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.