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 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.
Lightning out-everythinged in embarrassing loss.
Eastern Conference Finals
Pittsburgh Leads the Series 2-1
Andrei Vasilevskiy stood on his head despite allowing 4 goals on a staggering 48 shots faced for the loss. He actually held the Lightning in this game for a good 25-35 minutes longer than they should have been. At this point, I'd expect Bishop to be back Friday for nothing other than the emotional change up to try and wake up a flat team, but Vasilevskiy's done nothing but play well in these three games. If he had any kind of support in front of him... well, you know.
19:50 PIT Hagelin(5), (Kessel)
5:16 PIT Kessel(7), (Bonino, Hagelin)
5:30 TB Johnson(5), (Kucherov, Palat)
10:50 PIT Crosby(5), (Malkin, Schultz)(PP)
13:12 PIT Kunitz(2), (unassisted)
18:16 TB Palat(4), (Kucherov, Carle)
Unless someone tells me that the flu that Ryan Callahan had for Game Two is ripping through the team like an epidemic, there's no earthly excuse for the flatness and sloppiness of the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight. They came out well for the first ten minutes of the game, but they pretty much dominated the rest of the game and only Vasilevskiy kept the game from being over early in the Second Period. The Lightning were guilty of playing a weak, inassertive game. There were too many soft passes and clears. Too much hoping and wishing. Not enough of guys trying to take the moment by the throat and make things happen. At some point, you have to prove you want it more than Pittsburgh, and I haven't seen any indication that they do the past couple of games. I mean, gosh, if you fall in a 3 goal hole in the Third Period at least start a little line brawl and send a message that Game Four's going to be a different story. Show everybody you've got some pride and you care. We got none of that from the team tonight as they went out with a meek whimper.
So, it's soul-searching time. There's plenty of things tactically to clean up like the team's breakouts and erasing some of the turnovers and coverage errors, but first has to come effort. They've allowed a 21 year old netminder, Murray, a free pass the last couple of games. They've allowed a pretty soft Penguins defense a free pass the last couple of games. That's got to stop immediately in Game Four. A 3-1 series deficit heading back to Pittsburgh would feel like a death sentence. So, the first thing that has to happen Friday is the Lightning need to make a total commitment to staying alive.
Lightning can't pull off another smash and grab.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 1-1
Andrei Vasilevskiy sparkled, allowing 3 goals on 41 shots for the tough luck OT loss. Pittsburgh threw the kitchen sink at Tampa Bay in the First Period and although Vasilevskiy did allow the 2 goals, he stopped several other Grade A chances to keep Tampa Bay hanging around in the game until the cavalry arrived. Unfortunately, he just didn't have enough support in the form of possession tonight and eventually the game was lost on a 2-on-1 early in OT. I think Tampa Bay goes back to Bishop in Game Three if he's healthy enough to go, but Andrei did nothing to hurt his stock in these two games in Pittsburgh and the Lightning should feel completely comfortable if he has to go again in Game Three. It really is the mark of the good ones that if they give up a couple of goals in the First Period they resolve to close the door the rest of the way, and that's largely what Vasilevskiy accomplished tonight.
4:32 PIT Cullen(4), (Fehr, Kuhnhackl)
9:37 PIT Kessel(6), (Bonino, Haegelin)
16:37 TB Stralman(1), (Marchessault, Hedman)
19:10 TB Drouin(3), (Brown, Carle)
0:40 PIT Crosby(4), (Rust, Dumoulin)
Jonathan Drouin was the game's third star. I have no idea how Vasilevskiy got robbed of a star.
Frankly, Pittsburgh was desperate and wanted this game more and it showed. The Lightning did a really good job of clawing their way back into the game in the First Period after taking a big haymaker from Pittsburgh, aided partially by the semi-soft goal Murray allowed to Drouin late in the period, but all in all the Lightning forecheck just wasn't there consistently. They were second to pucks all night. They allowed Pittsburgh to get out of their zone cleanly too easily and generate rush opportunities. It just wasn't Lightning hockey. They were going for the old 90's Devils playbook of waiting for a counterattack goal, and they nearly got in with Killorn ringing the crossbar on a 2-on-1 late in the Third Period, but that's not their style. The Lightning simply fail when they try to play this rope-a-dope style. They're the only ones who end up looking like dopes.
The biggest bit of good news from the game was the return of Anton Stralman. He looked a little stiff and a little slow and was a central figure in allowing the odd man rush on the OT winner. But, it's to be expected he's not in game condition quite yet after missing nearly two months. That'll come with time.
Ryan Callahan missed the game with the flu, which is unfortunate because in a loss like this you'd have at least liked to have gotten more hits on that soft Penguins defense. As I said, they were allowed to stay too clean tonight, and the Lightning really need to take more of a chunk out of them in Game Three. As a side note, I certainly hope some of the lethargic play seen from the Lightning wasn't a symptom of the flu spreading through the team a la Game Five of the Detroit series. This is a heck of a time of the year for the locker room to get hit by a bug.
It's too bad the Lightning are particularly lousy at faceoffs, because that's one way you can get some cheap possession when the game's tilting against you like it was against them tonight. That's a lesson they should've learned in the series against Chicago last year when the Blackhawks manufactured a couple of wins early on off of goals generated from faceoffs when they were getting otherwise dominated in the run of play. I kept hoping maybe the Lightning could manufacture the smash and grab goal tonight off a faceoff, but it never materialized. It's a weakness in their game that's a detail thing they have to work out moving forward. I'm shocked it hasn't been addressed better to this point, frankly.
The referees in this game went from a very one-sided way of calling hooking infractions that favored the Pens in the First Period to pretty much not calling anything the second half of the game. Tyler Johnson was tackled exiting the zone on a play right before the eventual OT winner. I suppose I can't protest too much because both teams got away with it as the game wore on, but there were a couple of particularly egregious ones Pittsburgh got away with late in the Third Period and on that play in Overtime once they realized the refs had pocketed their whistles.
Game Three is obviously huge, and it's a moment where Jon Cooper needs to take the matchup advantage and his players need to take the faceoff rules advantage and use them to leverage gaining more of a possession edge and get the momentum of the series back. Suffice it to say I expect a more high energy effort next time out.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 blocked shot in 5:47 of ice time. A rookie d-man in a tie game in the Eastern Conference Finals simply isn't getting a ton of ice time. With that said, my goodness, when he got a shift in the Third Period he showed no fear of going for it. He was in on the forecheck like a winger trying to make it happen.
Somehow. Some way.
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 1-0
Ben Bishop stopped all 9 shots he faced before leaving the game on a stretcher from a freak injury where he landed awkwardly on his own left leg. I'm going to guess it's a high ankle or knee sprain, as x-rays have already ruled out a break. Either way, Bishop looked in anguish on the ice and it looks at this hour like his postseason may be done. Stepping into another moment of panic in his young career, like in the Stanley Cup Final last year, young Andrei Vasilevskiy again proved himself by stopping 25 of 26 shots the rest of the way for the victory. He looked fantastic under the circumstances, and you can see bits of his game he's picked up from Ben like smart stickwork around his crease. Athletically he's capable of giving the Lightning a chance to still advance, but losing Bishop clearly nullifies the biggest advantage the Lightning had coming into this Eastern Conference Finals. Bishop was, on paper, the best and most experience netminder still standing among the NHL's final four teams. Vasilevskiy isn't drastically less experienced than Murray, so it's not like Pittsburgh gets a dramatic goaltending advantage like Montreal got when Bishop got hurt late in the regular season 3 years ago. But, it's a blow to the team's hopes, for sure. There's no sugar coating that.
18:46 TB Killorn(4), (Hedman)
2:33 TB Palat(3), (Filppula, Garrison)(PP)
18:25 TB Drouin(2), (Palat, Filppula)
19:05 PIT Hornqvist(6), (Crosby, Kessel)(PP)
Wow. I confess to being a little speechless. I have no idea how the Lightning survived a First Period that we may well refer to from here on out as "The Period From Hell," much less how they got out of it with a 1-0 lead. Even before Bishop's injury, Ryan Callahan took a 5 minute boarding major that will likely lead to a 1 game suspension. The Lightning somehow managed to kill that off against the best power play unit in this playoff year thus far. The Lightning lost all their early 5v5 momentum after that kill and looked on the ropes at times before Bishop got injured. Somehow, some way, the Lightning managed to reset their composure in the 10-15 minutes it took to stretcher their MVP off the ice, and they started to play an efficient, opportunistic game. A Hedman stretch pass found Killorn at the Pens blueline and he worked his way into a breakaway where he sweetly stashed a backhand deke under Murray to make it 1-0. But "The Period From Hell" wasn't done with the Lightning yet, as Chris Kunitz hit Tyler Johnson knee to knee very late in the period leading Johnson to leave the ice until deep into the Second Period. Thankfully he returned and didn't look too limited after coming back.
So, you had a team head into the locker room that could've gone into shock, but they instead dedicated to put their noses to the grindstone and see what they could work out of the game. They got an early power play and with some good work by Killorn and resulting puck movement, Filppula made a nice play with a shot-for-rebound that found Palat for the goal that put the team up 2-0. Later in the period, Palat teed up Drouin on a 2-on-1 and the Lightning put themselves in position for a nearly perfect road win at 3-0, especially under the circumstances. Unfortunately, they put themselves in some jeopardy by allowing a power play goal late in the period that gave the Pens a chance to make a Third Period push. They're lucky that didn't come back to bite them, as Pittsburgh outshot the Lightning 16-5 in the final frame, forcing young Vasilevskiy to make some big stops. But, they ultimately did enough to get it done.
Tampa Bay came to Pittsburgh with the mission of getting at least one of the first two games on the road. Mission accomplished. Now they are playing with house money heading into Game Two. They can play free and fast and see if they can steal another one out from under Pittsburgh before the scene shifts back to Tampa Bay. Once back in Tampa, if not sooner, I'd expect to see Anton Stralman, and eventually I'd expect to see Steven Stamkos back late in this series. The urgency for them to return only goes up now with Bishop's injury. If the Lightning can get at least Stralman back and continue to play a structured game in front of Vasilevskiy, they've still got a decent shot of advancing, even with the Bishop injury. Certainly there's 26 other teams in the league that wish they were in the Lightning's shoes at the moment, so there's no time for hand wringing for pity parties. This team's story is still to be written and it still can have a happy ending.
On a tangent, with Callahan getting a 5 minute major for boarding Letang in the First Period and Palat getting a 2 minute minor for board Dumoulin late in the game, one of the Lightning's big strategic goals became obvious. Certainly no one's advocating dirty hockey, but the Lightning's agenda clearly seems to include testing a fairly soft Penguins defense physically. And, quite frankly, I don't think the Penguins passed that test all that well tonight. I think they showed they're not comfortable taking hits along the wall and they can be intimidated a little. Callahan's impending suspension shouldn't diminish that strategy, in my opinion. With the Lightning taking home ice away with the win tonight, they've put themselves in a position to, at a minimum, make this a very long series. If so, the cumulative effect of a constant pounding on the Penguins' D is going to yield dividends, and could be the difference between winning or losing this series.
Welcome back J.T. Brown. We missed you.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 shot, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 9:31. When Stralman does return, there's no way Koekkoek should sit for Nikita Nesterov. No way. Koekkoek has clearly passed Nesterov on the depth chart, in my mind, and he seems to get a little steadier and a little more confidence with each shift.
Lightning mail in meaningless game before a very meaningful postseason.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 4 goals on 28 shots for the loss. Vasiy had a respectable season for a young backup, and I think anyone who didn't have such high expectations on him as Andrei does would take that at 21 years old and be pretty happy with it. That said, he can get a lot better and he eventually will.
5:11 MTL Galchenyuk(29), (Gallagher)
16:27 MTL Plekanec(14), (Eller, Emelin)
0:27 MTL Pacioretty(29), (Galchenyuk, Markov)
3:44 MTL Galchenyuk(30), (Pacioretty, Markov)(PP)
6:33 TB Palat(16), (Filppula)
13:00 TB Drouin(4), (Carle, Palat)
19:54 MTL Pacioretty(30), (Gallagher)(EN)
Jonathan Drouin was the game's third star. It may have been garbage time, but it's certainly nice to see him developing some chemistry with some of the Lightning's scoring liners like Palat.
Coming into the game with nothing to gain and Hedman and Kucherov being held out with nagging injuries, the only thing the Lightning wanted was to get out of town healthy. This game had less meaning than a preseason game, if that's possible, and unfortunately they couldn't even pull that off after Greg Pateryn boarded Tyler Johnson shoulder-first into the boards after the whistle late in the First Period. I am thoroughly unimpressed with Pateryn. The guy's a bum, quite frankly, and the play he made was about as blatant and egregious a late hit as it comes. The guy deserves a suspension that carries over into the next regular season, in my opinion.
The Lightning will draw Detroit in a rematch of last year's opening round series by virtue of the epic meltdown the Bruins had against Ottawa. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys (Boston melting down, that is). I'd like to say that's a favorable outcome for the Lightning, but with so much uncertainty now with Johnson possibly being banged up too, the biggest matchup of all looks like it's between Tampa Bay and the injury bug. The big thing in Game One, I think, will be Ben Bishop giving the Lightning a good performance and helping them ease their way into the series while they continue to figure out lines and pairing combinations and ice time rotations. There's just so much retrofitting on the fly and Ben's going to need to be the spackle to cover up some of that mess.
Matt Taormina had 1 shot and 1 blocked shot in 15:30.
"Try hard" Lightning back into the playoffs.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 28 shots for the loss. His soft goal on Stepan's second on a slapper off the board was the margin, as soft goals often are.
2:42 TB Sustr(4), (Namestnikov, Marchessault)
6:07 TB Boyle(13), (Palat, Johnson)(PP)
16:55 NYR Stepan(21), (Zuccarello, Yandle)(PP)
2:33 NYR Stepan(22), (Zuccarello, Klein)
4:46 NYR Kreider(21), (M. Staal, Stepan)
Ondrej Palat was the game's third star.
The Lightning had more than enough opportunities to win this game. They jumped out to the 2-0 lead and had plenty of chances to push it to a 3 goal margin with a bushel of power play opportunities including a 5-minute major. Ultimately, the Lightning just could not crack Lundqvist to put the kill shot on the Rangers and they invited the comeback given how shorthanded Tampa Bay was tonight. On top of the regular season-ending injuries to Stralman and Stamkos they also had Hedman and Callahan out of the lineup tonight. If you're a glass half full person, you can point to the fact the Lightning manufactured 41 shots tonight with that lineup. They tried hard, and with a little better goaltending they might've stolen a point out of the night. And, yes, they probably figured out some things about how to play without some of their big guns, which will have some value moving forward. But, in the end, there just aren't any moral victories at this time of year.
Fortunately, with the Bruins losing in the SO to Carolina, the Lightning backed into a playoff spot. That's notable given that the team missed the 96 point target at the 80 game market. In another season, they might be in real trouble right now. However, with how uneven the East is this year, they can actually clinch home ice in the first round with 1 more point. They'll need it. The "try hard" Lightning are better at home, where their power play is considerably less rancid than it is on the road.
Nikita Nesterov may want to join the witness protection program after that shift on the game winning goal. That's all I'll say about that.
Slater Koekkoek had 2 shots, 2 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 12:08. He wasn't perfect, but I thought he played reasonably well in a tight game against a quality opponent in a big market on the road. With efforts like that, I'd like to believe he'll earn some more game time to develop. I also thought he kind of surprised the Rangers a bit with the quality of his point shot in the game. He produced some rebounds with it tonight.
Oh look, a dumpster fire!
Ben Bishop allowed 5 goals on 23 shots for the loss, 2 of which were pretty heinous softies. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped all 13 shots he faced the rest of the way. The good news is that Bishop typically never has two clunkers in a row.
13:18 NYI Pulock(2), (Okposo, Tavares)
2:08 TB Killorn(14), (Kucherov, Carle)
11:00 NYI Martin(9), (Clutterbuck, Cizikas)
15:23 NYI Nelson(26), (Kulemin)
16:15 NYI Tavares(30), (Nielsen, Okposo)(PP)
19:53 TB Hedman(10), (Carle, Namestnikov)
4:28 NYI Boychuk(9), (Tavares)
Other than Cedric Paquette beating the dog out of Ryan Pulock to the extent Pulock's ancestors probably felt that whoopin', there was nothing of merit to this game. The Lightning stunk in pretty much every aspect of the contest. If there was one thing I'd want the team to focus on immediately, though, it'd be to stop retreating off the blueline against the rush like the Visigoths are coming over the Seventh Hill at them. There's so much fear in that Lightning blueline right now, partially due to the stone footedness of Sustr and Carle, and it's killing them. You'll recognize Carle as the turnstile with skates in the video of the Islanders' second goal.
Shorthanded Lightning can't overcome the odds.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 4 goals on 26 shots for the loss. I'm not mad about the Jagr and Huberdeau goals and the Hudler goal was just crummy puck luck, but he was horribly off his angle on the Trocheck goal. He can't allow that goal in that spot given the pretext in this game. The Lightning had to get out of the First Period with a lead feeling good about themselves, and that softie was soul-destroying.
5:52 TB Johnson(14), (Nesterov, Palat)(PP)
13:36 FLA Trocheck(25), (Jokinen)
18:02 FLA Jagr(25), (Barkov, Huberdeau)(PP)
15:53 FLA Hudler(15), (Petrovic, Bjugstad)
4:02 FLA Huberdeau(15), (Barkov, Jagr)
16:48 TB Stamkos(36), (Boyle, Nesterov)(PP)
19:35 FLA Jokinen(17), (unassisted)(SH)(EN)
It was just a tough spot for the Lightning to come into. Not only did they lose Stralman to the broken leg last night, but Kucherov also sat out today after getting nicked blocking a shot last night. There's one of your two best defensemen and one of your two most dynamic offensive players out going into a high stakes game against a rested game where the Lightning were on the back-to-back. Then, you throw on top of that the Lightning playing their youthful backup who, unfortunately, gives up a pretty soft goal after a fantastic start by the team. No chance. It was all down hill from there, and when the Panthers got the puck luck with the double deflection on the Hudler goal, it was pretty clear it was not to be Tampa Bay's night. Throw on top of that some... creative... officiating, and you have about three hours every Lightning fans wishes they could get back in their lives.
Slater Koekkoek was -1 in 5:57. I don't get the sparing way he's been used in his last two recalls. There's pretty much no point to having him with the big club if he's only going to get 10 shifts in a game like he did tonight. It doesn't benefit the player or the team.
Jonathan Marchessault was -2 with 2 shots in 16:01. I thought he had another strong game tonight, but his line struggled to get the payoff against Luongo. The game marks Marchessault's graduation from prospect status on the website, meaning he'll join Nesterov in the 2015-2016 Lightning class.
All good things...
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 39 shots for the loss. It was an unfortunate result for Andrei, because he was the only reason the Lightning had any chance at all tonight. He played really well.
4:07 TB Palat(11), (Koekkoek, Johnson)
16:51 PHI Gostisbehere(13), (Raffl, Couturier)
7:21 PHI Gostsbehere(14), (Giroux, Streit)(PP)
13:57 PHI B. Schenn(22), (Giroux, Simmonds)
14:53 TB Namestnikov(11), (Johnson, Kucherov)
19:33 PHI Simmonds(24), (B. Schenn)(EN)
Vasilevskiy was the game's third star.
So ends the Lightning's franchise record 9-game winning streak. The Lightning got the goal early in the First Period and then played the role of spectator the rest of the night. They were flat, lifeless, and unfocused. They were second to loose pucks all night long, they were weak on their sticks, and their decision-making, positioning, and passing were remarkably poor. That's one of the worst games the Lightning have played in years, and would be easier to shrug off if, A.) They hadn't played poorly in their last game a stolen a win, and B.) They didn't have a good Boston team on a back-to-back tomorrow night. Just as concerning, as quickly and unexpectedly as Callahan and Killorn started playing well on Stamkos' line, that trio has gone back into the witness protection program again. Look, I love "The Triplets," but the Lightning will go as far as the vets like Stamkos and Callahan can take them, because they will have to give the Lightning the scoring balance they need to compete in the playoffs.
Get well soon Brayden Coburn and Andrej Sustr.
Slater Koekkoek had a helper, his first NHL point, and was +1 with 2 shots, 1 hit, and 2 blocked shots in 13:27.
Jonathan Marchessault had 1 shot and 2 hits in 9:12. If you blinked, you probably missed him tonight. He's 7 games from graduation from prospect status on the website.