Caps power play takes Tampa Bay to school.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 4 goals on 37 shots for the loss. I thought he showed a little rust early in the First Period but shook it off quickly and nearly got the Lightning to the Second Intermission with a chance to steal points.
7:09 WSH Ovechkin (12), (Chimera, Kuznetsov)(PP)
18:03 WSH Chimera (6), (Kuznetsov, Niskanen)(PP)
19:18 WSH Johansson (4), (Carlson, Schmidt)
5:16 WSH Oshie (6), (Backstrom, Carlson)(PP)
10:49 TB Boyle (5), (Callahan, Brown)
12:45 TB Hedman (2), (Namestnikov)
Tonight's game should be an object lesson on what an unstoppable weapon a potent power play can be. The Lightning actually weren't that bad at even strength in this game, but Washington completely outclassed the Lightning with the man advantage, creating 4-5 minute surges every time they got a power play, and goals, that tilted the game in their favor. Were I the coaching staff, I don't know that I'd show the team the tape of this game, but I'd set aside a good half a day to dissect the Caps power play and use it to fix the Lightning's.
Unlike the Lightning, who channel everything through Steven Stamkos in a way that often seems forced and telegraphed, the Caps create multiple pressure points away from Ovechkin's spot in the left wing circle that force PK's to lose their shape and lose Ovechkin, allowing him to drift to open ice for goal scoring chances. The Caps can do this because they have a lot of other high quality forwards (which the Lightning can match, both in terms of playmakers and trigger men) and quality power play point men (which is a personnel shortfall because the Lightning's only real scoring threat on D, Hedman, is only really good on the rush and isn't nearly as potent on the PP). The Lightning should at least start trying to work 2 and 3 man games from the right wing circle down with some of the skilled puckhandlers they have like Kucherov, Drouin, Namestnikov, and Palat, sprinkled in with shooters like Johnson. I think the Lightning have tried to do that, at times, but the difference is they don't ever threaten to actually score from those positions, and end up artificially forcing passes through the seam to Stamkos, which doesn't put Steven in a good position to score. The Lightning have to train the guys on the strong side of the ice to be more assertive and look for their own opportunities to score, allowing Stamkos the ability to drift to open ice and for passing lanes to develop more organically. Having a legit power play trigger man or two to add another set of pressure points would be ideal, but right now the Lightning don't have those guys and they need to continue to develop them or find them elsewhere. Put it another way: until the other 4 guys on the Lightning PP can threaten the other team's PK, they've got no reason not to completely overload on defending Stamkos.
Further complicating issues was the mysterious injury of Tyler Johnson, who skated one shift and was done. A Caps player jumped on Johnson's back/neck in the neutral zone early in the shift before Johnson eventually nearly scored off the rush near the end of that shift. He looked fine, but I wonder if the pop to his neck re-aggravated whatever happened when Johnson got elbowed in the head by Bolland against the Panthers. Either way, to lose one of your top two centers a whopping 2 minutes into the game was a heck of a blow to the Lightning, and contributed greatly to what ultimately occurred.
Jonathan Marchessault had 3 shots and 1 hit in 14:58. He got a lot of garbage time ice time to go along with some good shifts early in the game, and I think he continues to build a case to stay with the team.
Joel Vermin was +1 with 2 hits in 9:46. His forechecking popped loose the puck that became Hedman's goal. He's not as far along as Marchessault, but he's done nothing to this point to invalidate himself as an NHL prospect.
Deeply unjust hockey gods banish Lightning to deep standings hole.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 1 goal on 19 shots for the loss. He looked to me to be very sharp despite limited shots again. Followed the puck really well. I can't fault the kid for a lucky goal that takes a double deflection to get past him.
19:39 FLA Ekblad (4), (Huberdeau, Jagr)
Vasilevskiy was the game's third star.
Vintage early '00's Panthers hockey. Give up a zillion shots with a collapsing defense and inept offense. Hope Luongo can keep you in the game and smash and grab it at the end. And they did. Disgusting. The Lightning deserved all 4 points from the home-and-home. They ended up getting 1.
On a side note, when is the NHL going to just move that franchise down there? It's bad enough to hold game's in front of a bristling crowd of hundreds, but tonight the ice conditions were as bad as I've seen ever. It looked like the game was being played with a racqetball, to the extend that you had even the most basic puckhandling and passing exercises eluded both teams. It was borderline unwatchable at times, and the league should be embarrassed in that product. If you're not going to make the Panthers invest in the infrastructure to at least make the rink playable the way Tampa Bay has, just quit playing footsie and move them to Quebec City already.
The hole is 5 points. The Lightning got 7 out of the target minimum of 12 points in that 10 game segment of the season. They'll be spending the bulk of the rest of this season trying to climb out of that hole. How bad is it? The Lightning could play at a .700 clip from here on out and it would take them 25 games to catch up with comfortable playoff pace. It's not good. That's why the injustice of these past two games against the Panthers hurts so much. Things went straight to hell in a handbasket, standings-wise, with those two defeats.
Matt Taormina had 1 shot and 1 hit in 9:16. Made some decent plays in limited ice time.
Jonathan Marchessault had 3 shots and 2 hits in 9:11. He rung post on one of the best chances the Lightning had in the game and was fairly active in the offensive zone in his limited ice time. That might've been his best game with the Lightning to date, in fact.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 26 shots for the loss. The third goal was a hugely deflating softie that went in off of his glove. For everyone who has been ready to ship Bishop out of town at the earliest convenience and make Vasiy the guy, pump the breaks. The kid's 21, and he is mortal. There will be rough patches that he needs to develop through.
5:57 BUF Eichel (6), (Franson)(PP)
0:52 TB Stamkos (8), (Kucherov)(PP)
1:40 BUF Franson (1), (Eichel, Ennis)
5:24 BUF Foligno (1), (Legwand, Deslauriers)
19:24 BUF Ristolainen (4), (Johnson)(EN)
Ryan Callahan was the game's second star.
I could sit here and tell you the Lightning outshot the Sabres, and they did. I could tell you they grossly outchanced the Sabres in the last 40 minutes of the game, and they did. There's not any comfort in that, because the Lightning have such a significant talent advantage on the Sabres that they should be outshooting and outchancing them. Ultimately, this comes down to something more fundamental than talent and tactics. At this point, it's looking more and more like the Lightning emotionally and mentally don't have the will. The Sabres wanted this game more. They've wanted it more in all four games this season and have routinely jumped on the Lightning in every first period where Tampa Bay often looked flat as a pancake. The difference is that they got the payoff tonight.
So now the Lightning need to ask themselves if they have the will to turn this around. It's as simple as that. They need to outwork opponents. Absent that, they're not going to make the odd man rushes and the lucky breaks they need to get out of this slump. In retrospect, I wish Yzerman had made more than one small tweak to the roster to get more fresh, hungry blood onto the roster, but that's water under the bridge now. Short of a tweak like bringing up Koekkoek, the answers will have to come from inside that room, and it'll have to start with that fundamental question. Do you want it more than the other team? And if they can't convincingly answer that in the affirmative, they're screwed.
It's not a question anymore of whether the team is in trouble. They'll finish this segment in the red by at least 2 points based on our old 12 in 10 rule. It's only a question of how deep the hole will be. Note that this is the first time, on a season-wide basis, the Lightning have been behind schedule in over 2 years. They've missed segment targets about 4 times in the previous two seasons, but they've always had insurance points banked to cover the damage. This is uncharted and dangerous waters.
Lightning crush Sabres against the run of play.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 1 goal on 31 shots for the victory. I still don't think he's 100% up to NHL speed following the puck, but there were a couple of times in this game you could see his quickness and technical proficiency with his angles really got into Buffalo's shooters' heads. They were cutting it fine because they felt they had to against the big Russian mountain.
5:55 TB Stamkos (7), (Filppula, Palat)
11:35 TB Johnson (2), (Killorn, Kucherov)
18:20 TB Kucherov (5), (Namestnikov, Coburn)
4:21 BUF Eichel (5), (Weber, Ennis)
19:30 TB Hedman (1), (Sustr)(SH)
Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov were the game's first and second stars.
Hockey's a funny sport. The Lightning played a much better game against Detroit last time out and couldn't find the payoff for the chances they manufactured with their hard work. Tonight, I felt they got outworked and they definitely got outchanced and outshot, on balance, by Buffalo. The Sabres had their forecheck really working on the Lightning in the first 40 minutes, but when the Lightning were able to break that pressure and come out of their zone, they were able to catch Buffalo on 3-on-2's on the counter. The skill players did the rest to build the 3-0 lead. They probably didn't deserve to have that big of a margin, but considering how snake bitten they've been offensively, I'm not going to complain about it. They were definitely guilty of playing down to their opponent and even more guilty of taking their foot off the gas once they got up 3-0. But, to their credit, they really tightened up defensively in the Third Period to quell the Buffalo uprising and deliver the W.
With the win, the Lightning have 6 points through 6 games of this 10 game segment of the season. A win against Minnesota would be tremendous if they can get it next time out.
Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 2 hits and 2 blocked shots in 15:40. The stat line looks OK, but I think the tape will reveal Nesterov didn't cloak himself in glory tonight. He looked like the physically overmatched young blueliner that struggled in his rookie pro season of North American hockey tonight, taking some big hits and getting overwhelmed physically, rather than the offensive juggernaut he was in his sophomore pro campaign. Not his finest hour.
Young Carolina defense proves the elixir for the Lightning's offensive woes.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 35 shots for the victory in his season debut with the Lightning. He wasn't as sharp as he can be, particularly with the trapper. I think he spent the bulk of the game getting up to speed with the NHL level again. But he's so big, so athletic, and so technically sound. There's just not a lot of holes there and you feel like you have a big Russian mountain in net behind the team times. It's a great luxury for the Lightning to know they probably have two of the best goaltenders in the game on their roster, and they're both still young and hungry.
15:07 CAR E. Staal (4), (Versteeg, Rask)(PP)
0:38 TB Callahan (4), (Palat)
18:54 TB Stamkos (6), (Kucherov, Stralman)(PP)
4:07 TB Brown (2), (Filppula)
9:16 TB Johnson (1), (Kucherov, Hedman)
15:25 CAR Versteeg (2), (Rask)
19:59 CAR J. Staal (1), (Rask)
Carolina's young defense is a traveling PSA for the dangers of NHL GM's rushing their blueliners to the NHL. They've got some talented young players on the depth chart at that position, but mercy are they generous with the turnovers. Noah Hanifin, holy cow, he was a dumpster fire tonight, and the generosity of that D corps as a whole showed was just what the Lightning needed to get out of their offensive funk. That, and the decision by Jon Cooper to flip Killorn and Palat from the Stamkos and Johnson lines, respectively, and the dividends that payed in the form of a couple of even strength goals. The lines are going to be up in the air so long as Paquette and Drouin remain injured, so whatever shuffling needs to happen in the near term to manufacture goals, I'm all for it. Tampa Bay eventually built a three goal lead in the Third Period and I'm not terribly concerned about the couple of garbage time goals Carolina got to try to make it look respectable.
No Marchessault? No problem.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 1 goal on 28 shots for the victory. Syracuse is off until next Friday now, and in the absence of anymore games this weekend the logical conclusion is that Vasilevskiy will find his way back up to Tampa Bay pretty soon with Gudlevskis coming back down by Friday's contest. We'll see if that's how it pans out. 2-0 with a 1.04 GAA and a .965 save percentage is a pretty nice conditioning stint for a goaltender, from where I sit.
HER Gazley, (2) (Bowey), 2:46
SYR Taormina, (2) (Gourde, Tambellini), 11:36 (PP)
SYR DeAngelo, (3) (Peca, Taormina), 11:52
SYR Tambellini, (3) (Taormina), 2:28
SYR Blunden, (3) (Blujus, DeAngelo), 6:43 (PP)
Don't look now, but Anthony DeAngelo's got 7 points in his first 8 pro games. He's also averaging over 3 SOG's a game, which is symptomatic of fancy stat magic, from what I understand. Will his offensive game immediately translate from junior to pro? It appears so. Tonight was his first multi-point game with the Crunch.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 1 goal on 30 shots for the victory.
SYR DeAngelo, (2) (Angelidis, Ikonen), 6:56 GIF
SYR Taormina, (1) (Marchessault, Tambellini), 15:31 GIF
Box score from TheAHL.com.
Stanley Cup Final
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.
17:13 CHI Keith (3), (Kane, Richards)
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.
Cooper's gamble nearly pays off.
Stanley Cup Final
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.
6:40 CHI Toews (10), (Sharp, Hossa)
11:47 TB Killorn (9), (Filppula, Stamkos)
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)?
Blackhawks get their butts kicked by a one-legged goaltender.
Stanley Cup Final
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?
5:09 TB Callahan (2), (Hedman, Brown)
14:22 CHI Richards (3), (Hossa, Shaw)(PP)
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.