fatigue and as many injuries when they get to the finish line next season.

On an unrelated tangent, I just want to say how impressed I was with the Lightning fan base tonight. Approximately 17,000 showed up at Amalie Arena tonight despite the clunker that was Game Five, and it was extremely impressive to me and a sign of the fact that this season has created yet another groundswell in Tampa Bay just like the playoffs in '96, '03, '04, and '11 created expansions in the fan base. It didn't seem to me like NBC appropriately addressed what took place in Amalie tonight on the national broadcast, which is the annoying artifact of a national media still hell bent on pushing a preconceived narrative because of a jersey ban. It's all good, though, because they won't be able to get rid of Lightning fans quite so easily moving forward. Of all the faces in the crowd tonight, there was so much youth in the 15-25 year old range. These are fans who couldn't necessarily make it to Game Five with ticket prices being so astronomical, but if the economy in the area gets stronger and Tampa Bay can retain that youth in the area then this is going to be a nice boom for the fan base in about 5 years. The people who showed up tonight are Lightning fans for life, and if they can build careers in the area and develop some prosperity in the process, they're going to e buying tickets to the Lightning for life eventually, too. Tampa Bay's a tough place for young professionals to make a living in, and that's the toughest nut the Lightning have to crack because it's a structural problem with the market. With a team on the brink of becoming something very special and a little luck in the form of an economic surge in the area over the next few years (knock on wood) though, the Lightning could become a beast of a franchise. Tampa Bay is the 13th largest TV market in the country, which isn't too shabby, and the Lightning have begun to capture the hearts and minds of a much coveted demographic that will only become more powerful as time moves along.

I also wanted to say that this post marks the conclusion of Bolt Prospects' tenth season, and while it didn't have the fairy tale ending we hoped for (I was all ready to declare it the Bolt Prospects Stanley Cup), we remain incredibly humbled and thankful for the support of all of our readers. October will mark the ten year anniversary of the official opening of the website and it's been an honor and a privilege to write for you. Reflecting back on this time, for the staff, the past ten years have brought a lot of changes in our lives as we've built careers (day jobs) and built families. Some of us have moved to different cities and dealt with all manners of highs and lows in the day-to-day ebb and flow of the real world. Our love of Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Lightning and our continued to commitment to this thing we created ten years ago, Bolt Prospects, has been the one constant. We also would like to thank the Lightning organization, past and present, our friends and supporters in the media (the ones we can stand), and the players and their families (who are often the unheralded heroes of any player's career).

Lastly, and most importantly, we thank our own families for their support and understanding. For about eight months out of the year my significant other refers to herself as a hockey widow while I escape into my 125 square foot little home office to spend an inordinate amount of time watching hockey games and keeping up what the latest goings on were in obscure destinations such as Magnitogorsk, Russia. We do it because we love it (we darn sure don't do it for the money), and thankfully, they put up with it because they love us. That kind of understanding is pretty darned special, n'est-ce pas?

As I complete this post, which has taken forever to write, it's about fifteen minutes past 2:00 AM. That means it's already tomorrow... and the start of every day thereafter. Until... next year.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 6-10-15 Lightning at Blackhawks

Cooper's gamble nearly pays off.

Stanley Cup Final
Game Four

TB-1
CHI-2

Series Tied 2-2

Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 2 goals on 19 shots for the loss, as Cooper did what I speculated he might do playing the rookie in Game Four to allow Ben Bishop 4+ days of rest before a critical Game Five tilt. The Lightning did a really good job defensively in front of Andrei, for the most part, which meant he didn't have to face down a ton of scoring chances. Chicago's first goal partly resulted from poor rebound control and the second was absolutely not Vasilevskiy's fault as the defense never should have allowed Saad to break in that uncontested off a faceoff loss. Vasiy also got the benefit of the iron three times in the contest, but all in all I thought he held his keep. The Lightning can't allow a team backstopped by Crawford to hold them to just one goal.

First Period
NO SCORING

Second Period
6:40 CHI Toews (10), (Sharp, Hossa)
11:47 TB Killorn (9), (Filppula, Stamkos)

Third Period
6:22 CHI Saad (8), (Kane)

Alex Killorn was the game's third star.

The Lightning shouldn't be panicking after this result. They played a very strong game that they could've very easily won. I remain shocked at how flat Chicago has started all four games of this series, and unlike Game Three there weren't any really long, sustained surges from Chicago that the Lightning had to deal with. It's starting to look to me like fatigue is a serious issue that Chicago is struggling to contend with, with their thin defensive corps, in particular, chasing around Tampa Bay's youthful, speedy players. In the flow of play at 5-on-5, the Lightning definitely are beginning to look like the stronger of the two teams, and the Blackhawks' best chance for victory seems to be power plays and manufacturing goals off of offensive zone faceoffs. That's what happened tonight in the Third Period with three unforced icings and a shot that went off a crossbar and into the crowd that led to Saad's goal off a defensive zone faceoff loss by the Lightning. Penalties and unforced icings are like little life preservers for the Blackhawks now, and the Lightning need to be aware of that and stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

I wouldn't change much at even strength for the Lightning and their penalty kill was pretty strong, but the game may well have been lost in the first 40 minutes when the Lightning's ugly, regular season power play reared its ugly head again. They ended up 0-for-4 tonight, and it was a very non-threatening 0-for-4 as the Lightning reverted to the "strategy" of trying to send futile passes circle to circle through the box, which just doesn't work if you don't have some north-south puck movement first to get bodies moving and open up those passing lanes. Zone entry was pretty nonchalant, as well.

Heading into a 3-game series to decide who will hoist the Stanley Cup that starts on Saturday, those are the elements that the Lightning are going to need to tighten up to assure their success.

Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot and 1 hit in 9:02 of ice time. He got 2:13 of his ice time on the PP tonight as the coaching staff used Nesterov to try to give the second unit more of a shooting look. That came at the price of some iffy decision-making at even strength that led to at least one odd man chance surrendered the other way. Heading back to Tampa Bay, the well-worn critique remains: is Nesterov really the most effective use of that lineup spot, or could you use another skilled, speedy forward like Drouin or Namestnikov to throw at the worn down Chicago defense, even if they have some defensive deficiencies (which Nesterov has, if we're honest)?

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 6-8-15 Lightning at Blackhawks

Blackhawks get their butts kicked by a one-legged goaltender.

Stanley Cup Final
Game Three

TB-3
CHI-2

Tampa Bay Leads the Series 2-1

Ben Bishop allowed just 2 goals on 38 shots in a gritty, brave, tough performance that will become the stuff of legend if the Lightning go on to win this series. His left side, whether its his knee, ankle, hip, whatever, is badly hurt. There were several times in this game he looked awkward moving right to left and where he was in obvious pain trying to get up from his stance. Playing a position that is simultaneously the most physically demanding, mentally demanding, and critically important in the sport, for him to turn in that performance was nothing short of amazing. Incredible. Vinik is commissioning an opera about that performance as we speak, and rightfully so. Did he have a hiccup with the Richards soft goal off his glove? Sure. But, did I mention he was playing on one leg?

First Period
5:09 TB Callahan (2), (Hedman, Brown)
14:22 CHI Richards (3), (Hossa, Shaw)(PP)

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
4:14 CHI Saad (7), (Hossa, Keith)
4:27 TB Palat (8), (Kucherov, Johnson)
16:49 TB Paquette (3), (Hedman, Callahan)

Cedric Paquette and Ben Bishop were the game's first and third stars. Paquette is authoring a legend of his own through three games of this series, outplaying a future Hall of Famer in Jonathan Toews thus far by not only helping to limit Toews defensively, but also scoring goals in the wins in Game Two and Game Three. When you add what he's done on the PK, blocking shots, winning faceoffs, and closing out games, he's become one of the biggest stories of this series. When you consider two years ago, coming out of junior, Paquette's skating was south of subpar, it's nothing short of incredible to see what he's doing right now. The hard work both he and the organization have put in to get him ready for this moment is paying off like a super jackpot lottery ticket.

I was utterly shocked by how flat Chicago looked to start this game as the Lightning had another flying start to this game. They absolutely deserved the first goal and they got it on a Callahan bomb from the right circle that Crawford waved at for another soft goal. Unfortunately, that goal woke Chicago up as they unleashed the next 16 straight shots en route to tying up the game on the power play with Richards' center point shot that glanced in off Bishop's glove. So, both teams traded soft goals, and we all settled in to another epic, heavyweight struggle. Things looked very dicey with the Lightning staggering after that goal, especially in light of the fact they utterly lucked out with Chicago blowing looks at two open nets in the process of their 16 shot surge.

In an incredible show of maturity, the Lightning came out of the First Intermission storming and took the game by the throat from the Second Period on. I thought they had the better of the run of play in the final 40 minutes, but they just couldn't get the go-ahead goal while every Lightning supporter wearily looked creaseward at Ben Bishop struggling mightily with his ailing left side. When the team blew a 5-on-3 opportunity in the Second Period after Bishop got run over by Brandon Saad on a shorthanded rush, the dread that perhaps this wasn't to be the Lightning's night started to set in.

That fear was amplified quickly in the Third Period after they scrambled for the first four minutes of the Third Period and eventually conceded a Brandon Saad one-timer from the slot to fall behind 2-1. At that moment, everyone in the hockey universe outside of the Lightning bench had to be thinking that the experienced, battle-tested Blackhawks were surely about to break the Lightning's backs. Thirteen seconds later, the Lightning quickly peeled themselves off the canvas and bloodied their elders' noses with an improbable greasy goal off the rush, jamming home a rebound off a bad angle Kucherov offering in front. In the blink of an eye despair was replaced by hope, and the Lightning team that was so shaky for the first four minutes of the Third Period found its equilibrium, and its swagger.

And then, the golden moment happened. Cedric Paquette won a defensive zone draw, which was wound around to Ryan Callahan, who sprung Victor Hedman to lead a 3-on-2 rush. Hedman swung left and wide in the offensive zone, and centered to Paquette for the one-time redirection for the winning goal. What a play by Hedman. What a 200 foot play by Dump Truck.

The Lightning have held a lead in the Third Period of every game in this series thus far. They've scored the first goal in every game of the series thus far. They've been the better team, and they could easily be sitting on a 3-0 series lead were it not for the late hiccup in Game One. The Stanley Cup seems theirs for the taking if they can find a way to overcome the Bishop injury. One way to do that might be to consider starting Andrei Vasilevskiy in Game Four, thereby allowing Bishop four days to rest before Game Five on Saturday. It's a difficult decision for Jon Cooper to have to make, but the calculus right now is that the Lightning have accomplished what they needed to in Chicago. They're playing with house money in Game Four, and might be in a spot where they can afford to gamble on young Vasilevskiy harnessing lightning in a bottle for one game. With a healthier Bishop in Game Five, whether the Lightning are up 3-1 or tied 2-2 in the series, holding home ice, they'd feel like the favorites to me. Tough decision to make, for sure, but it's the kind of decision a special coach like Jon Cooper tends to make correctly.

Nikita Nesterov had 1 blocked shot in 4:57. He surrendered a 2-on-1 on a missed keep at the point and didn't see the ice much again thereafter. Look, I'll say it again: as tight as these games are, there's no way Nesterov's seeing the ice much. That's especially true on the road with Chicago having the last change. It remains a fair question to ask why Nesterov gives the team more utility in the lineup than Drouin or Namestnikov.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 6-3-15 Blackhawks at Lightning

Prevent defense prevents Tampa Bay from winning Game One.

Stanley Cup Final
Game One

CHI-2
TB-1

Chicago Leads the Series 1-0

Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 21 shots for the loss. He was solid, but unspectacular. I can't fault him on either goal as he was screened by three bodies on the first goal and was the victim of a quick change turnover right into the slot on the second goal. With that said, he got outplayed by Crawford tonight in a game where one more big save was the difference between winning and losing.

First Period
4:31 TB Killorn (8), (Stralman, Filppula)

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
13:28 CHI Teravainen (3), (Keith, Shaw)
15:26 CHI Vermette (3), (Teravainen)

Alex Killorn was the game's third star.

The Lightning could very well be kicking themselves pretty hard at the end of this series for what transpired in the final 45 minutes of this hockey game, and especially that Third Period. They came out like a house of fire for the First Period and really had Chicago on their heels. I have no doubt that it was a clash of styles for the Blackhawks to go from a bigger, less fleet of foot Anaheim club in the Western Finals to the speed and aggressiveness of the Lightning, and Tampa Bay cashed on the beautiful tip in goal by Killorn. It was hard not to be proud of the way the Lightning handled themselves in the first 15 minutes, where they really came out to win rather than to throw roses at the feet of Chicago as triumphant conquerors the way some in the media, like Mike Milbury, evidently thought they would. They could've built an even larger lead, but Crawford quelled any uprisings by the Lightning the rest of the way.

From the last five minutes of the First Period on, though, Chicago slowly and steadily turned the momentum of the game, sans a few hiccups late in the Second Period, until the Lightning were in a completely passive defensive shell in the Third. The Lightning are not built to win games 1-0, nor would it be prudent to try to do so anyway because when you allow the other team possession so easily, greasy goals (like a screened goal) eventually follow. That was what happened on Teravainen's tying goal and then J.T. Brown was put in a tough spot to handle a hot pass by Hedman up the wall that he tipped into the slot to Vermette, who fired it home for the game winner. And that, folks, is how a prevent defense prevents you from winning.

I still would love to see what happened to Nikita Kucherov swinging around Crawford's net on the play just before Teravainen's tying goal in the Third Period, mind you. It sure did look like he got high sticked in broad daylight, and a call there might've been the lifeline the Lightning needed to get across the finish line. It was an... interesting... decision by NBC not to air a replay of what occurred.

Now the Lightning find themselves in a near must-win situation for Game Two. It's a really dangerous spot to be in. Tonight's effort wasn't bad. They defended well, and if you told me the Lightning would hold Chicago to 2 goals in this game I would've told you the Lightning probably won. But, they can't get off their possession game like they did the final 45 minutes of the contest. The scary thing is Chicago will be playing aggressive and loose knowing they're playing house money with a road win already in their back pocket, so the Lightning have to be ready for Chicago to push and they also have to remain disciplined and not get away from their defensive game despite having only scored 1 goal in Game One. It's going to be a challenging couple of days for Cooper and the coaching staff to get the Lightning into the right frame of mind after letting this one slip away.

Psychologically, the Lightning are in the tough position of needing to learn the lesson of the night for when they're protecting a lead in a tight game, but they simply cannot bring any regret or frustration to the rink the next day. What's done is done and there's a lot of hockey left to be played in this series. Any negativity or temptation to indulge in self pitying wishful thinking about what might have been will only keep them from focusing on what still needs to be done. Were I Coach Cooper, I'd start the next practice by telling everyone that anyone who is still pouting about what happened in Game One can stay in the locker room, because everybody needs to be on point to win Game Two.

Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 1 blocked shot in 6:23. Given the gravity of these games, and that most of them are pretty tight, Nesterov's just not going to get a ton of ice time. With that in mind, it's fair to ask if the Lightning might be better served dressing a 12th forward instead, although the coaching staff clearly doesn't trust any of their other options enough to give them meaningful ice time, either. This is a difficulty that should remedy itself with another year of seasoning for the likes of Drouin and Namestnikov, but that's cold comfort when you're playing for a championship this year.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-29-15 Lightning at Rangers

Mission Impossible = Mission Accomplished

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Seven

TB-2
NYR-0

Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-3

Ben Bishop looked sharp in light work stopping all 22 shots he faced for the shutout. He didn't face very many chances, but he was sharp on the ones that came at key moments of the game, particularly with the Rangers pushing after Tampa Bay went up 1-0 in the Third. In a spot where the New York media had preordained Lundqvist was going to roll over Bishop after Ben got a big number put up on him in Game Six, he doled out some U of Maine Justice and got the last laugh.

First Period
NO SCORING

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
1:54 TB Killorn (7), (Carle, Filppula)
11:17 TB Palat (7), (Johnson, Bishop)

Bishop and Alex Killorn were the game's first and second stars.

One game after being shelled for 7 goals on their home ice and with the entire hockey world writing their epitaph, the Lightning defied conventional wisdom and turned in the single greatest defensive effort in the history of the franchise. Coming into this game, the northern hockey media pounded an incessant drum beat for 2-1/2 days about how the Lightning simply had no chance. The Rangers held a 7-0 lifetime in Game Sevens at home. They had won 6 consecutive playoff Game Sevens, an NHL record. And, yes, Lundqvist was nearly unbeatable in Game Sevens, having won all 6 of those Game Sevens. How would the young Lightning, after getting embarrassed in Game Six, possibly rebound in the face of a mountain of ominous statistics? It was 2-1/2 days of an all out national media blitz which screamed, "The Lighting are DOOMED! DOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMED!"

From Jon Cooper (who was maligned by the likes of New Yorker Keith Olbermann as a "junior college coach" after Game Six) through Steven Stamkos, and down to the likes of Killorn, it seemed that every single member of the Lightning organization absorbed the hyperbolic shark jumping of the national media and chose to use it as a motivational lens to focus in on the task at hand and play about as close to perfect a defensive game as is humanly possible. The Lightning didn't just defend like demons in their defensive third like they did in Game Five, they contested every single inch of ice for the full 200 feet. It was a symphony of positioning, support, and pure hustle the likes of which have never been seen by players in Lightning jerseys, even in the 2004 Cup run. Combined with a forechecking/possession game that was far closer to their normal swarming effort of the regular season, this really was the complete game. Note: it wasn't just the Triplets or even the top two lines tonight, either. The checkers, oft maligned, were superb tonight. Ryan Callahan and J.T. Brown, in particular, were difference makers in all three zones and very threatening in the offensive zone. Were it not for some scintillating saves by Lundqvist, this could've easily a 4-0 or 5-0 win by the Lightning.

All in all, you have to be thoroughly impressed with it all. It really proves what I've always thought about this franchise: they play better the in the disrespected underdog role with a gigantic chip on their shoulder. In situations like this, they always play better than when they're too fat and happy on media plaudits or from the league banquet circuit. The Lightning are, and ever shall be, gate crashers in the NHL. Embrace it, bask in it, and use it as fuel, like they did tonight. I'm thoroughly impressed that a team this young could figure out how to strangle the life out of a grizzled, Presidents Trophy winning team in their barn under the harsh scrutiny of the biggest media market in the world and punch their ticket for the Stanley Cup Finals.

And, it's just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, Sinatra said if you can make it there... well, you know the rest. I said it after Game Six of the Montreal series, which was a gem in its own right, but were I Jon Cooper I'd tell this group, "Now that you've shown you can do it, especially on the defensive side of the ice, don't shortchange yourself and settle for anything less. You know how it's done and the sky is the limit. So go out and do it, now."

Now, I could use this moment to further expound on my thoughts about Rangers fans, the New York media, and Martin St. Louis, but nah. Success is the best revenge, so I'll take the high road instad. I would like to note, though, that the Lightning didn't get a power play the entire game, matching the Game Seven travesty in 2011 against Boston. The Rangers got 2 power plays in the Second Period with the game 0-0, one of which was a very soft "hooking" call on Morrow, showing the refs had no problem giving the Rangers some opportunities to score that all important first goal, whereas some obvious infractions like a high stick taken by Nikita Kucherov, went completely uncalled. So, as expected, and as has been the norm against the traditional, big market teams, there were times the Lightning had to play (and win) 5-on-7. And no, NHL, just because the Lightning won doesn't mean we forgive, or forget. And yes, NHL, you ought to be ashamed.

As a post script, Steven Stamkos treated the Prince of Wales Trophy like a piece of molten hot lava. That's good captaining. We'll pass the rest of the night away with NBCSN holding a wake for the New York Rangers rather than giving the just plaudits the Lightning deserve, and then see this weekend whether Chicago or Anaheim advances to the Finals. I will say this about both teams: after having gone through a very hot Petr Mrazek, the presumptive MVP in Carey Price, and a living legend like Henrik Lundqvist, neither of those teams have netminders that should intimidate the Lightning's snipers. And, if the Lightning start to play defensively on a plane closer to what they did tonight, consistently, then I really like their chances to go all the way.

Nikita Nesterov played just 3:10 tonight. Game Seven? 0-0 game most of the way? On the road with the Rangers holding the last change? Yeah, Nikita was there for moral support and water bottle filling only. Not surprising.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-26-14 Rangers at Lightning

Game Four redux, unfortunately.

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Six

NYR-7
TB-3

Series Tied 3-3

Ben Bishop allowed 5 goals on 26 shots for the loss before giving way to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who allowed 1 goal on 7 shots the rest of the way. Bishop never looked completely comfortable in this game, but I can't really fault him on any of the 5 goals he allowed. The Rangers' first two goals had distinct puck luck elements to them off of soft point shots that hit traffic in front. The remaining 3 goals in the Third Period resulted from a complete defensive meltdown by the Lightning in front of Bishop, as they neglected to even attempt to play that side of the game down 2-1 coming out of the Second Intermission.

First Period
3:36 NYR Brassard (7), (Miller, Boyle)
15:30 NYR Yandle (2), (Brassard, Nash)
17:20 TB Callahan (1), (Stralman, Bishop)(PP)

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
3:02 NYR Miller (1), (Brassard, Nash)
6:00 NYR Sheppard (1), (Moore, Glass)
7:14 NYR Brassard (8), (Miller, Nash)
7:50 TB Kucherov (8), (Johnson)
10:21 NYR Nash (5), (Yandle, Miller)(PP)
13:21 TB Kucherov (9), (Johnson, Nesterov)
18:19 NYR Brassard (9), (unassisted)(EN)

I'm just at a loss to explain what's transpired in both Game Four and Game Six of this series. I honestly can't fault the effort of the team in both games. As with Game Four, the Lightning had the majority of possession, shots, and chances through the first 40-45 minutes. Perhaps they didn't have the same quality of chances tonight as they did in Game Four, but still, they didn't necessarily deserve to be down 2-1 heading into the Third Period either. The Rangers rode a bit of puck luck and good goaltending to the advantage heading into the final frame. There, as in Game Four, the Lightning just absolutely left any pretense of playing defense in the locker room and just got burned to death because of it. They were so impatient to fly the zone to seek the equalizing goals they just absolutely went brain dead with turnovers and poor defensive zone coverage. Maybe it's better that Game Seven is on the road, because the team seems to have a healthy fear of those types of mistakes playing in the other team's barn that doesn't exist when they play at home lately.

I'll say this also: it's pretty clear if the Lightning are to win Game Seven it'll be a 5-on-7 victory, because the officiating tilted against the Lightning pretty hard tonight. For a team that had so much more possession, zone time, and the greater quantity of chances, the Lightning only got 2 power plays in the first 2 periods of the game, and none in a Second Period that they dominated. That just seems improbable bordering on impossible, and it's even more frustrating when you consider the phantom hooking call Nikita Kucherov got in the Second Period and the obviously embellished hooking call on Morrow that also came in the Second Period. When you contrast that against the pretty nasty slash Nikita Kucherov took away from the puck by Staal in this game (no call) and the pivotal non-call on a trip of Tyler Johnson that occurred early in the Third Period (again, no call), well...

I'll let you draw your own conclusions about which way the officiating will tilt in Game Seven. If I had my guess, it'll be an anything-goes affair where the refs will just about completely pocket their whistles and the Lightning will need a mixture of the defensive discipline they got in Game Five in MSG and the stellar goaltending they got against Detroit in their previous Game Seven in this playoff run. That's entirely possible, despite the media's breathless rush to proclaim the Lightning DOA based on the Rangers' all-time home Game Seven record. But, it requires the Lightning to buckle down mentally again like they did for Game Five. Honestly, they just need to realize they're still in a great spot. If you offered any team in the league the opportunity to play in Game Seven of their conference finals at the start of the year, they'd have taken it gladly and thanked you for the opportunity. That's all the Lightning need to take to heart after tonight. 7-3 aren't the numbers that matter. 3-3 and the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals with a single victory are. Things are never as bad as they appear, and a change of fortune and redemption are just a game away.

Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 2 penalty minutes in 11:00 of ice time.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-24-15 Lightning at Rangers

Tampa Bay whips New York at its own game.

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Five

TB-2
NYR-0

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.

First Period
NO SCORING

Second Period
13:29 TB Filppula (3), (Stamkos, Stralman)
18:22 TB Stamkos (7), (Palat, Kucherov)(PP)

Third Period
NO SCORING

Steven Stamkos, Bishop, and Valtteri Filppula were the game's three stars.

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.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-22-15 Rangers at Lightning

Rangers manufacture a smack down of their own.

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Four

NYR-5
TB-1

Series Tied 2-2

Ben Bishop allowed 5 goals on 24 shots for the loss. There was nothing super-soft in the five goals, but he did have a couple of rebound goals that went through him five-hole, and five-hole tends to be a spot where Bishop gets leaky when he's a little off. He actually looked sharper than in Game Three, to me, but he needs to be better nonetheless. It's an ugly, albeit deceptive, stat line.

First Period
17:18 NYR Nash (3), (Hayes, Hagelin)

Second Period
11:30 TB Stamkos (6), (Killorn, Filppula)
15:16 NYR Kreider (7), (Klein, Yandle)
17:04 NYR Yandle (1), (Klein, Nash)

Third Period
5:08 NYR St. Louis (1), (Brassard, Boyle)(PP)
11:33 NYR Nash (4), (Hayes, Yandle)(PP)

Alex Killorn was the game's third star.

This game, in many ways, was a mirror of the Lightning's win in Game Two in New York. They utterly dominated the Rangers for the first 45 minutes of the game, but New York got some good goaltending and some puck luck and eventually built a lead that they then took to blowout proportions with a couple of Third Period PP markers. The turning point of the game was a soft Brendan Morrow pass around the boards behind his own net with the score tied at 1-1 that became a cheap goal for the Rangers. They then got some puck luck on a point shot that bounced in off of Victor Hedman's leg, and things just went straight downhill from there for the Lightning. By the end, you had a Lightning bench that looked a little shell shocked because they, like a lot of Lightning fans, couldn't figure out how the heck they got clubbed by 4 goals in a game they absolutely dominated in shots, chances, and possession. That's the way hockey is sometimes, though.

It's very important right now for the Lightning to focus more on 2-2 (the series) instead of 5-1 (the Game Four score), which will be a test of their maturity. A Game Four hangover leading to a flat start in Game Five could well cost them the series. They need to take some solace in the fact they actually played pretty darned well through 45 minutes until garbage time set in and they need to recognize that they just need to bury their chances and continue to clean up the turnovers like Morrow's blunder. It's a three game series now and it wasn't unreasonable to expect this to be a six or seven game series when it started, so there should be no panic right now. It's a 2-2 series. Not a big deal. Not anything mind blowing. Not anything unexpected. Throw out this game's score as being partly as a function of buzzard's luck, tune out the northern media harping about Nash and St. Louis suddenly being let loose out of the barn, and just hunker down and win Game Five. That's what the approach, mentally, has got to be right now.

Lineup changes? I see a lot of people calling for Brendan Morrow's head and a lot of people calling for Cedric Paquette's head after he got pylonized dropping back on D on Nash's First Period goal. Here's the problem, though: I'm not sure you can trust what your second options (Namestnikov, Drouin, and/or Marchessault) will give you if they draw into the lineup, especially on the defensive end. My point being, I don't know that there are any really good options floating around out there, other than rolling the dice on Drouin's outstanding individual skill and speed.

Also, I must say, Kevin Hayes needs to get suspended for that dirty slash to Tyler Johnson's abdomen. Dirty, dirty play.

Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot, 2 hits, and 2 penalty minutes in 14:43. He had at least one glorious opportunity early in the game and has been better on the defensive end to boot.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-20-15 Rangers at Lightning

Track meet ends on a King-sized softie.

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Three

NYR-5
TB-6 (OT)

Tampa Bay Leads the Series 2-1

Ben Bishop allowed 5 goals on 28 shots for the OT victory. He looked tired and possibly a little hurt tonight. His positioning was off. Rebound control was poor. He was fighting it, but he's a battler and fortunately he got the goal support from the guys in front of him. Hopefully he can get some rest and treatment and get back in the groove for Game Four.

First Period
1:02 NYR Brassard (6), (Boyle, Stepan)(PP)
9:55 NYR Fast (2), (Kreider, McDonagh)
11:07 TB Stamkos (5), (Killorn)

Second Period
10:32 TB Palat (5), (Johnson, Stamkos)(PP)
13:17 TB Johnson (12), (Palat, Hedman)
17:18 TB Killorn (6), (Hedman)
17:47 NYR Fast (3), (Klein, Stepan)

Third Period
2:28 NYR McDonagh (3), (Hayes, Yandle)(PP)
14:05 TB Palat (6), (Nesterov, Kucherov)
18:04 NYR Boyle (3), (Miller, Yandle)

Overtime
3:33 TB Kucherov (7), (Nesterov)

The Lightning deserved to win tonight. Let's say that right from the jump. They may not have deserved to win Game One and may not have been 4 goals better in Game Two, but they had the run of play in their favor most of the night tonight and deserved the "W". They possessed the puck most of the night, they were extremely physical, and they produced tons of scoring chances. That's the glass half full. They absolutely deserved the result they got tonight.

On the flip side, there were a lot of mistakes in this game that the team still needs to clean up if they are going to take this series. They ultimately got off the hook tonight because of the horrific softie allowed by Lundqvist in Overtime, but on most nights they're not getting off the hook with the bevy of mistakes they made. The first goal was a PP goal on a very dubious roughing call on the first shift on Paquette. I call baloney on that, and we'll put it aside. The second goal was on a bad line change compounded by Matt Carle getting hurt in the neutral zone, thereby putting the Lightning in a situation where they had 1/2 of a defenseman on the ice. Not ideal. We'll see when/if Carle can return. Looked like maybe a concussion situation to me, but we'll see. Those 2 goals put the Lightning behind the 8-ball early and it was a critical goal by Stamkos on the rebound on a 2-on-1 that allowed the Lightning to stay in the game in a First Period that they otherwise dominated.

They built a 2 goal lead in the Second Period through superior play and really deserved to have a much easier way to the finish line in this one, but they let New York off the hook. The Lightning had a lapse in the shift directly after their 4th goal that allowed Fast to get a greasy goal, and that allowed the Rangers to hang around going into the Third Period. The team made some great strides in the Detroit and Montreal series protecting leads, but they blew a pair of 1 goal Third Period leads tonight. Johnson had a neutral zone turnover that led to a Sustr tripping call that yielded New York's 4th goal, and then they had an unforced icing and a bad loss on a defensive zone draw that led to New York's 5th goal. Again, a slew of little mistakes that marred a game that the team otherwise dominated. So, there's tons to clean up. Additionally, the Lightning PK that has been so fantastic all playoffs long has looked very vulnerable the past 2 games. A more disciplined Lightning team would be in a very advantageous position, because from here on out I suspect they'll be the better team at even strength as they get stronger over the course of the series. Don't give the Rangers power plays and allow them to manufacture goals and stick around in games and the series with the man advantage.

All that said, though, the genie looks to be fully out of the bottle offensively for the Lightning and Lundqvist has looked extremely mortal against the Lightning this year. The power play in on track and both the Stamkos and Johnson lines are creating a slew of chances. On the Stamkos line, in particular, Stamkos and Killorn have looked fearsome on the forecheck in this series with a mix of brutality and skill that forms a thunder/lightning contrast to the surgical precision and speed of the Johnson line. It's got to be in New York's head a bit, at this point, frankly. I firmly believe if the Lightning get to 3 goals in any given game in this series, there's an extremely high chance they'll win the game because it forces the Rangers to play the Lightning's style and not their own, and right now the Rangers don't look like they're holding the Lightning to 2 goals or less anytime soon. They almost stole a game playing more of a Lightning-style high scoring game tonight, but ultimately lost their opportunity and it may really be the first big nail in their coffin in this series.

Right now complacency is the big enemy for the Lightning, though. They HAVE to come out with the same intensity and physical approach in Game Four, while also cleaning up some of their mistakes. New York's like a fighter that's been stunned by a good haymaker. Their legs are a little weak, and they're looking a little wobbly, but they're not down and out yet. The Lightning have to put them on the canvas in Game Four. If they do so, they haven't lost 3 straight games all season long, so... well... you can do the math. If they don't, this is a 3 game series with the Rangers holding home ice, which is a much harder road for the Lightning to traverse.

Nikita Nesterov had 2 helpers and was +1 with 2 penalty minutes, 1 shot, and 1 hit in 14:14. He got a little extra IT to help compensate for the loss of Carle, and give him credit, he made some good passes as a puck mover to get his forwards off and running on the rush for two key late goals. That makes up for the penalty he took in the Second Period when, thankfully, the PK let him off the hook at a danger time in the game with the Lightning down 2-1. It's a different game if they fall back behind by 2 early in the Second Period.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-18-15 Lightning at Rangers

Manufactured smack down.

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Two

TB-6
NYR-2

Series Tied 1-1

Ben Bishop remains my #1 story of the playoffs, allowing just 2 goals on 37 shots for the victory. With all due respect to Tyler Johnson, Bishop's carrying this team on his back right now. He's erasing copious amounts of defensive mistakes in front of him and giving the Lightning an opportunity to win every single night, like he did again here in Game Two. His stop with the left pad on Fast at 3-2 in the Third Period may not have only been a game saver, but a series saver, too.

First Period
5:38 TB Johnson (9), (Killorn)(SH)
8:50 NYR Kreider (6), (St. Louis, Boyle)(PP)
11:15 TB Johnson (10), (Stamkos, Kucherov)(PP)

Second Period
8:17 TB Johnson (11), (Palat, Kucherov)
14:17 NYR Stepan (5), (St. Louis, Boyle)(PP)

Third Period
3:09 TB Killorn (4), (Hedman, Filppula)
6:28 TB Stamkos (4), (Coburn, Kucherov)(PP)
17:58 TB Killorn (5), (Garrison, Filppula)(PP)

Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Nikita Kucherov were the game's three stars. Ben Bishop's my guy in this playoff run, but there's little doubt that if the Lightning go all the way Johnson will win the Conn Smyth. His hat trick tonight puts him 1 goal shy of the Lightning record for goals in a playoff season, and we're sitting at Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals. Bishop, Johnson, and the Lightning PK have been the reason the Lightning have gotten this far, but the suddenly white hot PP may be what puts them over the top. They were 3/6 tonight and continue to flirt with 50% with the man advantage over the last 7-8 games. I don't know how the team loses a series with the power play clicking at this level, given they led the league in goals during the regular season with nothing resembling a PP from November on.

With all that said, this game was tighter than the score indicates. The Lightning matched the Rangers' effort level tonight, unlike Game One, and produced the chances they needed to win. But, they still made a large sackful of turnovers and mistakes that could've ended in catastrophe were it not for Bishop's ongoing excellence. Jon Cooper and his staff will look at the tape and have plenty to clean up, but I feel pretty safe in saying the Lightning just played their 2 worst games of the series and they only lost Game One 2-1 and they eventually blew out NY in Game Two 6-2. Game Three will be a lot more tight checking, so the Lightning need to refocus going home to Tampa in good position with everything reduced to a 5 game series with the Lightning holding home ice advantage.

Nikita Nesterov had 2 hits and 2 blocked shots in 12:49. He had a goal on a 2-on-1 and took his eye off the puck trying to one time it into the open side. He didn't have the anxious moments on defense he had in the Montreal series, and having him in the lineup in a 7 D alignment provides the team an assertive pace pusher and scrambles the forward lines enough to make it harder for a team that likes to play matchup as much as the Rangers do.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

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