Tampa Bay Lightning
Lightning defy the odds and seize the series advantage.
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 34 shots for the victory. As with all of his other games in this series, he gave his team a chance and they eventually justified all of his efforts with the comeback win. Now that we've moved past the pivotal Game Five, all talk of Bishop playing in this series needs to be shut down. Ben might go back in for the Stanley Cup Final if the Lightning can close this series out, but for this Eastern Conference Finals series it needs to be Vasilevskiy's crease from here on out.
19:59 PIT Dumoulin(1), (Rust, Kunitz)
1:30 PIT Hornqvist(7), (Hagelin, Maatta)
13:15 TB Killorn(5), (Sustr)
14:25 TB Kucherov(10), (Namestnikov)
19:10 PIT Kunitz(4), (Malkin)
16:44 TB Kucherov(11), (Johnson, Palat)
0:53 TB Johnson(7), (Garrison, Kucherov)
Once again, the Lightning showed championship caliber heart and resiliency coming up off the canvas twice in this game to win in Overtime and take a 3-2 series lead. The team gave away late and early period goals at the end of the First Period and the start of the Second Period and again at the end of the Second Period. A lesser team would've folded under those circumstances, especially given Pittsburgh came into this game with a 46-0-0 record this season when leading after two periods. And, in the final frame, there were times the Lightning looked like they were absolutely running out of gas. This series has been a long grind already. This was not artful or textbook, and the Lightning have a long way to go and a lot of heavy lifting left to do to close this series. But, once again, with their Vezina candidate goaltender and leading regular season goal scorer on the shelf, they did not blink in the big moments and they did not shrink from the challenge.
Tampa Bay was outshot 34-25 in this game, but that didn't tell the whole possession story with the Lightning having 56 shot attempts and Pittsburgh having 54. The zone time in this game was about even. The chances were about even. The energy, up until a few moments in the Third Period when I thought they were starting to get gassed, was about even. That, it's important to note, is exceptional in a road game considering how well Pittsburgh plays in their own barn. I don't think either team's defense can handle the speed and skill of the opposing team, so possession is everything in this series. The more you can generate in the other team's zone, the less your own defense will be exposed. Opportunism and goaltending then often become the margin of victory in tight games like these, and they were the margin again tonight.
Pittsburgh will live to regret playing M.A. Fleury tonight. They will. After being staked to a 2-0 lead, Pittsburgh was an eyelash from making it 3-0 on the power play and the Lightning were teetering on the edge of being blown out. And then Alex Killorn sizzled a shot from the LW boards from a fairly bad angle that rifled short side over Fleury's shoulder. Was it a great shot? Sure. Is that a goal that Fleury can allow in that situation? Absolutely not. He gave oxygen to Tampa Bay and Kucherov tied the game shortly thereafter. The Penguins managed to restake him to a lead at the end of the Second Period, but it was pretty obvious down the stretch of the game that Fleury was the weak link on the ice for Pittsburgh with not one but three near soft goals including a long shot off the rush by Callahan that was an eyelash away from tying the game before Kucherov's eventual tying goal on a wrap around. I was amazed by the northern hockey media's rubber stamping of Sullivan's gamble to put Fleury in for this pivotal Game Five. This guy hasn't started a game in over a month and, frankly, he's never been that good to begin with, especially against the Lightning. He's liable to give up a soft goal or two even when he's in rhythm and sharp. With a long layoff? It was a big gamble and it blew up in Pittsburgh's face tonight, and I wouldn't be shocked if Sullivan goes back to Murray in a panic move to try to correct the panic move he made tonight.
This series moves back to Tampa now for a Game Six encounter that the Lightning would do well to treat with the intensity and urgency of a must-win game. Heck, I'd treat Tuesday's game as if it was an elimination game for the Lightning, not the Penguins. Neither team has the ability to shut down the other and the games are literally coming down to who outworks who for possession and whose goaltender makes the key saves in key moments or not. So, let's not be foolish enough to think there's a lot of hard work left to complete before Tampa Bay can punch its ticket to the Stanley Cup Final again. Tonight was an exciting win, but the team can't afford to relax an iota before there's a handshake line to be joined.
As an aside, the laughable officiating took an even uglier turn tonight in the game as even media commentators were forced to publicly speak out about the blatant penalties that Pittsburgh was being allowed to get away with. Seeking the tying goal in the Third Period, Slater Koekkoek was both bloodied by a high stick and tripped in broad daylight on the same shift. By all rights the Lightning should have been awarded a 5-on-3 power play (I have no doubt Pittsburgh would have if the skate was on the other foot) but the referees looked the other way on the second infraction. Later in the period Kucherov was hit with a high stick in front of the Lightning bench in broad daylight. No call. Later still in the period Koekkoek was tripped again trying to make a breakout pass wheeling out of the corner behind his net. No call. I'm not going to sit here and tell you the referees haven't pocketed their whistles on a few Lightning infractions too in this series. There was a haul down of Rust on the rush just before the second time Koekkoek was tripped. But, the bigger point is that some of the non-calls in the last two games absolutely could have swung the game and the series to Pittsburgh. The high stick on Hedman leading to the Fehr breakaway in Game Four was a travesty and the refusal to correctly call the trip on Koekkoek on top of the high stick may have cost the Lightning Game Five. Others might argue the uncalled can opener on Tyler Johnson in OT of Game Two absolutely did cost the Lightning the game. The league ought to be seriously ashamed of the appearance of gross impropriety in this series and some of the uncalled infractions in this series ought to be grounds for disciplining officials. They just ought to be. Period, point blank.
Koekkoek had 2 shots and 2 hits in 10:17 tonight. He's not getting a ton of shifts, but the ones he's getting are impactful in the offensive zone. Credit to the coaching staff that they have given the green light to Slater, who is a little bit of a Hedman Lite in my opinion, and he was very good tonight at joining the attack and keeping plays going in the offensive zone tonight. The other beauty of Koekkoek at the moment is that he's one of the guys who still has fresh legs as the grind of the postseason is starting to catch up with the Lightning's other skaters.
Vermin, 24, skated in six games with the Lightning during the 2015-16 regular season, recording one assist and a plus-1 rating. He made his NHL debut on November 19 and recorded his first point on November 21 at the Anaheim Ducks. Vermin recorded a season-high for ice time on November 21 against the Ducks with 12:22.
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound forward also appeared in 37 games with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League this past season, posting nine goals and 21 points to go along with six penalty minutes. Vermin ranked 10th on the Crunch for points despite only skating in 37 games. He has played in 118 career AHL games over three seasons, all with Syracuse, recording 22 goals and 55 points.
A native of Frauenkappelen, Switzerland, Vermin was selected by the Lightning in the seventh round, 186th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft.
Richard, 23, played in 71 games for the Crunch during the 2015-16 season, recording 11 goals and 54 points to go along with 57 penalty minutes. He ranked first on the Crunch for points and assists (43). Richard’s 71 games played also ranked second on Syracuse. The Jona, Switzerland native has appeared in 214 career AHL games, all with the Crunch over four seasons, notching 26 goals and 112 points.
The 6-foot, 195-pound forward appeared in 95 games with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League over two seasons, posting 24 goals and 110 points. During the 2012-13 season while with the Storm, he led the team for assists with 51 and ranked second for points with 62.
Richard was selected by the Lightning in the third round, 71st overall, at the 2012 NHL Draft.
Lightning come up off the canvas swinging.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 2-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals in garbage time on a total of 38 shots for the victory. He was really good the first 40 minutes of the game and goodness knows he deserved the goal support that finally came for him tonight. That said, he may have opened the door a crack for Bishop to come back in for Game Five in the Third Period if Bishop is healthy. Not to say Vasilevskiy played poorly, but Ben's an established big game goaltender and this Game Five will be a really big game.
0:27 TB Callahan(2), (Hedman, Brown)
14:28 TB Sustr(1), (Kucherov, Killorn)
14:38 TB Drouin(4), (Palat, Hedman)(PP)
17:48 TB Johnson(6), (Kucherov, Killorn)
1:18 PIT Kessel(8), (Bonino, Dumoulin)
11:13 PIT Malkin(4), (Cole)
13:08 PIT Kunitz(3), (Schultz, Sheary)(PP)
Well now, this game sort of rearranged the chess board, didn't it?
First off, the most obvious takeaway from the game is the difference in the Lightning's energy level. After sleepwalking through much of the last two games, they jumped out hard on the forecheck from the very first shift tonight to generate Callahan's tip in goal. Nobody's going to make excuses at this time of year, but going back to what I wrote in Game Three, I wouldn't be shocked if the flu bug hit the team harder than anyone let on for Game Two and Game Three and that's why they were lethargic like they were when the flu bug hit the team for Game Five of the Detroit series. It's probably naive to suggest that illness struck Callahan and Callahan alone, and given some days to recover and also the swift kick in the rear that was the embarrassment of Game Three, the Lightning definitely looked much more like themselves in this game. The Lightning eventually built the two goal advantage in the First Period with Nikita Kucherov coming off the milk carton he had been on to find Sustr jumping into the play for the goal.
In the Second Period, the Lightning got the all-important three goal cushion on a pretty stale looking power play when a broken play on a Drouin centering feed hit traffic and bounded back to him for a shot at an open side. Nikita Kucherov put the icing on the cake on an odd man rush where he danced, dished, and then dangled before finding Johnson on a sharp centering pass for the goal. The Lightning allowed the Penguins to make a game of it in garbage time with an iffy goal for Vasilevskiy to allow off the rush early in the period, some poor defending against the rush on the Malkin goal, and then the Penguins finally breaking through on the power play to get a rebound goal. That was scary with a little under seven minutes to go, but the Lightning defended pretty well down the stretch of the game to get it over the finish line. If anything, there may be some silver linings in that because I think I'd rather the team not get comfortable with a laugher and get lulled into a flat start next time out. Pittsburgh's dangerous and Game Five the Lightning are going to be going into a hornet's nest in Pittsburgh. They've got to take their energy level from this game and crank it up two more degrees still if they want to capture that all important 3-2 series lead and have a chance to close on home ice in Game Six.
As an aside, Pittsburgh's late game push was aided by what overall was one of the poorest officiated games I think you'll ever see at this late stage of a season. Dismissing all of the blatant holding and stick infractions Pittsburgh got away with in close quarters in the Third Period (and they always get away with to a degree at all times), there were two really atrocious misses in broad daylight that thankfully didn't turn the game but very well could have. The first was a missed high stick that cut Hedman under the neck by Eric Fehr on a play at the Pens blueline while Tampa Bay was on the power play where Drouin eventually scored. Hedman went down like a ton of bricks and Fehr got a breakaway out of the deal. Mercifully, Drouin had a good backcheck and Vasilevskiy made the big save, but this could've been a very different game at 2-1 if Fehr scores there when it should've been a full 5-on-3 advantage for the Lightning instead. Then, early in the Third Period, you had Letang tackle Kucherov in the corner with the free hand and then hold him in a headlock in the corner for 5 seconds thereafter with no call, which sent the message to the Pens that nothing was going to be called on them in the frame. In both cases, these were out in the wide open with nothing to obscure them. Stevie Wonder would've raised in arm on those plays they were so obvious. But, uncalled, they nearly tilted the game and the series toward Pittsburgh. It's inexcusable to me that in a conference final referees miss two calls like that. There needs to be discipline handed down to the referees for that, especially after the uncalled can opener on Johnson that preceded Crosby's OT winner in Game Two. I'm not even calling it biased so much as it is outright rancid officiating all around at this point. It's just really, really bad. These guys have not cloaked themselves in glory either way in this series.
Now Game Five becomes really intriguing because you have three interesting story lines lurking just beneath the surface. First, the Second Period saw Trevor Daley seemingly twist an ankle or knee on a hit by Ryan Callahan in the Penguins zone. Daley couldn't get back up on his feet on the play and had to be helped off the rink not to return. That's a huge loss for the Pittsburgh defense if he can't go in Game Five or beyond. Pittsburgh's defense is not that deep and they have some weak links they're already covering up for. Losing Daley's minutes throws a little injury adversity their way and we might get to see how they handle the bitter stew the Lightning have been choking down the last two months. In net, M.A. Fleury had a clean sheet in the Third Period after replacing young Matt Murray after 40 minutes. I didn't think Murray played poorly, but Sullivan's got an interesting conundrum here with the choice between a 21 year old goaltender who doesn't have the deep wellspring of experience or a guy like Fleury who has won a Cup heading into a pivotal Game Five matchup. For the record, Fleury has never terrified me and I don't think either one is that superior to the other, but it puts another interesting element into the mix. And then there's the question of Ben Bishop's health and whether you take out Andrei Vasilevskiy after he's really played well in this series to date. Cooper's dilemma is similar to Sullivan's, if Bishop's healthy and all things are even. Vasilevskiy's done nothing to diminish his stock, but Ben Bishop proved he was a big game goaltender in the playoffs last year and has that Game Seven win at MSG to point to that's the gold standard for winning in a hostile environment when the chips are down. What would I do? It's tough, but I think Vasilevskiy giving up that Kessel goal and another rebound control (rebound control being his one area needing improvement in these last 3+ game) issue on the Kunitz goal and a few other juggling plays, I might go back with Bishop. Also, Bishop helps add a wrinkle of disruption to Pittsburgh's forecheck with his puck handling ability too.
Point being to all of that: neither team may look and play quite the same in this little 3 game mini-series coming up to decide it all as they did in this 4 game compulsory set. It's going to be a fascinating little chess match that unfolds, and it really gets shaken up if Steven Stamkos comes available, too.
Slater Koekkoek was -2 with 1 blocked shot in 8:13 of ice time. Defending against the rush was a bit of an issue and he backed up a little bit more than maybe he should have, particularly on the Malkin goal. Mind you, he was picked a bit. It certainly wasn't all his fault, but he was in the mix for the awarding of the goat horns there. With that said, his athleticism has been needed given Matt Carle continues to look a gear or two too slow, particularly against this opponent. And, goodness knows I'm not keen on seeing Nesterov out there with his matador's cape against the likes of Crosby and Malkin, either.
TAMPA BAY – The Tampa Bay Lightning have signed forward Anthony Cirelli to a three-year, entry-level contract, vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman announced today.
Cirelli, 18, played in 62 games with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League this season, recording 21 goals and 59 points to go along with 27 penalty minutes. He ranked first on the team for assists (38) and points. The Woodbridge, Ontario native also led all Oshawa skaters for power-play goals (10) and power-play points (16). Cirelli made his pro debut with the Syracuse Crunch on April 15, 2016 in a match-up against the Utica Comets.
The 6-foot, 171-pound forward has skated in 130 career OHL games over two seasons with the Generals, registering 34 goals and 95 points to go along with 49 penalty minutes. During his rookie campaign in 2014-15, Cirelli led all Oshawa rookies for points, also ranking ninth in the OHL in that category.
Cirelli was selected by the Lightning in the third round, 75th overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Not mentioned in the Lightning's release is the face Cirelli was named captain of the Gens after the trade deadline this year. The Gens were in a rebuilding year after winning the Memorial Cup last spring on Cirelli's double overtime goal. He's a do-it-all player who has a high level of will and grit to battle along the boards or in front of the net, where he scored the Cup-winning goal. As with Vlad Namestnikov at this age, Cirelli has a lot of weight and bulk to add to his frame, but he has the makings of a versatile NHL forward one day who can excel in the faceoff circle.
He played fourth line with the Gens early in the championship year and worked his way up to Line 3 and eventually some scoring line time. He was a first-liner from the get-go last season and will be a focal point of Oshawa next year when he returns to the OHL.
Cirelli's journey to the NHL will likely include at least a couple years with Syracuse, but his versatility could get him there sooner than expected. Being prepared physically for the day-to-day grind of pro hockey will be a determining factor, but there's plenty of time for that.
Cirelli didn't have to be signed this spring as the Lightning had until next June to ink him to a contract. It was a nice gesture of confidence by Tampa Bay to do so now, and they could make a similar gesture to Mathieu Joseph of Saint John of the QMJHL, who had a similar breakout season to Cirelli. Another prospect signing to watch out for is Boko Imama, also of Saint John, who is eligible to play in the AHL next year. Imama could also come to camp without a contract and if the Lightning see fit, could send him back to the Q as an overager to continue his development. He could fulfill the David Broll-role with the Crunch next year, however.
Lightning out-everythinged in embarrassing loss.
Eastern Conference Finals
Pittsburgh Leads the Series 2-1
Andrei Vasilevskiy stood on his head despite allowing 4 goals on a staggering 48 shots faced for the loss. He actually held the Lightning in this game for a good 25-35 minutes longer than they should have been. At this point, I'd expect Bishop to be back Friday for nothing other than the emotional change up to try and wake up a flat team, but Vasilevskiy's done nothing but play well in these three games. If he had any kind of support in front of him... well, you know.
19:50 PIT Hagelin(5), (Kessel)
5:16 PIT Kessel(7), (Bonino, Hagelin)
5:30 TB Johnson(5), (Kucherov, Palat)
10:50 PIT Crosby(5), (Malkin, Schultz)(PP)
13:12 PIT Kunitz(2), (unassisted)
18:16 TB Palat(4), (Kucherov, Carle)
Unless someone tells me that the flu that Ryan Callahan had for Game Two is ripping through the team like an epidemic, there's no earthly excuse for the flatness and sloppiness of the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight. They came out well for the first ten minutes of the game, but they pretty much dominated the rest of the game and only Vasilevskiy kept the game from being over early in the Second Period. The Lightning were guilty of playing a weak, inassertive game. There were too many soft passes and clears. Too much hoping and wishing. Not enough of guys trying to take the moment by the throat and make things happen. At some point, you have to prove you want it more than Pittsburgh, and I haven't seen any indication that they do the past couple of games. I mean, gosh, if you fall in a 3 goal hole in the Third Period at least start a little line brawl and send a message that Game Four's going to be a different story. Show everybody you've got some pride and you care. We got none of that from the team tonight as they went out with a meek whimper.
So, it's soul-searching time. There's plenty of things tactically to clean up like the team's breakouts and erasing some of the turnovers and coverage errors, but first has to come effort. They've allowed a 21 year old netminder, Murray, a free pass the last couple of games. They've allowed a pretty soft Penguins defense a free pass the last couple of games. That's got to stop immediately in Game Four. A 3-1 series deficit heading back to Pittsburgh would feel like a death sentence. So, the first thing that has to happen Friday is the Lightning need to make a total commitment to staying alive.
Lightning can't pull off another smash and grab.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 1-1
Andrei Vasilevskiy sparkled, allowing 3 goals on 41 shots for the tough luck OT loss. Pittsburgh threw the kitchen sink at Tampa Bay in the First Period and although Vasilevskiy did allow the 2 goals, he stopped several other Grade A chances to keep Tampa Bay hanging around in the game until the cavalry arrived. Unfortunately, he just didn't have enough support in the form of possession tonight and eventually the game was lost on a 2-on-1 early in OT. I think Tampa Bay goes back to Bishop in Game Three if he's healthy enough to go, but Andrei did nothing to hurt his stock in these two games in Pittsburgh and the Lightning should feel completely comfortable if he has to go again in Game Three. It really is the mark of the good ones that if they give up a couple of goals in the First Period they resolve to close the door the rest of the way, and that's largely what Vasilevskiy accomplished tonight.
4:32 PIT Cullen(4), (Fehr, Kuhnhackl)
9:37 PIT Kessel(6), (Bonino, Haegelin)
16:37 TB Stralman(1), (Marchessault, Hedman)
19:10 TB Drouin(3), (Brown, Carle)
0:40 PIT Crosby(4), (Rust, Dumoulin)
Jonathan Drouin was the game's third star. I have no idea how Vasilevskiy got robbed of a star.
Frankly, Pittsburgh was desperate and wanted this game more and it showed. The Lightning did a really good job of clawing their way back into the game in the First Period after taking a big haymaker from Pittsburgh, aided partially by the semi-soft goal Murray allowed to Drouin late in the period, but all in all the Lightning forecheck just wasn't there consistently. They were second to pucks all night. They allowed Pittsburgh to get out of their zone cleanly too easily and generate rush opportunities. It just wasn't Lightning hockey. They were going for the old 90's Devils playbook of waiting for a counterattack goal, and they nearly got in with Killorn ringing the crossbar on a 2-on-1 late in the Third Period, but that's not their style. The Lightning simply fail when they try to play this rope-a-dope style. They're the only ones who end up looking like dopes.
The biggest bit of good news from the game was the return of Anton Stralman. He looked a little stiff and a little slow and was a central figure in allowing the odd man rush on the OT winner. But, it's to be expected he's not in game condition quite yet after missing nearly two months. That'll come with time.
Ryan Callahan missed the game with the flu, which is unfortunate because in a loss like this you'd have at least liked to have gotten more hits on that soft Penguins defense. As I said, they were allowed to stay too clean tonight, and the Lightning really need to take more of a chunk out of them in Game Three. As a side note, I certainly hope some of the lethargic play seen from the Lightning wasn't a symptom of the flu spreading through the team a la Game Five of the Detroit series. This is a heck of a time of the year for the locker room to get hit by a bug.
It's too bad the Lightning are particularly lousy at faceoffs, because that's one way you can get some cheap possession when the game's tilting against you like it was against them tonight. That's a lesson they should've learned in the series against Chicago last year when the Blackhawks manufactured a couple of wins early on off of goals generated from faceoffs when they were getting otherwise dominated in the run of play. I kept hoping maybe the Lightning could manufacture the smash and grab goal tonight off a faceoff, but it never materialized. It's a weakness in their game that's a detail thing they have to work out moving forward. I'm shocked it hasn't been addressed better to this point, frankly.
The referees in this game went from a very one-sided way of calling hooking infractions that favored the Pens in the First Period to pretty much not calling anything the second half of the game. Tyler Johnson was tackled exiting the zone on a play right before the eventual OT winner. I suppose I can't protest too much because both teams got away with it as the game wore on, but there were a couple of particularly egregious ones Pittsburgh got away with late in the Third Period and on that play in Overtime once they realized the refs had pocketed their whistles.
Game Three is obviously huge, and it's a moment where Jon Cooper needs to take the matchup advantage and his players need to take the faceoff rules advantage and use them to leverage gaining more of a possession edge and get the momentum of the series back. Suffice it to say I expect a more high energy effort next time out.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 blocked shot in 5:47 of ice time. A rookie d-man in a tie game in the Eastern Conference Finals simply isn't getting a ton of ice time. With that said, my goodness, when he got a shift in the Third Period he showed no fear of going for it. He was in on the forecheck like a winger trying to make it happen.
Somehow. Some way.
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 1-0
Ben Bishop stopped all 9 shots he faced before leaving the game on a stretcher from a freak injury where he landed awkwardly on his own left leg. I'm going to guess it's a high ankle or knee sprain, as x-rays have already ruled out a break. Either way, Bishop looked in anguish on the ice and it looks at this hour like his postseason may be done. Stepping into another moment of panic in his young career, like in the Stanley Cup Final last year, young Andrei Vasilevskiy again proved himself by stopping 25 of 26 shots the rest of the way for the victory. He looked fantastic under the circumstances, and you can see bits of his game he's picked up from Ben like smart stickwork around his crease. Athletically he's capable of giving the Lightning a chance to still advance, but losing Bishop clearly nullifies the biggest advantage the Lightning had coming into this Eastern Conference Finals. Bishop was, on paper, the best and most experience netminder still standing among the NHL's final four teams. Vasilevskiy isn't drastically less experienced than Murray, so it's not like Pittsburgh gets a dramatic goaltending advantage like Montreal got when Bishop got hurt late in the regular season 3 years ago. But, it's a blow to the team's hopes, for sure. There's no sugar coating that.
18:46 TB Killorn(4), (Hedman)
2:33 TB Palat(3), (Filppula, Garrison)(PP)
18:25 TB Drouin(2), (Palat, Filppula)
19:05 PIT Hornqvist(6), (Crosby, Kessel)(PP)
Wow. I confess to being a little speechless. I have no idea how the Lightning survived a First Period that we may well refer to from here on out as "The Period From Hell," much less how they got out of it with a 1-0 lead. Even before Bishop's injury, Ryan Callahan took a 5 minute boarding major that will likely lead to a 1 game suspension. The Lightning somehow managed to kill that off against the best power play unit in this playoff year thus far. The Lightning lost all their early 5v5 momentum after that kill and looked on the ropes at times before Bishop got injured. Somehow, some way, the Lightning managed to reset their composure in the 10-15 minutes it took to stretcher their MVP off the ice, and they started to play an efficient, opportunistic game. A Hedman stretch pass found Killorn at the Pens blueline and he worked his way into a breakaway where he sweetly stashed a backhand deke under Murray to make it 1-0. But "The Period From Hell" wasn't done with the Lightning yet, as Chris Kunitz hit Tyler Johnson knee to knee very late in the period leading Johnson to leave the ice until deep into the Second Period. Thankfully he returned and didn't look too limited after coming back.
So, you had a team head into the locker room that could've gone into shock, but they instead dedicated to put their noses to the grindstone and see what they could work out of the game. They got an early power play and with some good work by Killorn and resulting puck movement, Filppula made a nice play with a shot-for-rebound that found Palat for the goal that put the team up 2-0. Later in the period, Palat teed up Drouin on a 2-on-1 and the Lightning put themselves in position for a nearly perfect road win at 3-0, especially under the circumstances. Unfortunately, they put themselves in some jeopardy by allowing a power play goal late in the period that gave the Pens a chance to make a Third Period push. They're lucky that didn't come back to bite them, as Pittsburgh outshot the Lightning 16-5 in the final frame, forcing young Vasilevskiy to make some big stops. But, they ultimately did enough to get it done.
Tampa Bay came to Pittsburgh with the mission of getting at least one of the first two games on the road. Mission accomplished. Now they are playing with house money heading into Game Two. They can play free and fast and see if they can steal another one out from under Pittsburgh before the scene shifts back to Tampa Bay. Once back in Tampa, if not sooner, I'd expect to see Anton Stralman, and eventually I'd expect to see Steven Stamkos back late in this series. The urgency for them to return only goes up now with Bishop's injury. If the Lightning can get at least Stralman back and continue to play a structured game in front of Vasilevskiy, they've still got a decent shot of advancing, even with the Bishop injury. Certainly there's 26 other teams in the league that wish they were in the Lightning's shoes at the moment, so there's no time for hand wringing for pity parties. This team's story is still to be written and it still can have a happy ending.
On a tangent, with Callahan getting a 5 minute major for boarding Letang in the First Period and Palat getting a 2 minute minor for board Dumoulin late in the game, one of the Lightning's big strategic goals became obvious. Certainly no one's advocating dirty hockey, but the Lightning's agenda clearly seems to include testing a fairly soft Penguins defense physically. And, quite frankly, I don't think the Penguins passed that test all that well tonight. I think they showed they're not comfortable taking hits along the wall and they can be intimidated a little. Callahan's impending suspension shouldn't diminish that strategy, in my opinion. With the Lightning taking home ice away with the win tonight, they've put themselves in a position to, at a minimum, make this a very long series. If so, the cumulative effect of a constant pounding on the Penguins' D is going to yield dividends, and could be the difference between winning or losing this series.
Welcome back J.T. Brown. We missed you.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 shot, 1 hit, and 1 blocked shot in 9:31. When Stralman does return, there's no way Koekkoek should sit for Nikita Nesterov. No way. Koekkoek has clearly passed Nesterov on the depth chart, in my mind, and he seems to get a little steadier and a little more confidence with each shift.
Halfway to the mountaintop...
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-1
Ben Bishop stopped all 28 shots he faced for the shutout and the issuance of even more U of Maine Justice in a closeout game. He had 1-2 timely saves early in the game and one big time larceny on Boychuk to preserve his SO, but otherwise it was an afternoon of light work for Bish. His homework for the ECF: come out sharper for Game One, as he looked a little off in Game One of both the DET and NYI series, and the Lightning can't afford to spot any opponent a game here on out.
13:49 TB Hedman(3), (unassisted)
18:41 TB Boyle(3), (Carle, Paquette)
4:22 TB Hedman(4), (Drouin, Johnson)(PP)
4:40 TB Kucherov(9), (Killorn)
The Lightning took the Islanders' heart in OT wins in Game Three and Game Four and today they did a clinical job of taking their playoff lives. Sensing the advantage, the Lightning finally played an excellent First Period for the first time in the series to build the 2-0 lead. In the Second Period, they leveraged the power play to get the all important 3 goal advantage after 40 minutes. And, just to discourage the Isles from any thought of a comeback, Kucherov bagged the breakaway early in the Third Period to allow the Lightning to cruise to the Eastern Conference Finals.
For the first time ever, the Lightning are in the NHL's final four teams in back to back years. In other words, today they officially became elite.
Speaking of which... Victor Hedman's only roadblock to competing for Norris Trophies has been his inability to establish himself as a legit sniper from the point. In this series, he started to show the ability to find the range. If that continues and carries over into next season, he'll challenge the likes of Doughty and Karlsson and lay legit claim to being the league's best defenseman. And, he's learning how to lug the hefty minutes every game that those Norris-caliber defensemen often do for their teams, as well.
Now the Lightning get some crucial time off to rest as they await their next opponent. I'm not going to sugar coat this: the Lightning just cleared the JV side of the bracket in the Eastern Conference. The heavy lifting is definitely to come. However, you can only play the opponents on the schedule and the Lightning disposed of both of DET and NYI quickly, as a legitimate contender should have. It's a far cry from last season where the Lightning had already played 13 of a possible 14 games at this point of the playoff season.
Who do I root for between WAS and PIT on the other side of the bracket? An earthquake or other natural disaster. Frankly, I can't stand either one of them and the national hockey media will do their best to put the machine behind whichever one of Ovechkin or Crosby advances. Six/one half dozen. Either way the Lightning need to start getting Brown, Stralman, and Stamkos back if they're going to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, so protracted, bloody multi-overtime games between the Pens and Caps, and the extra time they would afford the Lightning, might be the best result of all.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 hit in 9:49. He's clearly supplanted Nesterov in the every day lineup for the team.
Luke Witkowski had 1 hit in 4:17.
Smash. And. Grab.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-1
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 28 shots for the victory. As with Game Three, Bishop made the key saves necessary for the Lightning to keep contact at 1 goal down and execute the perfect road smash and grab.
4:20 NYI Okposo(2), (Kulemin, Nielsen)(PP)
7:49 TB Kucherov(8), (Johnson)
1:34 TB Garrison(1), (Sustr, Palat)
Jason Garrison and Ben Bishop were the game's first and third stars.
The Lightning used guile and a dash of luck to get away with an extremely flat performance tonight and take a stranglehold advantage in the series. After a good initial push in the First Period the Islanders received a power play on a questionable exchange in a goalmouth scrum, and once Okposo scored on the ensuing power play the Islanders carried the bulk of the play thereafter. Mind you, the Isles didn't generate a ton of chances with their possession advantage, but they made it very difficult for the Lightning to break out of their own end and they were very stingy with the scoring chances. However, when the Isles had a chance to put the game away, such as their First Period 4 minute power play or Tavares and Okposo's 2-on-1 chance, they couldn't build the 2 goal advantage. When you allow a team as skilled as Tampa Bay to maintain contact on the scoreboard, you invite the smash and grab. Kucherov only needed a sliver of daylight to tie the game in the Third Period, and once they got it to the end of regulation tied, they simply believed they were going to win it. It was obvious, and they blew the Isles off the ice early in OT with a masterful shift punctuated by Garrison's point bomb for the winner.
Garrison played a great rebound game after looking like the dog's breakfast in Game Three. Perhaps the bizarre domino effect of Carle's minutes coming back into the lineup.
Isles fans are going to complain about the missed high sticking call on Garrison late in the Third Period. Rightfully so. But, then again, the refs completely changed the momentum of the game early on when Bishop got cross checked in the back of the head at the bottom of a scrum and only Blunden got a call in the resulting melee. Cooper's complaint about soft starts by the Lightning are valid, but I'd also point out I'm a little sick of seeing the momentum shift early in games because of ticky tack or uneven officiating. So, Isles fans can whine all they want, but they've been the beneficiary of poor officiating quite often in this series, too.
Sunday afternoon, the Lightning need to finish this. There's a chance Pittsburgh may close out the other side of the bracket early, and you don't want to put the team at any disadvantage in terms of energy or additional injuries. I expect (hope) the Lightning have learned a lesson and blow the Isles off the rink in the First Period and discourage the Islanders from hanging around any longer.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 shot in 10:17.
Luke Witkowski was +1 in 2:14 of ice time. He extended a clear invitation to any Isles player who wanted to dance. None wanted to take him up on it.
Hit me with your best shot...
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 2-1
Ben Bishop allowed 4 goals on 39 shots for the win. He was the victim of some very sloppy play by his defense tonight, and while his stat line is not impressive on its face, it included about a half dozen ten bell saves in key moments of the game that allowed the Lightning to maintain contact and eventually steal the win.
7:55 NYI Bailey(1), (Kulemin, Hamonic)
19:47 TB Callahan(1), (Killorn, Filppula)(PP)
8:10 TB Hedman(2), (Johnson)
14:50 NYI Leddy(1), (Clutterbuck, Cizikas)
2:27 NYI Bailey(2), (Hickey, Prince)(PP)
3:25 TB Namestnikov(1), (Filppula, Killorn)
11:23 NYI Clutterbuck(2), (Cizikas)
19:21 TB Kucherov(7), (Drouin, Hedman)
2:48 TB Boyle(2), (Hedman, Callahan)
The Islanders made it pretty clear going into this game they were determined to transform this series into a street fight rather than a hockey exhibition. After being dominated for much of the last 90 minutes of hockey in Game One and Game Two in Tampa Bay, the Islanders were busy splicing up hype videos glorifying Erik Condra's concussion (classy) and trying to start scrums in pregame warmups (Hamonic running into Boyle). There was no equivocating about the night's agenda: the Islanders were going to try to pound the skill out of the Lightning. And, to be honest, they nearly succeeded. In the First Period, Jonathan Drouin made an ill advised attempt to cut to the center of the ice that led to a bone-jarring hit by Hickey that put Jonathan Drouin into the quiet room until deep into the Third Period. With Drouin out and the Lightning playing a skeleton crew of 10 forwards and about 4.5 NHL caliber defensemen, the Isles fourth line waged a night-long campaign to pummel the Lightning into turnovers and mistakes. Back and forth they fought, with the Lightning amazingly answering Bailey's second goal of the night with a Namestnikov equalizer on the very next shift in the Third Period. But, eventually it all took a toll that put the team into a 4-3 hole midway through the Third Period after Jason Garrison (who had an awful case of the yips all game long) threw away a puck off of Cizikas' skate on what became a perfect centering feed to Cal Clutterbuck for what appeared to be the winning goal.
And then, out of the locker room, young Jonathan Drouin strode forth like a boss... the stuff of legend.
With the extra attacker pulled and under one minute to play, Drouin (who also absorbed a pretty nasty high stick that drew blood from his nose after returning midway through the Third Period) swooped down the left wing boards probing for a sliver of a crease through the Islander defense. Then, at the moment of truth, he found Nikita Kucherov (the finisher of #ThatLine) dead center of the slot. Bang. Bang. In the blink of an eye the Islanders' perfectly laid plans were obliterated by a player who they thought they had buried less than two periods earlier. And, the indignity was just beginning...
Recall that revenge is a dish best served cold (an old Klingon proverb, as the late great Ricardo Montalban would remind us).
Early in overtime, Brian Boyle crushed Thomas Hickey at the Isles blueline, forcing a turnover that eventually led to a 3-on-2 rush. The puck found the trailer, Victor Hedman, who in Hedman-esque fashion missed the net. The bounce found Boyle at the side of an open cage. Kisses to Travis Hamonic. Drive home safely, everybody. Lightning lead the series 2-1.
Was it artful? No. The Lightning's puck management was terrible in this game, and for a wide swath of the Third Period it looked like the Islanders' plan to pull the Lightning's collective punk card was going to work. But both the Lightning and Jonathan Drouin ultimately proved tonight that if you take a shot at them, you best not miss. And, you'd better be sure you kill them, or they're fully capable of rising back up and taking you out. That's the resilience of a team that, over the last calendar year, has been in a lot tougher spots and faced a lot deeper adversity than what they faced in that SUV showroom in Brooklyn tonight.
Now the series rolls onto Game Four, where a fragile young Islanders team that isn't overly skilled to begin with will have to manufacture a win to stay viable in the series. They just gave the Lightning their best shot and were less than a minute from victory before getting absolutely humiliated by the two tormentors (Drouin and Boyle) they probably least expected and least wanted to have the satisfaction. The Lightning, on the other hand, have already accomplished their mission in Brooklyn. They've wrestled home ice back from the Islanders and they move into Game Four playing with a heaping stack of the house's chips. Advantage: Lightning. They have a golden opportunity to apply the right pressure to end this series quickly while Stralman, Brown, and Stamkos continue to get healthier by the day and the Caps and Penguins continue to kill each other in protracted, bloody warfare on the other side of the Eastern Conference bracket. For a Lightning team that pretty much did everything the hard way in last year's postseason en route to a painful loss in six games in the Stanley Cup Final, this is a chance to set all their ducks in a row in nearly perfect fashion and give themselves the best possible strategic chance to win it all this year.
Matt Taormina played 2:43. He got 4 shifts all game. I'm not sure he got one after a glorious turnover that nearly ended up in the back of his own net. I'd expect to see him out of the lineup in Game Four.
Slater Koekkoek was +1 with 2 penalty minutes, 3 shots, and 1 blocked shot in 11:35. With Taormina and Nesterov hardly cloaking themselves in glory tonight, the coaching staff gave Koekkoek a little extra responsibility. And, with the exception of one really awful turnover in the Third Period on a failed breakout pass, he handled it pretty well, including some penalty kill time. Perhaps a silver lining of Stralman breaking his leg and Carle getting nicked up will be that Koekkoek plays enough to get a higher level of comfort from the coaching staff to feed him some minutes. Athletically, he's far better equipped to handle it than a lot of the other options available.