Tampa Bay Lightning
Goaltending finally gives out.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-1
Ben Bishop allowed 3 goals on 14 shots for the loss before giving way to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who allowed 3 on 26 shots the rest of the way. Bishop allowed 1 soft goal off his glove (again), which ended up being the GWG. It was wise to get him out and get a rest at that point with the team down 3-0. You're going to have 1-2 stinkers even in a successful playoff season, and the silver lining in those games is you get to give your workhorse goaltender a breather. Vasilevskiy showed significant signs of rust by allowing a softie on his 2nd goal allowed and giving out a bad rebound that led to his 3rd goal allowed. He got better as the game went along, but there's certainly no goaltending controversy in Tampa Bay after that showing.
2:44 MTL Markov (1), (Subban, Pacioretty)
8:43 MTL Pacioretty (4), (Gilbert)(SH)
5:08 MTL Desharnais (1), (Weise, Galchenyuk)
9:39 MTL Petry (2), (Galchenyuk, Subban)(PP)
9:54 MTL Gallagher (3), (Pacioretty, Plekanec)
12:26 TB Kucherov (4), (Palat, Stralman)(PP)
0:17 TB Palat (2), (Johnson, Stamkos)(PP)
4:52 MTL Prust (1), (Eller, Parenteau)
There's a lot of blustering and posturing by Subban and the Habs that's going to get replayed on a loop by the media to try to drum up interest in a 3-1 series. Don't take the bait and panic. The Lightning didn't play well the past 2 nights, but you have to take the magnitude of tonight's 6-2 loss with a little grain of salt given that 3 of the last 4 goals allowed were purely on the netminders. The negatives didn't so much come from effort, for me, but the mental lapses in positioning that led to the first 2 goals. When Bishop allowed the softie, that put the team down 3-0 and that was all she wrote. So, those mental lapses are correctable and you have to proceed under the assumption Bishop isn't going to wet the bet like that twice in a row. He hasn't all season long. You try to take the handful of silver linings out of this game that you can, too. Bishop got some much needed rest after carrying the team on his back for much of the first 10 games of the playoffs. The power play went 2-for-3 and is starting to look respectable in this series. Drouin got some much needed seasoning in garbage time. So, there's some glass half full things to look at.
Have the Lightning elected the easy road for closing out this series? No. This thing may get a little hairy now considering Montreal's going to be a crazy barn on Saturday. But, it was crazy the first two games of the series, too. If they're feeling apprehension, they shouldn't, because they've been through this gauntlet before. They just need to concentrate on getting the first goal, tightening up the positioning lapses, and hope that Bishop shakes off tonight's performance with the same ease he usually shakes off his stinkers. If they do, they'll be ok. Calm needs to be the word of the hour, for sure.
And Tyler Johnson drove the get away car...
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-0
Ben Bishop allowed just 1 goal on 31 shots for the victory. As has been the case throughout the series, he's been the best player on the ice. He's outdueling the best goaltender on the planet by continually beating Price in these tight games, carrying over from some of the regular season matchups, and he's the only reason the Lightning are one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
12:00 TB Killorn (3), (Stamkos)
10:03 MTL Gallagher (2), (Gilbert, Pateryn)
19:58 TB Johnson (8), (Hedman, Palat)
Tyler Johnson and Ben Bishop were the game's first and second stars.
For as dramatic and amazing a finish as that game had, I can't help but be disappointed with the effort we saw from the Lightning tonight. Having staked themselves to a 2-0 series lead in Montreal, they showed the proper urgency in the First Period to build a 1-0 lead on a beautiful Stamkos/Killorn give and go. That was fantastic.
The ensuing 39 minutes and 58.9 seconds of hockey, for the most part, was steaming hot garbage.
The Lightning played like a Junior A team in front of Bishop, with a complete lack of aggression and urgency dotted with the periodic idiotic turnover. They'd be lucky to win a dog show with the epic sandbaggery that we saw tonight, and only Bishop gave them a chance to win. Even after Gallagher poked home the equalizer, the Lightning's response was fairly awful, right up until the last 2 shifts of the game, when it appeared Cooper and the coaching staff must've opened up some particularly noxious smelling salts and waved them under the noses of the the team's top two lines. Stamkos' line set the tone with a great forechecking shift to wear down the Habs, and then fresh off the bench the Johnson line mustered a quick rush that ended with a sharp centering pass from Hedman getting tapped home with 1.1 seconds left to play. What a theft. I'm almost embarrassed to call it a win.
If you asked me about Matt Carle's execution on defense tonight, I'd tell you I was all for it.
Now the Lightning get to go for the series sweep against a stunned Canadiens team tomorrow night. Between Montreal's dysfunctional PP, their lack of scoring talent, and Bishop's excellence, Tampa Bay has a good chance of advancing in the next 22 hours. What happens afterwards is difficult to feel positive about, though. We haven't seen the Lightning play their best game yet. Not even close. We've seen 20 good minutes of hockey here and there, but nothing near the kind of 60 minute effort it will take to win the East against Washington or the Rangers. Were I Cooper, I'd smack the first player who tried to celebrate about that dumpster fire that was passed off as an effort tonight and challenge this team to close out this series the right way against Montreal in Game Four. It's time to stop relying on Bishop, a little luck, and a lot of hope to back into winning hockey games and play an assertive, dominant 60 minute hockey game that tells the world this team is a serious championship contender and not just the best of a weak gaggle of Atlantic Division pretenders.
When the levees broke...
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 2-0
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 29 shots for the victory. As in Game One, he held the Lightning in the game early in the First Period long enough for them to gain their equilibrium and eventually trounce the Habs.
7:20 MTL Petry (1), (Mitchell, Prust)
19:36 TB Filppula (2), (Hedman, Killorn)(PP)
8:06 TB Stamkos (1), (Garrison, Coburn)
12:29 TB Kucherov (2), (Johnson, Stamkos)(PP)
19:46 TB Hedman (1), (Killorn, Filppula)(PP)
6:37 TB Kucherov (3), (Johnson, Stamkos)(PP)
11:06 MTL Gilbert (2), (Emelin, Smith-Pelly)
16:05 TB Brown (1), (Filppula, Boyle)
That, folks, was one of the most satisfying playoff victories in Lightning history. The team, again, struggled to get any momentum to start the First Period with a combination of early penalties, poor passing, and faceoff impotence costing them possession. Again, though, they weathered that storm fairly well, only falling down 1-0, before Filppula's semi-soft power play goal toward the end of the frame. Montreal absolutely outplayed Tampa Bay in the First Period, and just like in Game One they absolutely blew their opportunity to land a knockout punch early. What happened thereafter was the stuff of stories and legends.
You see, the Lightning had already removed one item from their to-do list on Filppula's PP goal, but they proceeded to get everything knocked off from there. Stamkos scored on a very strong breakaway move on a nice long pass from Garrison to get that monkey off his back. Kucherov got a pair of PP goals to underline that the floodgates have indeed opened for him after Game One. His 2 goals, along with a Hedman PP tally, formed a chain of 4 goals on 4 consecutive PP shots for the Lightning as the absolutely embarrassed Carey Price, the NHL's presumptive MVP. To rub salt in the wound, the Lightning got the equivalent of a human victory cigar in the form of J.T. Brown scoring a tip in goal.
Teams that take a 2-0 lead on the road to start a series have an 80% chance of moving on, historically. I like those odds. I like the idea of avenging what happened last season even more. The Lightning have a chance to show the same cold blooded lack of mercy Montreal showed them last year in Game Three when the scene turned north after Tampa Bay fell behind 0-2 on the road. A quick goal by the Tampa Bay Lightning early in Game Three may lead to Montreal's resolve evaporating altogether. Time to step on their throats, Tampa Bay Lightning. Remember, the playoffs are a war of attrition. Advance as quickly as you can. Stay as healthy as you can. Conserve as much energy as you can. Let the other two teams kill each other in a long battle in the other Semifinal. Lay in wait for the Eastern Conference Finals. The opportunity for that scenario to play out is sitting there for the taking for the Lightning, starting with a strong opening 10 minutes at home in Game Three.
A game you could argue the Lightning won three times. Wish it counted as three wins.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 44 shots for the victory. That 1 goal he allowed was a terrible, world class softie that would've been a huge blemish on an otherwise amazing performance had the Lightning lost this game in OT. Fortunately, they got the winner they needed to erase the bad taste of that goal away, and although soft goals are still inexcusable it's important to note than Ben Bishop absolutely was the Lightning's best player tonight.
2:34 TB Johnson (7), (Carle, Sustr)
14:47 MTL Pacioretty (3), (Subban, Gilbert)
2:06 TB Kucherov (1), (Filppula)
Nikita Kucherov and Ben Bishop were the game's first and third stars. The Lightning finally got Kucherov on the board and hopefully they can get Stamkos and the PP, not necessarily in that order, out of the ditch and on the scoreboard in Game Two as well.
The Lightning played a nearly perfect road game and fought hard through a lot of adversity to put them in excellent position to start this series. As could be expected, they came out flat as a pancake after an emotional Game Seven victory on Wednesday and they had to ride some really sharp goaltending and the good graces of two strikes off of Ben's left post to survive Montreal's early surge. After about 10-12 minutes of hanging on for dear life, though, the Lightning settled down and started playing Lightning hockey. True, Montreal ended up taking the shot totals by about a 4:3 margin in the game, but the Lightning had the puck more, which is certainly more in line with the Lightning's style of play than what we saw in the Detroit series. Eventually, the Lightning manufactured what appeared to be the game winning goal on a Tyler Johnson deflection of a Carle point shot and the Lightning settled into Third Period lead protection mode. And, let me tell you, it's been shocking to see how good the Lightning have looked the last two games protecting a 1-0 lead in the Third Period. They've grown a lot in that department. That was the first time they won the game.
Then the Bishop softie happened. It's inexcusable. It's gut wrenching. It's the kind of thing that can destroy a team's morale. Credit to the Lightning though, in that they showed a lot of maturity by not hanging their heads as the game headed into Overtime. Then, in the First Overtime, Nikita Kucherov scored a breakaway goal that in any situation other than in OT in a playoff game against one of the NHL's darling franchises would've stood. Absolutely. No question in my mind. By the specter of dubious refereeing in Montreal reared its ugly head again as the goal was waved off under the guise that Kucherov pushed Price into the net. I could probably show you 100 goals exactly like that in the last decade that have stood up. That was the second time they won the game.
But, the refs decided they should play on. And play on they did when a Montreal turnover led to a quick pass to the slot for a quick release by Kucherov that beat Price for the winning goal. That was the third time they won the game, and the one that actually counted. In retrospect, I just wish the game counted as three wins for all the heavy lifting they had to do to get it.
Of course, there's a lot of controversy on the zone entry on the play that became the winner, with still shots being waved by the Canadian media showing Filppula as offside. The video, however, shows the play was less cut and dry, but still very close. It's really a case of Montreal trying to beat the wrap on a technicality, though, considering they got puck possession and had an easy opportunity to clear that they choked away. It's also karmatic justice considering how many times Tampa Bay has been shafted by the referees in games against Montreal over the past two seasons. No tears should be shed for the Habs, regardless of how much the northern hockey media tries to frame this as a tainted win.
Moving on to Game Two, the Lightning find themselves in the envious position of playing with house money on the road. They've accomplished what they need to stealing home ice to start the series. Now they've got a chance to really put the Habs behind the eight ball before heading home to Tampa Bay. It would behoove them to do so and shorten the series, because as we all know playoff hockey is both a marathon and a war of attrition. The fewer games you can play to get to 16 wins, the less energy you have to expend and the fewer opportunities you have to get players injured. So the message should be clear: seize the opportunity now and try to put Montreal away sooner rather than later.
Bishop rises up.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-3
Ben Bishop stopped all 31 shots he faced for the shutout win in the clutchest of clutch moments. He was not on his game to start, fighting the puck hard for the first 25 minutes or so of the game. But, the longer it went on, the stronger Bishop got. By the end, Bishop looked sharp as a razor and ready to hand out his brand of U of Maine Justice in the postseason for the very first time. It's appropriate that on the night of Bobby Taylor's last broadcast at color of Sun Sports that his fellow Goalies Union, Local 813 member stole the show.
3:58 TB Coburn (1), (Callahan, Killorn)
18:42 TB Stralman (1), (Bishop)(EN)
The Lightning pilfered this one. They were incredibly nervous and played about 45 minutes of scared, hot potato hockey. That said, they hustled, they worked hard, and they capitalized on the break when it came to them on Coburn's goal. It wasn't pretty. Cripes, even the anthem singer was playing hurt. But, in the end, figuring out how to pull out a series like this is so critically important for an extremely young team trying to make a transition to becoming an elite franchise. Now that they have that experience, it's going to get easier from here on out because they've lived through a tight series against a difficult, veteran opponent where they had to overcome a lot of adversity. It bodes well for the Montreal series and on into the future.
It also bodes well, in a weird way, that Stamkos and Kucherov still couldn't get a goal. For those two guys to go 7 games without a goal has to be the very definition of, "due." If I were the Canadiens, I'd be pretty terrified because if either of those guys get 1, especially Stamkos, the floodgates are liable to open. Both players had ten bell opportunities they just missed in Game Seven.
Going against hometown Montreal, might we also see Jonathan Drouin again starting Friday? It still seems that Stamkos needs a little more speed/skill on his wing, and Drouin has it. Just sayin'.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot in 10:02. For the little he played, he was very assertive and nearly won the game himself with a near end to end rush on one power play. He's forced his way into the lineup and forced Cooper and the staff to play 7 defensemen.
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.