Tampa Bay Lightning
Lightning on the brink of tragedy... or opportunity.
Stanley Cup Final
Chicago Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 27 shots for the loss. The really sad thing about tonight is that, after four days of rest, I thought Bishop looked as healthy and as sharp as he has since early in the ECF. His rebound control was spot on and he looked pretty solid. Unfortunately, all of that was marred by his inexplicable decision to leave his cage and failure to communicate with Victor Hedman that led to an easy skate in goal for Patrick Sharp. I think Bishop was guilty of being a little over-exuberant and trying to do too much, and the end result was a de facto soft goal that ended up being like so many other soft goals... the margin of losing.
6:11 CHI Sharp (5), (Teravainen, Toews)
10:53 TB Filppula (4), (Garrison, Stralman)
2:00 CHI Vermette (4), (Versteeg)
Victor Hedman was the game's third star.
Give credit to Chicago. Ben Bishop wasn't the only one to benefit from the extra day of rest between Game Four and Game Five and they came out strong and put together their best opening 10 minutes of the entire series. The Lightning would have weathered it were it not for the Bishop mishap, but in the end the Blackhawks probably did deserve a lead for their work heading into the First Intermission. Part of the Lightning's problem in that First Period, mind you, was an awkward play where Nikita Kucherov tripped over Corey Crawford diving in front of his net on a puckhandling gaffe of his own, which sent Kucherov head/shoulder first into the crossbar and out of the game. Severity now becomes the question with Kucherov: it is a shoulder, collarbone, or concussion situation? Just when we might finally moving on from Goalie Gate we may be heading into 48 hours of Kuchie Kontroversy. The line juggling that ensued meant the team really had to struggle to find some continuity and get their legs back under them.
Fortunately, the team showed some resiliency and came out strong in the Second Period, eventually letting Bishop off the hook (somewhat) when a Jason Garrison cross ice pass was swept home by Valtteri Filppula. Can I just underscore how bad Corey Crawford was on that goal, for a moment. Sweet merciful Jesus, you could've timed his ability to get from his right post to his left post with a sun dial. The guy's got really slow feet, and even had to push twice just to get over to his left post extremely late. Bear in mind, the pass deflected off a Blackhawks stick and Filppula also fumbled it before he got it on frame for the goal. I cannot believe the Lightning are struggling this much with a guy with feet that slow after defeating the likes of Mrazek, Price, and Lundqvist earlier in the playoffs. Yes, I get there are injury factors at play, but the Lightning have to know this guy can't move worth a damn laterally. Instead, they've been suckered into this fool's bet of moving pucks back to their points and trying to pound them through two and sometimes three Chicago shot blockers, which creates loose pucks Chicago then collects and either deposits out of the zone or uses to trigger a counter. Just like with Mrazek, the Lightning have got to get Crawford moving laterally (Mrazek because he would get too aggressive and lose his angles and Crawford because he's a statue).
The Third Period was a shared trauma that I may end up taking to my grave. That was horrible. Two minutes into it, Jason Garrison got caught on the wrong side of the puck at the Chicago blueline leading to a partial breakaway. Jonathan Drouin did a good job using his speed to cut off the angle while Garrison did well to recover from behind and shut off the initial chance, but it resulted in a busted play that netted Vermette's game winner. Garrison, quite frankly, did not cloak himself in glory on the defensive side of the puck tonight either with several turnovers and even falling down inexplicably while trying to skate the puck out of his own zone.
The remaining 18 minutes of the Third Period were, basically, a clinic. What Chicago did to Tampa Bay to close Game Five is what Tampa Bay should have done to Chicago to close out Game One. And, indeed, it may turn out that Tampa Bay's failure to do so in Game One comes back to haunt them. In any event, Chicago played a brilliantly structured game to build a wall at their blueline, force the Lightning to chip the puck in or turn it over, and they pounced on obvious counterattack opportunities that resulted in order to get pucks behind the Lightning defense on the forecheck and generate pressure of their own. In the end, the Lightning went out meekly, without much of a push at trying to tie the game.
That leads to the question of the hour that seems to be on a lot of Lightning fan's minds: are the Lightning done in Game Six? Right now Jon Cooper's got a lot of Jedi mind tricks to play to make sure that question doesn't seep into the Lightning locker room. This team looked deader than a door nail in the Detroit series after dropping Game Five, and they were playing nowhere near as well against the Red Wings early in that series as they have early in this Chicago series. We should also point out that the Lightning's '04 Cup team also did it the hard way by defeating Calgary on the road in Game Six before their eventual Cup triumph in Game Seven on home ice. This isn't done, by any stretch, especially with a healthier Ben Bishop back between the pipes. But, it begins with the six inches of gray matter between each Lightning players' ears. Know this: there's still 28 other teams in the NHL that wish they were in Tampa Bay's position of just having to win two games in a row to take a Stanley Cup. If they treat Game Six as a negative thing to be feared, then it'll become a fait accompli. If they treat it as an opportunity to be relished, then they've got a chance to live to fight another (Game Seven) day.
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.
Lightning weather the storm, tie the series.
Stanley Cup Final
Series Tied 1-1
Ben Bishop allowed 3 goals on 24 shots before leaving the game, twice, in the Third Period. He had some trouble tracking the puck, but truth be told he really only allowed 2 goals as Hossa interfered with him on the Seabrook goal. Andrei Vasilevskiy entered the game, twice, in the Third Period and stopped all 5 shots he faced for the victory. What a spot for Vasiy to step into! Tie game in the Third Period of a Stanley Cup Final game that is pretty well a must-win game? He made some key saves, particularly on the final PK, and helped the team gut out the victory. His rebound control looked like it might be an issue and there was an obvious drop off in puck handling with Bishop out, but that's about as good a performance as anyone could ever hope for in an incredibly difficult circumstance. He earned that victory, for sure.
12:56 TB Paquette (2), (Callahan, Hedman)
3:04 CHI Shaw (5), (Kruger, Desjardins)
5:20 CHI Teravainen (4), (Hossa, Sharp)(PP)
6:52 TB Kucherov (10), (Garrison, Coburn)
13:58 TB Johnson (13), (Kucherov)
3:38 CHI Seabrook (7), (Toews, Oduya)
8:49 TB Garrison (2), (Hedman, Callahan)(PP)
The NHL should be absolutely giddy about the product that Tampa Bay and Chicago put on the ice tonight, because this game had a little bit of everything. Lots of speed, lots of chances, some controversy, and a whole lot of intrigue, too. It was one of those games where, now that it's over, it almost feels like it should count for two wins. Sadly, no, but it still stands as a contest that felt like a bit of an instant classic for the league.
The Lightning came out flying in the First Period, as in Game One, buoyed by a revamped set of bottom lines with Jonathan Drouin taking a spot on the fourth line. Drouin had about 3-4 really good offensive shifts, and 2-3 shifts where he was a bit of a liability with his decision-making. Still, the added energy he gave to the bottom lines was noticeable and the overall effort of the bottom lines was critical to tonight's win. In particular, Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan, and J.T. Brown deserve a ton of credit. They played their bags off tonight. If the bottom lines can put some consistent pressure on that very thin Chicago defensive corps, it could be an advantage in this series the longer it goes.
The Second Period had a real gut check moment for the team after the Blackhawks took their first and only lead of the night on a pair of quick goals. Bishop lost track of a puck that hit traffic in front leading to a tap in by Shaw and then Hossa and Teravainen worked a pretty give-and-go for a PP goal that put the Lightning at a real crossroads in this series. Do not underestimate the importance of the deflection goal by Kucherov off of the Garrison point shot on a pretty solid response shift by the Johnson line. Getting that goal back so quickly really gave the Lightning their legs back, and then Crawford did the Lightning a tremendous favor allowing a short side softie to Tyler Johnson to allow the Lightning to carry the victory into the locker room, thereby erasing all of Chicago's work earlier in the period. That goal was terrible, and it ended up being the margin of victory, as soft goals often are.
The Third Period then became an exercise in survival from the Lightning, chequered with both controversy and intrigue. Brent Seabrook tied the game with a bomb from the high slot coming in off the rush as the late man while Marian Hossa was in clear contact with Ben Bishop's left pad, leaving Bishop unable to fully extend to try to stop the shot. Bishop didn't flop like some goaltenders would, and he clearly doesn't have the halo around him that guys like Carey Price do, so the goal counted. I'm disappointed, but not surprised, because it's always been clear the Lightning have to be that much better to win these games. The good news is that after than blown call, the refs didn't swallow their whistles (possibly a bit of a make up situation) on a pair of Patrick Sharp infractions that led to Garrison getting a bit of puck luck with a goal that ramped up and in off a Blackhawks stick on a point shot to give the Lightning the eventual 4-3 win. While all that was going on, Ben Bishop mysteriously left briefly, returned briefly, and then left for good with Vasilevskiy becoming the goaltender of record between the pipes for Garrison's goal. He calmly battled the rest of the way, including some critical stops on a big kill after a Sustr delay of game call, to preserve the win and keep the Lightning alive in the series. It's a huge improvement over last year when you consider the tomato can the Lightning had to put between the pipes when Bishop got injured before the Montreal series. If the Lightning do win it all this year, Vasiy earned his name being on the Cup with that performance.
Now we'll wait and wonder about what happened to Bishop. Was he ill? Did he get bumped into by Vermette, causing or aggravating an injury? Given that he looked OK in his brief return, I'm not overly worried. Bishop's tough and nails and I'd expect him to be in net in Chicago. If the Lightning were to lose him, though, it might be a bridge too far for the Lightning to cross. Vasilevskiy's a blue chipper, but to ask him to come in cold against Chicago and win three games in this series is an unrealistic thing to ask, and Bishop's ability to help his team as a puck handler and distributor would be a tremendous loss for the team, too.
Assuming Bishop's alright, the Lightning did a lot in the first two games of this series to prove they absolutely belong in this moment, and they could easily be up 2-0 in this series right now after holding a lead in the Third Period in each game. The really intriguing thing we've seen is the Lightning's checking line has been good enough against the Toews/Kane line to hold them down a bit and even force those two to be split up tonight. I don't think anyone in the universe, including yours truly (and I adore Dump Truck), would've thought Paquette and his band mates could make a meal of a matchup with the Toews line, but he and his group have played two of the best games of their lives against a couple of future HOF'er to start the Stanley Cup Final. Because of that, I think the Lightning have shown that at 5-on-5 they're absolutely the equal of Chicago in terms of speed, skill, and athleticism. Now, heading to Chicago, with Quenneville holding the last change, Cooper and Bowness are going to need to prove they're equal to the challenge tactically, as well. If they can be, meaning they'll have to figure out how to protect the likes of Sustr and Carle, then the Lightning should have a good chance to get at least one win out of the Second City, which is the bare minimum of what they'll need to do to stay on track to win it all.
Prevent defense prevents Tampa Bay from winning Game One.
Stanley Cup Final
Chicago Leads the Series 1-0
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 21 shots for the loss. He was solid, but unspectacular. I can't fault him on either goal as he was screened by three bodies on the first goal and was the victim of a quick change turnover right into the slot on the second goal. With that said, he got outplayed by Crawford tonight in a game where one more big save was the difference between winning and losing.
4:31 TB Killorn (8), (Stralman, Filppula)
13:28 CHI Teravainen (3), (Keith, Shaw)
15:26 CHI Vermette (3), (Teravainen)
Alex Killorn was the game's third star.
The Lightning could very well be kicking themselves pretty hard at the end of this series for what transpired in the final 45 minutes of this hockey game, and especially that Third Period. They came out like a house of fire for the First Period and really had Chicago on their heels. I have no doubt that it was a clash of styles for the Blackhawks to go from a bigger, less fleet of foot Anaheim club in the Western Finals to the speed and aggressiveness of the Lightning, and Tampa Bay cashed on the beautiful tip in goal by Killorn. It was hard not to be proud of the way the Lightning handled themselves in the first 15 minutes, where they really came out to win rather than to throw roses at the feet of Chicago as triumphant conquerors the way some in the media, like Mike Milbury, evidently thought they would. They could've built an even larger lead, but Crawford quelled any uprisings by the Lightning the rest of the way.
From the last five minutes of the First Period on, though, Chicago slowly and steadily turned the momentum of the game, sans a few hiccups late in the Second Period, until the Lightning were in a completely passive defensive shell in the Third. The Lightning are not built to win games 1-0, nor would it be prudent to try to do so anyway because when you allow the other team possession so easily, greasy goals (like a screened goal) eventually follow. That was what happened on Teravainen's tying goal and then J.T. Brown was put in a tough spot to handle a hot pass by Hedman up the wall that he tipped into the slot to Vermette, who fired it home for the game winner. And that, folks, is how a prevent defense prevents you from winning.
I still would love to see what happened to Nikita Kucherov swinging around Crawford's net on the play just before Teravainen's tying goal in the Third Period, mind you. It sure did look like he got high sticked in broad daylight, and a call there might've been the lifeline the Lightning needed to get across the finish line. It was an... interesting... decision by NBC not to air a replay of what occurred.
Now the Lightning find themselves in a near must-win situation for Game Two. It's a really dangerous spot to be in. Tonight's effort wasn't bad. They defended well, and if you told me the Lightning would hold Chicago to 2 goals in this game I would've told you the Lightning probably won. But, they can't get off their possession game like they did the final 45 minutes of the contest. The scary thing is Chicago will be playing aggressive and loose knowing they're playing house money with a road win already in their back pocket, so the Lightning have to be ready for Chicago to push and they also have to remain disciplined and not get away from their defensive game despite having only scored 1 goal in Game One. It's going to be a challenging couple of days for Cooper and the coaching staff to get the Lightning into the right frame of mind after letting this one slip away.
Psychologically, the Lightning are in the tough position of needing to learn the lesson of the night for when they're protecting a lead in a tight game, but they simply cannot bring any regret or frustration to the rink the next day. What's done is done and there's a lot of hockey left to be played in this series. Any negativity or temptation to indulge in self pitying wishful thinking about what might have been will only keep them from focusing on what still needs to be done. Were I Coach Cooper, I'd start the next practice by telling everyone that anyone who is still pouting about what happened in Game One can stay in the locker room, because everybody needs to be on point to win Game Two.
Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 1 blocked shot in 6:23. Given the gravity of these games, and that most of them are pretty tight, Nesterov's just not going to get a ton of ice time. With that in mind, it's fair to ask if the Lightning might be better served dressing a 12th forward instead, although the coaching staff clearly doesn't trust any of their other options enough to give them meaningful ice time, either. This is a difficulty that should remedy itself with another year of seasoning for the likes of Drouin and Namestnikov, but that's cold comfort when you're playing for a championship this year.
The Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Blainville-Boisbriand overage defenseman and captain Daniel Walcott Monday, adding a puck-moving defenseman to the organizational roster.
The Lightning have had an abundance of success under Steve Yzerman picking up undersized cast-offs who can skate and have a high hockey IQ and skill level. Walcott certainly fits the mold. He stands just 5’11” and weighs under 2-bills, but put up 41 points in 54 games with the Armada as a 20-year-old this season.
Mission Impossible = Mission Accomplished
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-3
Ben Bishop looked sharp in light work stopping all 22 shots he faced for the shutout. He didn't face very many chances, but he was sharp on the ones that came at key moments of the game, particularly with the Rangers pushing after Tampa Bay went up 1-0 in the Third. In a spot where the New York media had preordained Lundqvist was going to roll over Bishop after Ben got a big number put up on him in Game Six, he doled out some U of Maine Justice and got the last laugh.
1:54 TB Killorn (7), (Carle, Filppula)
11:17 TB Palat (7), (Johnson, Bishop)
Bishop and Alex Killorn were the game's first and second stars.
One game after being shelled for 7 goals on their home ice and with the entire hockey world writing their epitaph, the Lightning defied conventional wisdom and turned in the single greatest defensive effort in the history of the franchise. Coming into this game, the northern hockey media pounded an incessant drum beat for 2-1/2 days about how the Lightning simply had no chance. The Rangers held a 7-0 lifetime in Game Sevens at home. They had won 6 consecutive playoff Game Sevens, an NHL record. And, yes, Lundqvist was nearly unbeatable in Game Sevens, having won all 6 of those Game Sevens. How would the young Lightning, after getting embarrassed in Game Six, possibly rebound in the face of a mountain of ominous statistics? It was 2-1/2 days of an all out national media blitz which screamed, "The Lighting are DOOMED! DOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMED!"
From Jon Cooper (who was maligned by the likes of New Yorker Keith Olbermann as a "junior college coach" after Game Six) through Steven Stamkos, and down to the likes of Killorn, it seemed that every single member of the Lightning organization absorbed the hyperbolic shark jumping of the national media and chose to use it as a motivational lens to focus in on the task at hand and play about as close to perfect a defensive game as is humanly possible. The Lightning didn't just defend like demons in their defensive third like they did in Game Five, they contested every single inch of ice for the full 200 feet. It was a symphony of positioning, support, and pure hustle the likes of which have never been seen by players in Lightning jerseys, even in the 2004 Cup run. Combined with a forechecking/possession game that was far closer to their normal swarming effort of the regular season, this really was the complete game. Note: it wasn't just the Triplets or even the top two lines tonight, either. The checkers, oft maligned, were superb tonight. Ryan Callahan and J.T. Brown, in particular, were difference makers in all three zones and very threatening in the offensive zone. Were it not for some scintillating saves by Lundqvist, this could've easily a 4-0 or 5-0 win by the Lightning.
All in all, you have to be thoroughly impressed with it all. It really proves what I've always thought about this franchise: they play better the in the disrespected underdog role with a gigantic chip on their shoulder. In situations like this, they always play better than when they're too fat and happy on media plaudits or from the league banquet circuit. The Lightning are, and ever shall be, gate crashers in the NHL. Embrace it, bask in it, and use it as fuel, like they did tonight. I'm thoroughly impressed that a team this young could figure out how to strangle the life out of a grizzled, Presidents Trophy winning team in their barn under the harsh scrutiny of the biggest media market in the world and punch their ticket for the Stanley Cup Finals.
And, it's just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, Sinatra said if you can make it there... well, you know the rest. I said it after Game Six of the Montreal series, which was a gem in its own right, but were I Jon Cooper I'd tell this group, "Now that you've shown you can do it, especially on the defensive side of the ice, don't shortchange yourself and settle for anything less. You know how it's done and the sky is the limit. So go out and do it, now."
Now, I could use this moment to further expound on my thoughts about Rangers fans, the New York media, and Martin St. Louis, but nah. Success is the best revenge, so I'll take the high road instad. I would like to note, though, that the Lightning didn't get a power play the entire game, matching the Game Seven travesty in 2011 against Boston. The Rangers got 2 power plays in the Second Period with the game 0-0, one of which was a very soft "hooking" call on Morrow, showing the refs had no problem giving the Rangers some opportunities to score that all important first goal, whereas some obvious infractions like a high stick taken by Nikita Kucherov, went completely uncalled. So, as expected, and as has been the norm against the traditional, big market teams, there were times the Lightning had to play (and win) 5-on-7. And no, NHL, just because the Lightning won doesn't mean we forgive, or forget. And yes, NHL, you ought to be ashamed.
As a post script, Steven Stamkos treated the Prince of Wales Trophy like a piece of molten hot lava. That's good captaining. We'll pass the rest of the night away with NBCSN holding a wake for the New York Rangers rather than giving the just plaudits the Lightning deserve, and then see this weekend whether Chicago or Anaheim advances to the Finals. I will say this about both teams: after having gone through a very hot Petr Mrazek, the presumptive MVP in Carey Price, and a living legend like Henrik Lundqvist, neither of those teams have netminders that should intimidate the Lightning's snipers. And, if the Lightning start to play defensively on a plane closer to what they did tonight, consistently, then I really like their chances to go all the way.
Nikita Nesterov played just 3:10 tonight. Game Seven? 0-0 game most of the way? On the road with the Rangers holding the last change? Yeah, Nikita was there for moral support and water bottle filling only. Not surprising.
Game Four redux, unfortunately.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 3-3
Ben Bishop allowed 5 goals on 26 shots for the loss before giving way to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who allowed 1 goal on 7 shots the rest of the way. Bishop never looked completely comfortable in this game, but I can't really fault him on any of the 5 goals he allowed. The Rangers' first two goals had distinct puck luck elements to them off of soft point shots that hit traffic in front. The remaining 3 goals in the Third Period resulted from a complete defensive meltdown by the Lightning in front of Bishop, as they neglected to even attempt to play that side of the game down 2-1 coming out of the Second Intermission.
3:36 NYR Brassard (7), (Miller, Boyle)
15:30 NYR Yandle (2), (Brassard, Nash)
17:20 TB Callahan (1), (Stralman, Bishop)(PP)
3:02 NYR Miller (1), (Brassard, Nash)
6:00 NYR Sheppard (1), (Moore, Glass)
7:14 NYR Brassard (8), (Miller, Nash)
7:50 TB Kucherov (8), (Johnson)
10:21 NYR Nash (5), (Yandle, Miller)(PP)
13:21 TB Kucherov (9), (Johnson, Nesterov)
18:19 NYR Brassard (9), (unassisted)(EN)
I'm just at a loss to explain what's transpired in both Game Four and Game Six of this series. I honestly can't fault the effort of the team in both games. As with Game Four, the Lightning had the majority of possession, shots, and chances through the first 40-45 minutes. Perhaps they didn't have the same quality of chances tonight as they did in Game Four, but still, they didn't necessarily deserve to be down 2-1 heading into the Third Period either. The Rangers rode a bit of puck luck and good goaltending to the advantage heading into the final frame. There, as in Game Four, the Lightning just absolutely left any pretense of playing defense in the locker room and just got burned to death because of it. They were so impatient to fly the zone to seek the equalizing goals they just absolutely went brain dead with turnovers and poor defensive zone coverage. Maybe it's better that Game Seven is on the road, because the team seems to have a healthy fear of those types of mistakes playing in the other team's barn that doesn't exist when they play at home lately.
I'll say this also: it's pretty clear if the Lightning are to win Game Seven it'll be a 5-on-7 victory, because the officiating tilted against the Lightning pretty hard tonight. For a team that had so much more possession, zone time, and the greater quantity of chances, the Lightning only got 2 power plays in the first 2 periods of the game, and none in a Second Period that they dominated. That just seems improbable bordering on impossible, and it's even more frustrating when you consider the phantom hooking call Nikita Kucherov got in the Second Period and the obviously embellished hooking call on Morrow that also came in the Second Period. When you contrast that against the pretty nasty slash Nikita Kucherov took away from the puck by Staal in this game (no call) and the pivotal non-call on a trip of Tyler Johnson that occurred early in the Third Period (again, no call), well...
I'll let you draw your own conclusions about which way the officiating will tilt in Game Seven. If I had my guess, it'll be an anything-goes affair where the refs will just about completely pocket their whistles and the Lightning will need a mixture of the defensive discipline they got in Game Five in MSG and the stellar goaltending they got against Detroit in their previous Game Seven in this playoff run. That's entirely possible, despite the media's breathless rush to proclaim the Lightning DOA based on the Rangers' all-time home Game Seven record. But, it requires the Lightning to buckle down mentally again like they did for Game Five. Honestly, they just need to realize they're still in a great spot. If you offered any team in the league the opportunity to play in Game Seven of their conference finals at the start of the year, they'd have taken it gladly and thanked you for the opportunity. That's all the Lightning need to take to heart after tonight. 7-3 aren't the numbers that matter. 3-3 and the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals with a single victory are. Things are never as bad as they appear, and a change of fortune and redemption are just a game away.
Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 2 penalty minutes in 11:00 of ice time.
Tampa Bay whips New York at its own game.
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop stopped all 26 shots he faced behind a masterful defensive effort to get the shutout. He was challenged pretty hard by the talking heads in the media after allowing 10 goals total in the previous two games of the series, and he smothered what few chances the Rangers developed tonight. He was especially strong in the First Period as the Lightning played a classic road strategy where they successfully weathered the home club's early charge. In the end, U of Maine Justice reigned supreme, and were I a superstitious man I might be advocating having Nesterov hit Bishop in the tender bits during warm-ups before every game from here on out if that's the performance you end up getting out of it.
13:29 TB Filppula (3), (Stamkos, Stralman)
18:22 TB Stamkos (7), (Palat, Kucherov)(PP)
I am absolutely shocked at this result. Not so much that the Lightning won, mind you, but how they won was absolutely amazing. The Lightning essentially followed the Rangers' own recipe and baked up a sweet confection filled with defensive dominance. The Lightning typically do not play well without the puck. They are a possession team and they have looked lost for most of the past couple of years in games where the other team tilts the ice against them. Tonight, playing against an amped up Rangers team fresh off a 5-1 win on their home ice in MSG, they played a nearly flawless, defense-first road game where they comfortably absorbed the Rangers' pushes and eventually manufactured the goals they needed on a counter rush and late on the power play. At the heart of it all was a Herculean effort by the team's much-maligned penalty kill, which went 4-for-4 tonight and made the Rangers look positively non-threatening on their last 3 chances with the extra man. These are things I'm fairly certain the Lightning were not constructed for, and yet they executed that style with amazing efficiency. And, once they had that 2-goal lead, they put the lid on in the Third Period with a calmness they absolutely failed to muster in their Game Three victory that ended up getting pushed to Overtime.
So, I'll say this: If the Lightning continue to prove they can win games like this consistently when they don't have the lion's share of possession, I don't know how you can beat them in a 7-game series. They continue to shore up every major hole and weakness in their game little by little as these playoffs move along. Bad PK last year? Looked pretty good most of these playoffs. Non-existent power play all regular season? Now they're getting key goals at key times. Waiting on your franchise cornerstones (Stamkos and Hedman) to rise up and be the team's best players along with Bishop? Sure looked that way tonight. When you layer learning to play a strong defensive game without the puck and learning how to protect leads in tight games on top of that, they're on the verge of becoming positively terrifying to play against. And, imagine this: Vladislav Namestnikov, Jonathan Drouin, and Slater Koekkoek aren't even regular contributors to this team, yet. They'll be even more talented at this time next season. I won't throw the "dy" word out there quite yet, but you can see where this might be progressing. They haven't played their best hockey consistently yet, and yet they've still managed to put the veteran-laden President's Trophy winner on the ropes after disposing of the presumptive MVP netminder in the previous round and NHL royalty in the Red Wings in the opening series. It just shows how incredibly talented this team is.
Now, here's another test for the Lightning. Much like the Montreal series, you don't want this game to go to a Game Seven in their barn. You don't want to step foot in New York again until next season. Now: finish them. Put the offensive jump from Game Four together with the defensive play from Game Five and the finishing from Game Two and Game Three and put the Rangers away. Do so, and the team punches its ticket for the Stanley Cup Finals. To paraphrase Tyler Johnson, how cool is that?
Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 1 hit in 8:02, with his ice time limited in a tight game on the road with the team not holding last change. I have to say, I'm pleased how he's tightened up his game in the defensive zone after looking a little loose in that department in the Montreal series. He could be a monster in another year or two once he gets a full regular season in to develop further at the NHL level.
Rangers manufacture a smack down of their own.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 2-2
Ben Bishop allowed 5 goals on 24 shots for the loss. There was nothing super-soft in the five goals, but he did have a couple of rebound goals that went through him five-hole, and five-hole tends to be a spot where Bishop gets leaky when he's a little off. He actually looked sharper than in Game Three, to me, but he needs to be better nonetheless. It's an ugly, albeit deceptive, stat line.
17:18 NYR Nash (3), (Hayes, Hagelin)
11:30 TB Stamkos (6), (Killorn, Filppula)
15:16 NYR Kreider (7), (Klein, Yandle)
17:04 NYR Yandle (1), (Klein, Nash)
5:08 NYR St. Louis (1), (Brassard, Boyle)(PP)
11:33 NYR Nash (4), (Hayes, Yandle)(PP)
Alex Killorn was the game's third star.
This game, in many ways, was a mirror of the Lightning's win in Game Two in New York. They utterly dominated the Rangers for the first 45 minutes of the game, but New York got some good goaltending and some puck luck and eventually built a lead that they then took to blowout proportions with a couple of Third Period PP markers. The turning point of the game was a soft Brendan Morrow pass around the boards behind his own net with the score tied at 1-1 that became a cheap goal for the Rangers. They then got some puck luck on a point shot that bounced in off of Victor Hedman's leg, and things just went straight downhill from there for the Lightning. By the end, you had a Lightning bench that looked a little shell shocked because they, like a lot of Lightning fans, couldn't figure out how the heck they got clubbed by 4 goals in a game they absolutely dominated in shots, chances, and possession. That's the way hockey is sometimes, though.
It's very important right now for the Lightning to focus more on 2-2 (the series) instead of 5-1 (the Game Four score), which will be a test of their maturity. A Game Four hangover leading to a flat start in Game Five could well cost them the series. They need to take some solace in the fact they actually played pretty darned well through 45 minutes until garbage time set in and they need to recognize that they just need to bury their chances and continue to clean up the turnovers like Morrow's blunder. It's a three game series now and it wasn't unreasonable to expect this to be a six or seven game series when it started, so there should be no panic right now. It's a 2-2 series. Not a big deal. Not anything mind blowing. Not anything unexpected. Throw out this game's score as being partly as a function of buzzard's luck, tune out the northern media harping about Nash and St. Louis suddenly being let loose out of the barn, and just hunker down and win Game Five. That's what the approach, mentally, has got to be right now.
Lineup changes? I see a lot of people calling for Brendan Morrow's head and a lot of people calling for Cedric Paquette's head after he got pylonized dropping back on D on Nash's First Period goal. Here's the problem, though: I'm not sure you can trust what your second options (Namestnikov, Drouin, and/or Marchessault) will give you if they draw into the lineup, especially on the defensive end. My point being, I don't know that there are any really good options floating around out there, other than rolling the dice on Drouin's outstanding individual skill and speed.
Also, I must say, Kevin Hayes needs to get suspended for that dirty slash to Tyler Johnson's abdomen. Dirty, dirty play.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot, 2 hits, and 2 penalty minutes in 14:43. He had at least one glorious opportunity early in the game and has been better on the defensive end to boot.