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NHL Game Night: 4-9-17 Sabres at Lightning

Lightning end a season of disappointment with an abundance of hope.

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TB-4

Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 2 goals on 28 shots for the victory. He was solid as a rock again today, making situational saves when needed and staying sharp despite long stretches where he had very little work. One of the biggest reasons for the Lightning missing the playoffs this season was subpar goaltending the first two-thirds of the year that came from the weird limbo situation that Ben Bishop was in. Once Bishop was moved out at the trade deadline and Vasilevskiy clearly moved into the number one role, Vasilevskiy played outstanding. He justified the opinion of a lot of people that he's the best emerging young goaltender in the game.

First Period
13:56 BUF Carrier (5), (Nylander)

Second Period
5:59 TB Point (17), (Hedman, Dotchin)
12:20 TB Coburn (5), (Namestnikov, Killorn)(SH)

Third Period
11:17 BUF Kane (28), (Gionta, O'Reilly)
18:36 TB Point (18), (Kucherov, Stralman)
19:59 TB Hedman (16), (Stralman, Point)(EN)

Brayden Point, Vasilevskiy, and Victor Hedman were the game's three stars.

You never know what you're going to get in a game like this where there's nothing on the line after Toronto eliminated the Lightning last night with a late, come-from-behind win. I was pleased to see a pretty good overall effort from the Lightning, particularly for the first 40 minutes of the game, which I think in part stemmed from a smart decision by Jon Cooper to start Vasilevskiy and treat this more like a normal game. They were pretty sound defensively the first 40 minutes and, probably feeling a little more free with things settled in the standings, I thought showed more free-flowing offensive creativity. With tee times beckoning in the Third Period, I thought there were stretches it got a little too much like a QMJHL game with matching line rushes at both ends, but all in all I think the Lightning really closed the season strong and in style. Were it not for the heroics for Linus Ullmark in Buffalo's net, the Lightning could've easily put 7 or 8 goals on the board tonight.

The Lightning ultimately finish 2 points shy of a playoff berth with 94 points. Remember how we keep harping on that 96 point number? Yep, that's the number that would've gotten them in. There's no mysticism about it, and the Lightning learned a painful lesson this season about early season complacency. The good news, I'm happy to say, is that it seems that the team understands what happened, and after their first summer of rest in a long time seem ready to return next year with a renewed team identity and a chip on their shoulder. That's not to say there won't be changes to the roster. There are warts on this team, and players on the roster who either have plateaued as players or simply can't cut it on an elite-level NHL team. I trust that Steve Yzerman will make the changes necessary to address those issues, and have a lot of hope in my heart seeing the emerging young talent on this team.

Going into next season, you can see the Lightning have five forwards in particular that look to me to be capable of being among the NHL's best. Steven Stamkos, returning from injury, obviously is already well proven as an NHL superstar and Nikita Kucherov added himself to that echelon of players with his 40-goal, over a point-a-game campaign this year. Beyond those two, you saw two other players who I think have the capability of becoming top-10 NHL scorers: Jonathan Drouin and Brayden Point. Drouin's talent is undeniable, and it remains not a question of "if" but rather "when" he makes that transition to being a 30 goal, 80+ point a year player. He could've had 4 goals easily today were it not for Ullmark's heroics. Point, on the other hand, came into this year with significantly lower expectations as a guy who was selected outside of the top-60 in his draft year who wasn't even expected to make the NHL roster this year. Had he not missed a month with a broken paw, he would've topped 20 goals this season and something about his rookie campaign gives me all the same feels that Brad Richards' rookie campaign in Tampa Bay did as a third round pick who played like a high first rounder. Rounding out this group is veteran Ondrej Palat, who has looked lost at times over the past two seasons but down the stretch of this year started to look like the two-way beast of a player he's shown he can be. Those give on the Lightning's forward corps give me the belief the team will be dynamic offensively next year.

The defensive corps is a bit more unsettled, but Victor Hedman made a serious campaign for the Norris Trophy down the stretch of this year in finishing second in the NHL in points among defensemen. I wouldn't bet against him winning it next year, and what we saw in Hedman's game this season was the checking off of the last boxes he needed to in order to transition to becoming a great NHL defenseman. Namely, the rise of the Lightning power play this year can be directly traced to the rise of Hedman as a legit power play threat. Maybe that's the silver lining of Stamkos' injury. With Stammer out, the Lightning became a much more "left handed" power play with things primarily playing off of Kucherov's triggers in the right wing circle. Hedman at the center point fed into that change from a "right handed" power play, and he started to really sharpen up his shot and improve his distribution skills. We always knew he was a wizard off the rush, but Hedman learned to thrive in the more stationary/lateral third-ice game of the power play. Supplementing Hedman is stalwart righty defenseman Anton Stralman and the found money that was youngster Jake Dotchin. Anybody who tells you they saw the rise of Jake Dotchin coming is either a (bleeping) liar or has a time machine. One of the magical things in sports is that sometimes a guy just "gets it" out of the blue and comes out of nowhere to become a good player. That was Dotchin this year. Those three form half of a solid NHL defense corps, and with two righties already nailed down, the job of filling out the rest of the Lightning blueline becomes a lot easier for Steve Yzerman to deal with. Lefties are a lot easier to come up with. Righties are rare as hen's teeth.

And then there's Vasilevskiy. Russia's answer to Carey Price. Mark my words: as talented as the Lightning are there will be other clubs in the NHL that will have better skaters and more skill... and the Lightning will have the answer in the form of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Watching him become what he looks destined to become is going to be fun.

Luke Witkowski had 1 shot, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 16:25.

Greg McKegg played 10:51.

Dotchin had a helper, 1 shot, and 1 blocked shot in 17:07. I'd be interested to know if he draws any attention from the Canadian hockey program as a potential IIHF World Championships player.

Gabriel Dumont had 1 shot, 3 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 13:13 and was 63% on 8 draws. He will be headed back to Syracuse to help the Crunch in the playoffs, which Syracuse clinched a spot in today.

Yanni Gourde had 1 shot in 16:35 and was 40% on 10 draws. What a weapon for Syracuse to be getting back into the lineup.

Adam Erne was -2 with 4 hits and 1 blocked shot in 13:01. The stat line looks ugly, but I thought he played a whale of a first 40 minutes in the game. The whole reason Drouin could've had 3-4 goals in this game was that Erne was absolutely dealing on the forecheck and was super-creative distributing once he forced Buffalo to turn it over. He needs to follow up this stretch run with a strong playoffs for Syracuse. He'll enter next season on the roster bubble, and if he approaches the task with the proper intensity and focus he can help this Lightning team. He has obvious size and strength and surprising explosiveness and skill. The fact he can work so well with Drouin like he did today speaks to the upside he has. He's not some bogus faux power forward plugger. He's got the tools to be a serious scoring line contributor in this league. You all saw the flashes of it over the last month.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.