The night it all came together...
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-2
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 19 shots for the victory, with the lone goal coming off a play where a puck took a goofy hop off the glass. He didn't have a ton of work, but he continued to make the key saves when he needed to. The national press just realized Bishop is no fluke. It's no small thing to out-duel the presumptive MVP, Carey Price, in a 7-game series. Did he get some lucky, horseshoe breaks? Sure. But you make your own luck, and Bishop was the MVP of this Montreal series.
15:35 TB Kucherov (5), (Palat)
5:12 TB Stamkos (3), (Killorn, Carle)
18:56 TB Palat (3), (Kucherov, Stralman)(PP)
15:03 MTL Pacioretty (5), (Gallagher)
17:59 TB Kucherov (6), (unassisted)(EN)
After muddling through much of the first dozen games of this playoff season, tonight the Lightning finally figured out how to translate their regular season style to a successful 60 minute hockey game. You could see it coming in their 5-on-5 play in Montreal in Game Five, and once the Johnson line worked their way into scoring the opening goal in the First Period, the Lightning were fully off and running. The Lightning completely dominated the Habs from there on out. Outshot them. Outchanced them. Outhit them. They even did a number on Montreal in the faceoff circles after struggling mightily in that department for most of the series. All in all, it was the first time in these playoffs that the Lightning played a full game of Lightning hockey, which points to the tremendous potential of this club. Even struggling to figure out postseason hockey, the Lightning had the talent to advance within 1 game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Tonight, all the pieces fell into place.
Moreover, the Lightning have filled in some important gaps in their game from the regular season, and may be be finally reaching their full potential as a team. That should be terrifying to the rest of the league, considering that the Lightning still managed to put up a 100+ point season and lead the league in goals even without a functional power play and without a really strong ability to close out close games in the Third Period. The Lightning got 7 goals on the power play in the Montreal series, and starting late in the Detroit series they started to really look more comfortable and efficient protecting Third Period leads and playing a more simple 200 foot game.
Oh, and after being MIA in the Detroit series, all of a sudden Kucherov is fully on track and Stamkos is getting on track. Yikes.
Credit BP member Bolthed with the following paraphrased point from the BP chat room, which I think strikes the right tone, post game: I hope Coach Cooper stood up in front of his team after the game and said something along the lines of the following...
"Boys, congratulations for advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. It hasn't always been easy, and it darn sure hasn't always been pretty. But, you've worked hard and you've learned and gotten a little strong, bit by bit, along the way. Tonight, you finally put it all together, and I'm proud of you guys for that. But, you know what? Now there are no more excuses. Now that you've proven you can put it all together it's on you guys to play at that same level every game from here on out. You can do it. You've shown you can do it. You had the talent, and now you've got the experience. Anything less and you're cheating yourselves."
And at that point, I hope he asked Stamkos and Hedman to stand up in front of the team and talk about 2011, and guys like Stralman and Boyle about their experience with the Rangers, and what it feels like to come that close to winning it all. Once you get this deep in the playoffs and are one of the final four teams, you're in the rarefied air of an event that may never come in your life again. You only get so many kicks at the can and only so many real chances to get your name on the Stanley Cup.
Capitalize it, and as Tim Taylor said in 2004, your team will walk together forever. When you lose though, like the Lightning did in 2011 in Game Seven against Boston by such a slim margin, it's the kind of thing you take to your grave. As a fan, I'll never get over 2011 and how close the Lightning were to advancing and probably winning their second Stanley Cup. Maybe it's a sign of my lack of an adequate social life, but there's not a day over the last 4 years I haven't thought about it and wished they could've gotten those couple of more goals they needed to advance and how that would've changed the legacy of that team and the franchise. I can only imagine what the players like Stamkos and Hedman who were in that room and shed blood, sweat, and tears with that team feel. They have to understand the fierce urgency of this moment and impart that wisdom on their teammates who haven't experienced a deep run like this at the NHL level before. When you get this far, you've got to win it all. You've got to. You've got to sell out mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually for every single shift of every single game, because you don't want to cheat yourselves and you don't want to find yourself looking back and regretting what might have been. For the next 4-6 weeks (hopefully), the Lightning will put everything of themselves toward this singular goal. It'll be grueling. It'll be nerve wracking. It'll galvanize a city behind the team that wears their jersey and shares their community. And that, folks, is what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs the most unique and exciting experience in all of professional sports.
Jonathan Marchessault had 1 shot and 1 hit in 11:15 in his NHL playoff debut. Credit the coaching staff for monitoring how well Marchessault was practicing and for having the guts to insert him in the lineup in such a big spot. He didn't score tonight, but he made smart plays with the puck and was poised defensively in a way the younger forwards haven't always been in these playoffs.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot and 1 hit in 6:19. He had some anxious moments in his own end in the First Period. That's been the trade off with Nesterov. You get some possession advantages, but he looks a little hairy at times in his own third. Hence the lower ice time.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 29 shots for the loss. He played well tonight and still hasn't had back-to-back clunkers all season long. He gave the team a chance tonight, along with his friends posts and crossbars.
9:01 MTL Smith-Pelly (1), (Mitchell, Petry)
9:27 TB Stamkos (2), (Stralman, Killorn)
15:53 MTL Parenteau (1), (Subban)
Bishop was the game's third star.
The Lightning played a better game than they did in Game Three and Game Four, particularly in the First and Third Periods, but still haven't played like they're capable of. The possession and shots really grinded to a halt in the Second Period and they need to have the puck more if they want to win this series. They also should feel fortunate they got the benefit of 2 posts and a crossbar hit by Montreal on the PP, but all in all they nearly did what they needed to to seal the capper on the road and only a couple of small mistakes really cost them. First, on the Pelly goal, you had a really ill-advised pass in the neutral zone by Carle compounded by poor positioning by Sustr. Little things. You had Morrow staring at an open net with plenty of time a little later on and he golfs it directly into Price's pad. Rushed it. Little things. And, the real kicker of the night, Stamkos has the puck on his blade with all the time in the world to make a play with it in his defensive zone and he throws it blindly up the wall to Subban for what turns into the GWG. Panicked needlessly. Little things. They cleaned up a lot from Game Four, but they need to still clean up that last little bit more for Game Six.
On a side note, the referees fingerprints were all over this game. All over it. Tampa Bay didn't get a power play all game long even though you had Johnson getting tackled the first shift of the game and Bishop getting crosschecked in the chest in the Second Period on two clear Montreal infractions. So what did the refs do? Even it up! Make it 4-on-4! Call a baloney embellishment call on Johnson and then call a baloney roughing call on Hedman in a post-whistle scrum. That's what the refs did, because they didn't want to award the Lightning a single PP after seeing the Lightning score 6 PP goals in the previous 3 games. It was obvious. They practically put it on a billboard after that gobsmacking call against Johnson to start the game. And it continued throughout the game as you had one instance where Callahan nearly got the jersey ripped off him like he'd been mauled by a tiger and then the final shift of the game where Stamkos got tackled by Subban and laid on until the final horn. Right. In. Front. Of. The. Official. That's why I'm not going to get too mad, because it was practically 7-on-5 tonight and the Lightning still nearly manufactured the victory. It's just sad you know going into a game like this in Montreal, you're going to have to beat the team in front of you AND the officials. And it's obvious. It's SO Montreal.
If I was a betting man, the Lightning are going to beat the life out of Montreal in Game Six. We'll see how it plays out, but Pacioretty tried to also maul Tyler Johnson at the final buzzer in the scrum that broke out when Subban was still trying to pin Stamkos for the 3 count WWE style. The Lightning finally let out a little emotion tonight, and I think this team plays better when it's angry/revenge-minded. Just my guess. Montreal made it personal again with their shenanigans at the buzzer.
Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 2 penalty minutes, 2 shots and 3 hits in 12:13. Some of his defensive zone play tonight, frankly, was hairy. Effective, but hairy. You wouldn't show tape of those plays in an instructional video. He also got a key shift late in the game as the Lightning were trying to tie the game up, and I don't think he exactly cloaked himself in glory with some of his decision-making with the puck in the neutral zone. Tough spot for a rookie to find himself in.
Bishop rises up.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-3
Ben Bishop stopped all 31 shots he faced for the shutout win in the clutchest of clutch moments. He was not on his game to start, fighting the puck hard for the first 25 minutes or so of the game. But, the longer it went on, the stronger Bishop got. By the end, Bishop looked sharp as a razor and ready to hand out his brand of U of Maine Justice in the postseason for the very first time. It's appropriate that on the night of Bobby Taylor's last broadcast at color of Sun Sports that his fellow Goalies Union, Local 813 member stole the show.
3:58 TB Coburn (1), (Callahan, Killorn)
18:42 TB Stralman (1), (Bishop)(EN)
The Lightning pilfered this one. They were incredibly nervous and played about 45 minutes of scared, hot potato hockey. That said, they hustled, they worked hard, and they capitalized on the break when it came to them on Coburn's goal. It wasn't pretty. Cripes, even the anthem singer was playing hurt. But, in the end, figuring out how to pull out a series like this is so critically important for an extremely young team trying to make a transition to becoming an elite franchise. Now that they have that experience, it's going to get easier from here on out because they've lived through a tight series against a difficult, veteran opponent where they had to overcome a lot of adversity. It bodes well for the Montreal series and on into the future.
It also bodes well, in a weird way, that Stamkos and Kucherov still couldn't get a goal. For those two guys to go 7 games without a goal has to be the very definition of, "due." If I were the Canadiens, I'd be pretty terrified because if either of those guys get 1, especially Stamkos, the floodgates are liable to open. Both players had ten bell opportunities they just missed in Game Seven.
Going against hometown Montreal, might we also see Jonathan Drouin again starting Friday? It still seems that Stamkos needs a little more speed/skill on his wing, and Drouin has it. Just sayin'.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot in 10:02. For the little he played, he was very assertive and nearly won the game himself with a near end to end rush on one power play. He's forced his way into the lineup and forced Cooper and the staff to play 7 defensemen.
You gotta believe, daddy!
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Series Tied 3-3
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 24 shots for the victory. Would he get style points for how he played tonight? Likely not. He looks nicked up and he was fighting the puck a bit all night long. Buy he battled like a maniac to get the job done.
3:47 TB Johnson (5), (Kucherov, Hedman)
11:10 TB Garrison (1), (Stamkos, Kucherov)
9:09 TB Johnson (6), (Palat, Kucherov)
12:26 DET Tatar (2), (Kronwall)(PP)
1:39 DET Tatar (3), (Datsyuk)
14:51 TB Killorn (2), (unassisted)
19:03 TB Paquette (1), (unassisted)(SH)(EN)
It's hard not to be proud of the way the Lightning played tonight. It was gritty and gutty. They were being physically assaulted by Detroit throughout the game as uncalled interference escalated to uncalled head shots like Kronwall's obvious elbow to the chin of Kucherov. They battled on. In fact, the refs took it a step further and decided they were going to punish Jon Cooper for openly questioning the lack of interference calls in this series by awarding Detroit a 7-2 power play advantage and allowing Detroit to get away with anything short of murder in this contest. True, they blew a call that led to the Lightning's third goal on an uncalled trip in the neutral zone, but fairness never entered into the equation tonight. It was 7-on-5, at best, most of the night, but unlike the Montreal series last year the Lightning battled on.
And, yes, I'm deliberately mocking Coach Babcock's mindless platitudes earlier about fighting through his team's clearly illegal strategy of throwing the kitchen sink at the faster, more skilled Lightning team to try to nullify their athletic advantage. It was a pretty overt admission his team is cheating their rear ends off, couched in some hot garbage about having the heart of a champion. Whatever. He and his gaggle of clutch and grab cheap shot artists can battle their rear ends onto a charter flight to Tampa for Game Seven on Wednesday.
The Lightning made a conscious decision tonight to stay true to themselves. It's not easy when things are stacked up against you to stay in character and not deviate from your structure. In fact, when guys start trying to execute flying elbows on your star players, it's a whole lot easier to let things degenerate into an Ultimate Fighting match, which appeared to be Detroit's preference at times tonight. The Lightning played their brand of hockey, got the all important first goal, and won. Note: that's the key. If you get one on Mrazek, chances are he's going to give up 2-3 more, often quickly, so the same recipe will be required for Game Seven success. It wasn't perfect. The power play was still 0-for-2 and neither Stamkos nor Kucherov managed their first goals of the postseason. But, hey, that just means they're due in the biggest game of the year on Wednesday, right?
Coach Cooper said tonight they exhibited that they learned something from the Montreal series last year. True. But, I think they learned 10x more protecting that lead in the Third Period. The plays made by young guys like Paquette, Sustr, Killorn, etc. are all invaluable experience that will help this team turn the corner from a regular season team to a team that can confidently do business in the second season. I really liked what I saw on that front.
On a side note: that steal, deke, and insurance score by Alex Killorn? That man has a way of scoring big goals, doesn't he?
Nikita Nesterov had 1 hit in 5:16. The Lightning coaches weren't going to let Detroit matchup against him at even strength and with the Lightning only getting 2 power plays out of the zebras, Nesterov didn't see the ice very much. Understandable.
Miracle in Motown.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Series Tied 2-2
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 24 shots for the OT victory. The softie from distance he allowed in the Second Period appeared to be the soul crushing final nail in the game (and possibly the Lightning's season). But, that was before Tyler Johnson became a legend...
5:42 DET Nyquist (1), (Zetterberg, Abdelkader)
14:24 DET Andersson (1), (Sheahan, Jurco)
14:34 TB Johnson (3), (Stralman)
15:51 TB Palat (1), (Johnson, Garrison)
2:25 TB Johnson (4), (Hedman, Palat)
Tyler Johnson and Anton Stralman were the game's first and third stars.
Make no mistake, the Lightning stole this game. With under six minutes to play in the Third Period, this team was getting fitted for a toe tag. They were done. They were absolutely dominated from the start of the Second Period on and it looked like tee times were just around the corner. And then, somehow, Tyler Johnson pylonized Darren Helm on the rush around the corner and made it 2-1, and then he found Ondrej Palat on the rush to make it 2-2, and then he finished off an Overtime 3-on-1 on the rush to complete perhaps the most impossible, miraculous moment in Lightning postseason history.
I'm still stunned it happened, and don't know exactly what happens from hereon out. I thought after Game Two that Petr Mrazek's veil of invincibility was put to bed, and that didn't work out so well. So, I'm not ready to kick dirt on the young netminder or the Red Wings' grave after that win. With that said, it has to have some sort of effect on your morale when you have a series darn near won and you wet the bed with under six minutes left to go in a game you lead 2-0 that you've absolutely dominated. Now the Lightning head home to start a 3-game series where they have home ice advantage with a lot of belief that they can do... well... just about anything after that victory.
On the downside, the power play again went 0-for-4 and we're still waiting for Steven Stamkos to light the lamp in this series. I'd say it was a complete swing and a miss for the franchise cornerstones tonight, but Victor Hedman's sweet assist on the Johnson OT winner was obviously huge. I'm beginning to think we may just need to accept the fact Hedman's not a natural PP QB running things in the offensive third from the point despite the fact he's absolutely dominant on the rush.
By the way, refs, don't think we didn't notice that pick on Drouin that wasn't called on Detroit's second goal and that phantom call on Ben Bishop for the unimaginable crime of standing in his crease while a Detroit player skated by and tripped over him. Bummy performance by the officials.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 13:40. The coaching staff had to be more guarded with Nesterov's use on the road with the Wings having last change. So, we may see more of him in Game Five at home that we've seen in Game Three and Game Four.
One final post script: when you win a game like that, you kind of have to win the series now, don't you?