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 get caught up in a little moment and squander a big chance.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 3-3
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 4 goals on 33 shots for the loss. He might want the second goal he allowed back on the long shot by Letang, although he was screened a little. As I said in the last game, even though Bishop has the gold standard Game Seven road win in MSG last season, I think you have to ride or die with Vasilevskiy until the end of this series, even if Bishop magically becomes healthy in the next two days. I think the young man is even keeled enough to handle the moment. He's been in a similar spot with Ufa in the KHL playoffs a couple of years ago, and didn't hurt his stock in the big moment at all, even though his club fell to eventual champs Magnitgorsk.
18:46 PIT Kessel(9), (Crosby, Malkin)(PP)
7:40 PIT Letang(2), (Sheary, Bonino)
19:34 PIT Crosby(6), (Hornqvist)
5:30 TB Boyle(4), (unassisted)
12:43 TB Boyle(5), (Koekkoek, Drouin)
17:52 PIT Rust(3), (Kunitz, Maatta)
19:06 PIT Bonino(3), (Lovejoy)
Brian Boyle was the game's second star. He's become the team's de facto captain, in my eyes, in this playoff run and shown a ton of leadership along the way. He had the big moment embarrassing Abdelkader in the Detroit series, which I thought was an emotional turning point in that series, and he continues to chip in meaningful goals along the way. I say this in all affection... he's become a bootleg version of Dave Andreychuk. He's not quite as good on faceoffs or on the power play as Dave was in 2004, but he's been just about as good in the leadership aspect for this team.
The Lightning are going to be kicking themselves for the next 40-some hours, if not longer, over the way they mishandled their emotions and their energy level tonight when adversity came. I thought they had a positive, but measured start to the game. They were finding space in the neutral zone and generating good rushes and chances and although they weren't shooting enough for my taste, they looked to be in decent shape because they were getting opportunities. Then they turned a 3-on-2 into an apparent Jonathan Drouin goal and it appeared like the party was going to be on... until replay overturned the goal on an offside call...
Let's get the replay thing out of the way up front. The wave off of the goal did not cost the Lightning this game. The way the Lightning managed their emotions and their intensity level after the wave off of the goal probably cost them this game. Was the video evidence really conclusive enough to overturn the call on the ice? The refs seemed to think so. Is the enforcement of the rule through replay, as currently implemented, a ridiculous one that runs counter to the spirit of the rule and the stated goal of the league to increase scoring? Absolutely. Drouin and the Lightning gained no competitive advantage from the fact the tip of his front skate was over the blue line while the heel was in the air, and his whole back skate was clearly behind the line albeit in the air. By the spirit of the rule, that should've been a goal and the league needs to liberalize how linesmen call it next season and beyond. By the letter of the rule, though, it was what it was. And, it was out of the Lightning's control.
What was in the Lightning's control, however, was their reaction to the wave off, and while the Penguins ratcheted up their intensity level little by little after their reprieve the Lightning seemed to sag for the next 35 minutes of the game. Was I fond of the interference call on Stralman that formed the first half of the 5-on-3 that eventually gave Pittsburgh the 1-0 lead? No. I don't think it's Stralman's fault Kuhnhackl whiffed on picking up the puck of a pass in the neutral zone. Am I a fan of the delay of game call on Hedman where he cleared a puck the full length of the ice on a PK over the boards? No. That rule, in particular, is a stupid one and no player is deliberately clearing a puck 200 feet over the glass on a PK. Common sense should tell us all that, but that rule has been put in by the league to artificially create offense by giving away more power plays and two-man advantages such as what happened tonight. If I were king of the hockey universe, that rule would take a prompt dirt nap, but again, it was what it was. The Lightning couldn't control that, but they could control how they responded to it.
It took the Lightning around 35 minutes to hit double digits in shots on goal in this game, and unlike Game Five, it wasn't like they were taking a ton of shots and getting them blocked. Possession means everything in this series and the team simply didn't work hard enough to generate possession and pressure. That was why they lost the game. The Penguins built the three goal lead at the end of the Second Period when Crosby caught Stralman flat footed at the end of the period and split through the defense for the dagger goal. As I've written many times, in pro hockey a three goal deficit after 40 minutes is a death sentence seemingly 99% of the time. They showed some pride to ratchet up the intensity and cut the lead to 3-2 in the Third Period, but as we've seen over and over again in this sport, getting the second goal is do-able but getting the third goal and eventually the fourth to win is nearly impossible. You cannot let a game get away like that through two periods and realistically think you can get back.
There should be no panic. The Lightning were in this situation a year ago against the Rangers, and although past performance is no guarantee of future results, the Lightning should at least be able to lean on that experience for some emotional stability Thursday night. Bottom line, it's going to come down to which team outworks the other and goaltending. It's just that simple. The team in front of Vasilevskiy have to take care of the front end of the equation and I think he's earned the trust of the organization to know that he'll handle the rest. No panic. No hand wringing. There are 26 other teams in the league, and might be a 27th by the end of tomorrow night, who would kill to be in the position the Lightning are in. Win a game and go to the Stanley Cup Final. If I told you Steven Stamkos would miss the playoffs with a blood clot, Anton Stralman would miss the first two rounds with a broken leg, and Ben Bishop would be wheeled off early in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals with an apparent nasty high ankle sprain, you'd all have taken that deal every day of the week and twice on Sundays and so would I. So, really, it's ok. They just have to bring their best effort to the rink Thursday, and that's entirely do-able.
Slater Koekkoek had a helper and 1 shot, 2 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 12:58. Pierre McGuire was swooning over the Hedman Lite rear guard on the NBCSN broadcast as he continues to eat into veteran Matt Carle's ice time. While McGuire's attention may be annoying to some of us and mildly creepy to others, it was deserved. As I wrote after the last game, his skating ability and athleticism is made for this opponent and Carle's, frankly, isn't. Hopefully, the experience he's gaining now signals he will finally be a regular in Tampa Bay next season because we've waited for over a year now for Koekkoek to ascend and displace some of the stop gaps that have been forming the lower reaches of the team's NHL defense corps.
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 come up off the canvas swinging.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 2-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals in garbage time on a total of 38 shots for the victory. He was really good the first 40 minutes of the game and goodness knows he deserved the goal support that finally came for him tonight. That said, he may have opened the door a crack for Bishop to come back in for Game Five in the Third Period if Bishop is healthy. Not to say Vasilevskiy played poorly, but Ben's an established big game goaltender and this Game Five will be a really big game.
0:27 TB Callahan(2), (Hedman, Brown)
14:28 TB Sustr(1), (Kucherov, Killorn)
14:38 TB Drouin(4), (Palat, Hedman)(PP)
17:48 TB Johnson(6), (Kucherov, Killorn)
1:18 PIT Kessel(8), (Bonino, Dumoulin)
11:13 PIT Malkin(4), (Cole)
13:08 PIT Kunitz(3), (Schultz, Sheary)(PP)
Well now, this game sort of rearranged the chess board, didn't it?
First off, the most obvious takeaway from the game is the difference in the Lightning's energy level. After sleepwalking through much of the last two games, they jumped out hard on the forecheck from the very first shift tonight to generate Callahan's tip in goal. Nobody's going to make excuses at this time of year, but going back to what I wrote in Game Three, I wouldn't be shocked if the flu bug hit the team harder than anyone let on for Game Two and Game Three and that's why they were lethargic like they were when the flu bug hit the team for Game Five of the Detroit series. It's probably naive to suggest that illness struck Callahan and Callahan alone, and given some days to recover and also the swift kick in the rear that was the embarrassment of Game Three, the Lightning definitely looked much more like themselves in this game. The Lightning eventually built the two goal advantage in the First Period with Nikita Kucherov coming off the milk carton he had been on to find Sustr jumping into the play for the goal.
In the Second Period, the Lightning got the all-important three goal cushion on a pretty stale looking power play when a broken play on a Drouin centering feed hit traffic and bounded back to him for a shot at an open side. Nikita Kucherov put the icing on the cake on an odd man rush where he danced, dished, and then dangled before finding Johnson on a sharp centering pass for the goal. The Lightning allowed the Penguins to make a game of it in garbage time with an iffy goal for Vasilevskiy to allow off the rush early in the period, some poor defending against the rush on the Malkin goal, and then the Penguins finally breaking through on the power play to get a rebound goal. That was scary with a little under seven minutes to go, but the Lightning defended pretty well down the stretch of the game to get it over the finish line. If anything, there may be some silver linings in that because I think I'd rather the team not get comfortable with a laugher and get lulled into a flat start next time out. Pittsburgh's dangerous and Game Five the Lightning are going to be going into a hornet's nest in Pittsburgh. They've got to take their energy level from this game and crank it up two more degrees still if they want to capture that all important 3-2 series lead and have a chance to close on home ice in Game Six.
As an aside, Pittsburgh's late game push was aided by what overall was one of the poorest officiated games I think you'll ever see at this late stage of a season. Dismissing all of the blatant holding and stick infractions Pittsburgh got away with in close quarters in the Third Period (and they always get away with to a degree at all times), there were two really atrocious misses in broad daylight that thankfully didn't turn the game but very well could have. The first was a missed high stick that cut Hedman under the neck by Eric Fehr on a play at the Pens blueline while Tampa Bay was on the power play where Drouin eventually scored. Hedman went down like a ton of bricks and Fehr got a breakaway out of the deal. Mercifully, Drouin had a good backcheck and Vasilevskiy made the big save, but this could've been a very different game at 2-1 if Fehr scores there when it should've been a full 5-on-3 advantage for the Lightning instead. Then, early in the Third Period, you had Letang tackle Kucherov in the corner with the free hand and then hold him in a headlock in the corner for 5 seconds thereafter with no call, which sent the message to the Pens that nothing was going to be called on them in the frame. In both cases, these were out in the wide open with nothing to obscure them. Stevie Wonder would've raised in arm on those plays they were so obvious. But, uncalled, they nearly tilted the game and the series toward Pittsburgh. It's inexcusable to me that in a conference final referees miss two calls like that. There needs to be discipline handed down to the referees for that, especially after the uncalled can opener on Johnson that preceded Crosby's OT winner in Game Two. I'm not even calling it biased so much as it is outright rancid officiating all around at this point. It's just really, really bad. These guys have not cloaked themselves in glory either way in this series.
Now Game Five becomes really intriguing because you have three interesting story lines lurking just beneath the surface. First, the Second Period saw Trevor Daley seemingly twist an ankle or knee on a hit by Ryan Callahan in the Penguins zone. Daley couldn't get back up on his feet on the play and had to be helped off the rink not to return. That's a huge loss for the Pittsburgh defense if he can't go in Game Five or beyond. Pittsburgh's defense is not that deep and they have some weak links they're already covering up for. Losing Daley's minutes throws a little injury adversity their way and we might get to see how they handle the bitter stew the Lightning have been choking down the last two months. In net, M.A. Fleury had a clean sheet in the Third Period after replacing young Matt Murray after 40 minutes. I didn't think Murray played poorly, but Sullivan's got an interesting conundrum here with the choice between a 21 year old goaltender who doesn't have the deep wellspring of experience or a guy like Fleury who has won a Cup heading into a pivotal Game Five matchup. For the record, Fleury has never terrified me and I don't think either one is that superior to the other, but it puts another interesting element into the mix. And then there's the question of Ben Bishop's health and whether you take out Andrei Vasilevskiy after he's really played well in this series to date. Cooper's dilemma is similar to Sullivan's, if Bishop's healthy and all things are even. Vasilevskiy's done nothing to diminish his stock, but Ben Bishop proved he was a big game goaltender in the playoffs last year and has that Game Seven win at MSG to point to that's the gold standard for winning in a hostile environment when the chips are down. What would I do? It's tough, but I think Vasilevskiy giving up that Kessel goal and another rebound control (rebound control being his one area needing improvement in these last 3+ game) issue on the Kunitz goal and a few other juggling plays, I might go back with Bishop. Also, Bishop helps add a wrinkle of disruption to Pittsburgh's forecheck with his puck handling ability too.
Point being to all of that: neither team may look and play quite the same in this little 3 game mini-series coming up to decide it all as they did in this 4 game compulsory set. It's going to be a fascinating little chess match that unfolds, and it really gets shaken up if Steven Stamkos comes available, too.
Slater Koekkoek was -2 with 1 blocked shot in 8:13 of ice time. Defending against the rush was a bit of an issue and he backed up a little bit more than maybe he should have, particularly on the Malkin goal. Mind you, he was picked a bit. It certainly wasn't all his fault, but he was in the mix for the awarding of the goat horns there. With that said, his athleticism has been needed given Matt Carle continues to look a gear or two too slow, particularly against this opponent. And, goodness knows I'm not keen on seeing Nesterov out there with his matador's cape against the likes of Crosby and Malkin, either.
United States Hockey League
Dubuque Fighting Saints 1 @ Tri-City Storm 4
Clark Cup Finals
Tri-City wins best-of-5 series, 3-0
D Ryan Zuhlsdorf, DBQ: 0-0-0, -1, 2 PIM, 1 SOG
Playoff totals: 12 GP, 0-3-3, +2, 12 PIM
Season totals: 46 GP, 0-27-27, -2, 59 PIM
(University of Minnesota signee)
Tri-City won its first Clark Cup championship with a 4-1 win in Game 3. They’re partying in the streets of Kearney, Nebraska. Zuhlsdorf was on the third pair for the Saints, in a different role than he was as on offensive defenseman for Sioux City. He ends his USHL career and will head to the University of Minnesota next year.
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.
United States Hockey League
Tri-City Storm 4 @ Dubuque Fighting Saints 2
Clark Cup Finals
Tri-City leads best-of-5 series, 2-0
D Ryan Zuhlsdorf, DBQ: 0-0-0, -1, 0 PIM, 0 SOG
Playoff totals: 11 GP, 0-3-3, +3, 10 PIM
Season totals: 46 GP, 0-27-27, -2, 59 PIM
(University of Minnesota signee)
Tri-City won both games in Dubuque and now go home with a chance to clinch the USHL championship on home ice.
United States Hockey League
Tri-City Storm 5 @ Dubuque Fighting Saints 1
Clark Cup Finals
Tri-City leads best-of-5 series, 1-0
D Ryan Zuhlsdorf, DBQ: 0-0-0, -1, 0 PIM, 3 SOG
Playoff totals: 10 GP, 0-3-3, +4, 10 PIM
Season totals: 46 GP, 0-27-27, -2, 59 PIM
(University of Minnesota signee)
Tri-City stole home ice advantage away from Dubuque by winning Game 1 of the Clark Cup finals in Dubuque, 5-1. The Storm scored five times in the third period to erase a 1-0 deficit. Game 2 is Saturday.
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.