Tampa Bay Lightning
You gotta believe, daddy!
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Series Tied 3-3
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 24 shots for the victory. Would he get style points for how he played tonight? Likely not. He looks nicked up and he was fighting the puck a bit all night long. Buy he battled like a maniac to get the job done.
3:47 TB Johnson (5), (Kucherov, Hedman)
11:10 TB Garrison (1), (Stamkos, Kucherov)
9:09 TB Johnson (6), (Palat, Kucherov)
12:26 DET Tatar (2), (Kronwall)(PP)
1:39 DET Tatar (3), (Datsyuk)
14:51 TB Killorn (2), (unassisted)
19:03 TB Paquette (1), (unassisted)(SH)(EN)
It's hard not to be proud of the way the Lightning played tonight. It was gritty and gutty. They were being physically assaulted by Detroit throughout the game as uncalled interference escalated to uncalled head shots like Kronwall's obvious elbow to the chin of Kucherov. They battled on. In fact, the refs took it a step further and decided they were going to punish Jon Cooper for openly questioning the lack of interference calls in this series by awarding Detroit a 7-2 power play advantage and allowing Detroit to get away with anything short of murder in this contest. True, they blew a call that led to the Lightning's third goal on an uncalled trip in the neutral zone, but fairness never entered into the equation tonight. It was 7-on-5, at best, most of the night, but unlike the Montreal series last year the Lightning battled on.
And, yes, I'm deliberately mocking Coach Babcock's mindless platitudes earlier about fighting through his team's clearly illegal strategy of throwing the kitchen sink at the faster, more skilled Lightning team to try to nullify their athletic advantage. It was a pretty overt admission his team is cheating their rear ends off, couched in some hot garbage about having the heart of a champion. Whatever. He and his gaggle of clutch and grab cheap shot artists can battle their rear ends onto a charter flight to Tampa for Game Seven on Wednesday.
The Lightning made a conscious decision tonight to stay true to themselves. It's not easy when things are stacked up against you to stay in character and not deviate from your structure. In fact, when guys start trying to execute flying elbows on your star players, it's a whole lot easier to let things degenerate into an Ultimate Fighting match, which appeared to be Detroit's preference at times tonight. The Lightning played their brand of hockey, got the all important first goal, and won. Note: that's the key. If you get one on Mrazek, chances are he's going to give up 2-3 more, often quickly, so the same recipe will be required for Game Seven success. It wasn't perfect. The power play was still 0-for-2 and neither Stamkos nor Kucherov managed their first goals of the postseason. But, hey, that just means they're due in the biggest game of the year on Wednesday, right?
Coach Cooper said tonight they exhibited that they learned something from the Montreal series last year. True. But, I think they learned 10x more protecting that lead in the Third Period. The plays made by young guys like Paquette, Sustr, Killorn, etc. are all invaluable experience that will help this team turn the corner from a regular season team to a team that can confidently do business in the second season. I really liked what I saw on that front.
On a side note: that steal, deke, and insurance score by Alex Killorn? That man has a way of scoring big goals, doesn't he?
Nikita Nesterov had 1 hit in 5:16. The Lightning coaches weren't going to let Detroit matchup against him at even strength and with the Lightning only getting 2 power plays out of the zebras, Nesterov didn't see the ice very much. Understandable.
Soul searching time.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Detroit Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop allowed 3 goals on 29 shots for the loss. The second goal was on him, after surrendering a lollipop of a rebound to Drew Miller after a long shot from the bad angle. That's an untimely goal, but I'm hard pressed to be too mad at Ben when he's gotten zero goal support. He can be better, but that's the same for the entire team at this juncture.
19:37 DET Sheahan (2), (Kronwall, Zetterberg)(PP)
15:46 DET Miller (1), (Glendening, Ericsson)
15:47 DET Datsyuk (3), (Ericsson, Helm)(PP)
18:22 DET DeKeyser (1), (Quincey, Andersson)(EN)
Contrary to what some are urging me to do, I'm not going to write a post mortem on a team that's only down 3-2 in a playoff series. There's still a lot of hockey left to be played in this series and the Lightning may still yet prevail, but a lot of issues have been exposed in the past three games, not all of which are within the team's control. The effort in the first 10 minutes of this game was exemplary, but unlike the regular season this team can't seem to buy a bounce lately. Combine that with a strong tactical approach by the Wings that often colors outside the lines of legality and some roster composition issues (self-inflicted), and you get this dark cloud of doom that now seems to be hanging over this team.
First, let me get this out of the way: the Detroit Red Wings are getting away with bloody murder from the officials. They're executing the old clutch and grab Devils playbook, and with the refs looking the other way, I can hardly fault them for it. NBCSN put together a "highlight" package at the Second Intermission of how Detroit is "defending" Tyler Johnson, and it mostly involves hitting him without the puck, tripping him without the puck, interfering with him, and just about every other underhanded trick in the book. Tyler Johnson couldn't have played in the NHL in the early 90's with the amount of clutching and grabbing that was going on, and if the league is going to allow a return to that brand of hockey, it's going to make it a lot harder for Tyler and some of the smaller Lightning forwards to make it in the league today. I would hope Yzerman takes that video to the league and makes enforcement of interference away from the puck a point of emphasis again, because it's absolutely had an impact on the last three games.
With that said, another reason Johnson and his linemates have struggled throughout this series is that the Lightning are essentially a one line team. Let's be honest about this. On paper, yes, there's a 40 goal scorer on another line and plenty of other talent that can chip in. None of those players have scored consistently all season long though, and the only line that has is the Palat/Johnson/Kucherov line. They're getting focused on right now, and other than the fourth line of Morrow/Boyle/Brown, no one else has showed much hope to step up. So you've got Steven Stamkos, who had 43 goals in the regular season, with 0, and he's helping to drag down Nikita Kucherov on another line (who isn't helping himself by playing a bit timid on the perimeter), who had 28 goals in the regular season and also is sitting on 0 in the playoff right now. That's 71 regular season goals doing squat right now.
Part of the issue that I think Jon Cooper and Steve Yzerman will have to do some soul searching about in the offseason, is that they've basically ignored the need to replace Martin St. Louis on Stamkos' wing. They need a pace-pushing playmaker with high hockey sense to help Stamkos play his best, a formula we know works from a half decade and two Richard Trophies of empirical evidence. The team has a logical candidate to fill that role in rookie Jonathan Drouin, but rather than let Drouin take his lumps during the regular season and groom him to be ready by this point of the season, they've used him sparingly. Because of that, you can't trust him to play 18-19 minutes with Stamkos right now and he's been a scratch for 4 of 5 games in this series. And, by now, I think it's fair to say it's been a mistake. Stamkos managed to score 43 goals with grinding types like Callahan and Killorn playing with him, but he hasn't looked like the same formidable player in the process, and it's been exposed in this playoff series so far. It's not rocket science, though. They know a formula that works and they already drafted the personnel needed to make this work. They just have to set it in motion now.
I'll also, again, mention the 0-for-3 power play. It looked a lot better in 2 of the 3 opportunities tonight, but it's been horribly inconsistent too. And, like Stamkos' line, it's not for a lack of knowing the correct formula to fix it. The Lightning need a righty PP QB manning the center point. Pop in any tape of when Adam Oates was running the PP here and you'll see what I mean. It's been a hole in this organization since Kurtis Foster packed his bags and until that hole is filled, the PP will never run at its highest potential.
With all that said, the Lightning still are very much alive in this series. It doesn't feel like it, but they are. Were I in the Lightning's shoes, I would simplify my approach for Game Six. Focus on getting the first goal. Make it a greasy one. If they can get that first goal, they give themselves a fighting chance. But, to get that first goal, they have to show a maturity and character beyond their young years. It's a gut check time. Time to grow up a little.
Miracle in Motown.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Series Tied 2-2
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 24 shots for the OT victory. The softie from distance he allowed in the Second Period appeared to be the soul crushing final nail in the game (and possibly the Lightning's season). But, that was before Tyler Johnson became a legend...
5:42 DET Nyquist (1), (Zetterberg, Abdelkader)
14:24 DET Andersson (1), (Sheahan, Jurco)
14:34 TB Johnson (3), (Stralman)
15:51 TB Palat (1), (Johnson, Garrison)
2:25 TB Johnson (4), (Hedman, Palat)
Tyler Johnson and Anton Stralman were the game's first and third stars.
Make no mistake, the Lightning stole this game. With under six minutes to play in the Third Period, this team was getting fitted for a toe tag. They were done. They were absolutely dominated from the start of the Second Period on and it looked like tee times were just around the corner. And then, somehow, Tyler Johnson pylonized Darren Helm on the rush around the corner and made it 2-1, and then he found Ondrej Palat on the rush to make it 2-2, and then he finished off an Overtime 3-on-1 on the rush to complete perhaps the most impossible, miraculous moment in Lightning postseason history.
I'm still stunned it happened, and don't know exactly what happens from hereon out. I thought after Game Two that Petr Mrazek's veil of invincibility was put to bed, and that didn't work out so well. So, I'm not ready to kick dirt on the young netminder or the Red Wings' grave after that win. With that said, it has to have some sort of effect on your morale when you have a series darn near won and you wet the bed with under six minutes left to go in a game you lead 2-0 that you've absolutely dominated. Now the Lightning head home to start a 3-game series where they have home ice advantage with a lot of belief that they can do... well... just about anything after that victory.
On the downside, the power play again went 0-for-4 and we're still waiting for Steven Stamkos to light the lamp in this series. I'd say it was a complete swing and a miss for the franchise cornerstones tonight, but Victor Hedman's sweet assist on the Johnson OT winner was obviously huge. I'm beginning to think we may just need to accept the fact Hedman's not a natural PP QB running things in the offensive third from the point despite the fact he's absolutely dominant on the rush.
By the way, refs, don't think we didn't notice that pick on Drouin that wasn't called on Detroit's second goal and that phantom call on Ben Bishop for the unimaginable crime of standing in his crease while a Detroit player skated by and tripped over him. Bummy performance by the officials.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 13:40. The coaching staff had to be more guarded with Nesterov's use on the road with the Wings having last change. So, we may see more of him in Game Five at home that we've seen in Game Three and Game Four.
One final post script: when you win a game like that, you kind of have to win the series now, don't you?
Out-of-sync Lightning reach a crossroads.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Detroit Leads the Series 2-1
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 20 shots for the loss. The man got no goal support, so I can't exactly fault him.
8:46 DET Datsyuk (2), (Tatar, Ericsson)
6:42 DET Sheahan (1), (Abdelkader, Zetterberg)
19:11 DET Glendening (2), (Ericsson)(EN)
Well, that was simultaneously frustrating and embarrassing. Fresh off of dominating Game Two, the Lightning decided to take their foot off the gas in Game Three. That, coupled with some poor puck luck (3 posts and 3 missed open sides) and the re-disappearance of the team's power play (0-for-6), led to the Lightning reaching their first real crisis of faith of the postseason (btw, in the Lightning's 2 losses in the series they were a combine 0-for-13 on the PP, so this isn't brain surgery, is it?). They're either going to implode under this pressure now, or they're going to hunker down and refocus on the basics and good habits.
What basics? First, the passing tonight was atrocious. It's been a little off all series, but it was really off tonight, with the Lightning missing a lot of potential chances to break in on Detroit because passes were 6-12 inches off target. Giving and receiving passes is pretty basic, and the Lightning need to get back to completing those fundamentals well. The power play, obviously, needs to click. Mind you, then should've had at least 1 PP goal on the 5-on-3 chance that Tyler Johnson clanged off the crossbar, but the work needs to continue on having a moving power play that puts pressure on Detroit and has less instances where the puck touches the boards and puts the Lightning in a position where they're retrieving the puck rather than attacking with it. That means bodies moving and correct pass/shot selection, timing, and precision. Last, the physicality of Game Two nearly evaporated in Game Three. Detroit would love nothing better than to play an antiseptic tactical game with shot totals in the low-20's, because they've been playing their system forever. The Lightning need to pummel their D like they did in Game Two and get them out of their comfort zone, because opportunities will flow from there.
Beyond those basics, here's a basic issue we've talked about all season long that reared its head yet again: your two franchise cornerstones have got to be your best players. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, at this point of their careers, should be the Lightning's bell cows. They should be leading this team to the promised land and anything you get from the Triplets, the 4th line, etc., should be gravy. Hedman, like in Game One, played another fairly benign 23 minutes of hockey where he wasn't terrible, but he certainly wasn't the assertive Victor Hedman that can absolutely take over games. And Stamkos had 2 shots and only 3 shot attempts all game long while still seeking his first goal of this postseason. That's not going to cut it. These two guys have got to be the ringleaders. If they are, everything will fall in place behind them.
Also, sometimes even the best laid plans just need to be crumpled up and set on fire, and that's the case with the third line of Vladislav Namestnikov, Valtteri Filppula, and Cedric Paquette. That's three centermen, two of which don't really play wing all that well, and they've been a train wreck in this series. Tonight they got totally exposed on the road with Detroit having last change. That line's got to be broken up. Got to be. They're bad. Were it my choice, and assuming Garrison's available, I believe I'd risk losing Paquette's contributions on the PK to sit he and Namestnikov for Garrison and Drouin in Game Four, playing 7 defensemen. My goal would be to put my 18 best even strength players on the rink while also using the extra shifts available in an 11 forward lineup to try to light a fire under Stamkos, because sparking 91 may be a matter of postseason survival at this juncture.
Just so I can't be accused of being all negative, the bright side of Game Three was the continued emergence of Andrej Sustr as a two-way rock star. It's like, upon potting that back door goal in Game Two, Sustr had a moment like John Belushi in the Blues Brothers in the church scene with James Brown when he his mission to save the orphanage. Those rays of truth hit him, the angels sang, and the Godfather of Soul confirmed that yes, Andrej Sustr has seen the light. The last 1-1/2 games he's played the kind of assertive 2-way game he played with Syracuse in their Calder Cup finals run a few years back, where instead of being a pin cushion absorbing the other team's offensive pressure, he uses his hockey sense to create offense and put some pressure on theirs. It's a beautiful thing, and if he keeps it up the future looks bright with he and Nesterov both playing well in this series.
Nikita Nesterov was -1 in 15:27. I'd like to see him get back to shooting the puck more. He's taken more of the facilitation role on the PP in the last 2 games, and that's fine when it's clicking, but when you're 0-for-4 halfway through a game, time to simplify and create some greasy goals for your teammates, in my opinion.
Grumpy Lightning punish Wings.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Series Tied 1-1
Ben Bishop allowed just 1 goal on 24 shots for his first NHL playoff victory, and the lone goal he surrendered was a goofy goal that ping ponged off two defenders before bouncing in off Tatar's shin pads. I'm not surprised he had a bounce-back performance, because Ben hasn't had two poor performances in a row all season long that I can recall. I am relieved, though, that he put the whole playoff stigma thing to bed, and now we can settle into the grind of the second season.
3:05 TB Johnson (1), (Nesterov, Kucherov)(PP)
7:56 TB Killorn (1), (Callahan, Stamkos)
14:48 TB Sustr (1), (Filppula, Namestnikov)
19:22 TB Johnson (2), (Hedman)
5:49 DET Tatar (1), (Quincey, Nyquist)
15:26 TB Filppula (1), (Stamkos, Nesterov)(PP)
Tampa Bay showed up to the rink in a must-win situation with ill humor, and they imposed their will on Detroit physically throughout the game. Callahan, Morrow, and several others laid the lumber to the Wings defense, Stamkos and Killorn and others still participated in multiple scrums in the First and Second Period, and the Lightning rode that energy to a critical win that killed any notion that this season will be a repeat of last year's debacle against Montreal.
In the end, the Lightning outshot Detroit 30-24. Hockey-wise, the Lightning didn't actually play as well as they did in Game One and Detroit played much better than they did in the opener, leveraging much more possession. But, the edge that they folded into their game today seemed to really knock Detroit out of their antiseptic approach to locking down and clearing out pucks from around Mrazek (and later Howard), with the Lightning finally getting some greasy goals of their own, starting with Johnson's power play marker.
In the process, I think the Lightning squashed just about every other kernel of doubt the press might want to waste ink on between now and Tuesday. Bishop obviously put to bed any doubts about his play. The myth of Petr Mrazek's invincibility was destroyed with 4 goals on 18 shots, and they showed Howard isn't a better option cashing in on an ugly rebound for a goal. The power play clicked to the tune of 2-for-4 in the game, trending upward to respectability from the 0-for-7 performance in Game One. Other than Stamkos picking up his first goal of the series, I can't think of any other boxes the Lightning didn't check tonight. And, there's clearly another gear the Lightning can go to. I thought there were times their puck management was lackluster, and they still have Jason Garrison in the wings waiting to return in Game Three. In other words, I'd be a little terrified if I were Detroit that Tampa Bay hasn't even hit its top gear yet.
Now, the Lightning need to shake off the good feelings of the first playoff victory quickly and refocus on the opportunity at hand coming on Tuesday. Another strong game in Detroit in Game Three, and I think there's a legitimate chance Tampa Bay could run the Wings straight out of this series. It's hard to imagine Detroit's going to be able to last long in this series averaging 20 shots a game against Bishop with all the firepower the Lightning bring to the rink and Mrazek and Howard both looking mortal today.
Nikita Nesterov had a pair of helpers and 3 blocked shots in 18:49. He's clearly earned his ticket to stay in the lineup with 3 points in his first couple of NHL playoff games. Really, other than a couple of turnovers by Coburn, I'm hard pressed to muster much negativity at how any of the Lightning defensemen played today, and you even saw Sustr get a goal and nearly pot a second. It leaves me to wonder if, presuming Garrison goes in Game Three, the Lightning will go with 7 d-men next time out.