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.
Lightning begin to establish their dominance.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Series Tied 1-1
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 20 shots for the victory. He didn't face a lot of good chances, but he made the key situational saves as he rebounded from that fragrant performance in Game One. It's not at all surprising he played well in a rebound game.
6:03 TB Johnson(3), (Palat, Hedman)
11:55 TB Drouin(1), (Filppula)
15:15 NYI Kulemin(1), (Hickey, Quine)(PP)
11:59 TB Hedman(1), (Johnson, Drouin)(PP)
17:42 TB Johnson(4), (Garrison)(EN)
Game One begged the question of what this series will look like once Bishop and the Lightning tighten up their game, and Game Two answered that question: pure dominance. The young Islanders, probably lacking the playoff experience to see the gathering dark clouds, ultimately had no clue what was about to hit them. The Lightning forechecked them like crazy, with speed that just tormented the Islanders D all game long as they gave away turnovers and lost 50/50 pucks en masse. The only thing that saved the Islanders from complete humiliation was the Lightning becoming the victim of some ticky tack calls in the First and Second Periods that yielded the Islanders' only goal on the Kulemin deflection of Hockey's point shot. Other than that, the Islanders barely got a sniff all game long and that's amazing considering that, with Matt Carle out, the Lightning were down to about 4-1/2 NHL caliber defensemen. That didn't matter, though, with the Lightning in the Isles end all game long.
On a tangential note: if you want to see what this series probably boils down to, go ahead and split screen how the Isles played protecting a multi-goal lead in Game One (turtle shelling) and how the Lightning played protecting a multi-goal lead in Game Two (pushing like crazy for the 3 goal advantage). One of these teams knows how to win in the playoffs and the other hasn't been in these situations. School's in session.
Oh, and Greiss is mortal. Drouin's goal was pretty soft, and I think we're about to see a reversion to the mean for Greiss. That's to say, I think he's a competent goalie, but if the Isles are expecting him to steal multiple wins to wrestle this series away from Bishop and the Lightning, that's probably a bridge too far for him to cross.
Now the series moves on to Brooklyn where the Lightning just need to get 1 of 2 games to get home ice and control of the series back. At this hour, given how dominant the Lightning have looked over the past about 90 minutes of hockey, that seems like a low bar to clear.
Matt Taormina was +1 in 5:31 of ice time.
Slater Koekkoek was +1 with 1 shot in 6:47 of ice time. He nearly got the kill shot goal in the Third Period, but overall he and Taormina simply weren't going to see the ice much in this game unless the Lightning really, really had broken it open.
"Try hard" Lightning back into the playoffs.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 28 shots for the loss. His soft goal on Stepan's second on a slapper off the board was the margin, as soft goals often are.
2:42 TB Sustr(4), (Namestnikov, Marchessault)
6:07 TB Boyle(13), (Palat, Johnson)(PP)
16:55 NYR Stepan(21), (Zuccarello, Yandle)(PP)
2:33 NYR Stepan(22), (Zuccarello, Klein)
4:46 NYR Kreider(21), (M. Staal, Stepan)
Ondrej Palat was the game's third star.
The Lightning had more than enough opportunities to win this game. They jumped out to the 2-0 lead and had plenty of chances to push it to a 3 goal margin with a bushel of power play opportunities including a 5-minute major. Ultimately, the Lightning just could not crack Lundqvist to put the kill shot on the Rangers and they invited the comeback given how shorthanded Tampa Bay was tonight. On top of the regular season-ending injuries to Stralman and Stamkos they also had Hedman and Callahan out of the lineup tonight. If you're a glass half full person, you can point to the fact the Lightning manufactured 41 shots tonight with that lineup. They tried hard, and with a little better goaltending they might've stolen a point out of the night. And, yes, they probably figured out some things about how to play without some of their big guns, which will have some value moving forward. But, in the end, there just aren't any moral victories at this time of year.
Fortunately, with the Bruins losing in the SO to Carolina, the Lightning backed into a playoff spot. That's notable given that the team missed the 96 point target at the 80 game market. In another season, they might be in real trouble right now. However, with how uneven the East is this year, they can actually clinch home ice in the first round with 1 more point. They'll need it. The "try hard" Lightning are better at home, where their power play is considerably less rancid than it is on the road.
Nikita Nesterov may want to join the witness protection program after that shift on the game winning goal. That's all I'll say about that.
Slater Koekkoek had 2 shots, 2 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 12:08. He wasn't perfect, but I thought he played reasonably well in a tight game against a quality opponent in a big market on the road. With efforts like that, I'd like to believe he'll earn some more game time to develop. I also thought he kind of surprised the Rangers a bit with the quality of his point shot in the game. He produced some rebounds with it tonight.
Lightning dying on the vine after Stralman injury.
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 23 shots for the loss. A lesser goaltender gives up 4 goals with the amount of turnovers and poor gap control the Lightning defense had tonight.
9:11 MTL Desharnais(10), (Andrighetto, Emelin)
0:52 MTL Mitchell(10), (Pateryn, Emelin)
17:32 MTL Danauly(4), (Mitchell)(EN)
Steven Stamkos was the game's third star.
The Lightning just look like a hot mess without their top four defensemen in tact. It was that way when Garrison was hurt recently, and it's even worse at the moment without Stralman. The new pairings look disjointed and the team is having to play certain players bigger minutes that simply cannot handle it. Matt Carle should to be playing over 23 minutes a night in the NHL anymore like he did tonight. And, tonight, it became glaringly obvious that Stralman is the glue that holds the Lightning together in terms of gap control. He was the one Lightning defender who routinely stepped up at his blueline. Tonight, you had the Lightning retreating off their own blueline all the way down to the top of the circles, which resulted in the early goal by Mitchell in the Second Period that was tonight's soul-crushing gut punch.
With Florida winning tonight, the Lightning fall out of first place in the Atlantic Division. With 3 games left in the 10-game segment of the season, they still need at least 3 points, although the SunSports team pointed out their "virtual" magic number is 4. Either way, this team would have a hard time not at least backing into the playoffs. The issue for the last 5 games of the regular season, though, is figuring out pairings and a minute rotation on defense that actually looks cohesive and doesn't play like a train wreck destined to get bounced out in the first round. Three games into life without Stralman, they clearly haven't found that formula yet, and time is running out.
Slater Koekkoek was -1 with 3 shots in 14:27. He surrendered at least 2 Grade A chances that Bishop had to bail him out on with turnovers and poor positioning. It'll be a learning process with Slater, but I don't see another defenseman on the roster who, athletically, can grow into bigger minutes the way that Slater can unless the finally make the decision to give Hedman every other shift.
Shorthanded Lightning can't overcome the odds.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 4 goals on 26 shots for the loss. I'm not mad about the Jagr and Huberdeau goals and the Hudler goal was just crummy puck luck, but he was horribly off his angle on the Trocheck goal. He can't allow that goal in that spot given the pretext in this game. The Lightning had to get out of the First Period with a lead feeling good about themselves, and that softie was soul-destroying.
5:52 TB Johnson(14), (Nesterov, Palat)(PP)
13:36 FLA Trocheck(25), (Jokinen)
18:02 FLA Jagr(25), (Barkov, Huberdeau)(PP)
15:53 FLA Hudler(15), (Petrovic, Bjugstad)
4:02 FLA Huberdeau(15), (Barkov, Jagr)
16:48 TB Stamkos(36), (Boyle, Nesterov)(PP)
19:35 FLA Jokinen(17), (unassisted)(SH)(EN)
It was just a tough spot for the Lightning to come into. Not only did they lose Stralman to the broken leg last night, but Kucherov also sat out today after getting nicked blocking a shot last night. There's one of your two best defensemen and one of your two most dynamic offensive players out going into a high stakes game against a rested game where the Lightning were on the back-to-back. Then, you throw on top of that the Lightning playing their youthful backup who, unfortunately, gives up a pretty soft goal after a fantastic start by the team. No chance. It was all down hill from there, and when the Panthers got the puck luck with the double deflection on the Hudler goal, it was pretty clear it was not to be Tampa Bay's night. Throw on top of that some... creative... officiating, and you have about three hours every Lightning fans wishes they could get back in their lives.
Slater Koekkoek was -1 in 5:57. I don't get the sparing way he's been used in his last two recalls. There's pretty much no point to having him with the big club if he's only going to get 10 shifts in a game like he did tonight. It doesn't benefit the player or the team.
Jonathan Marchessault was -2 with 2 shots in 16:01. I thought he had another strong game tonight, but his line struggled to get the payoff against Luongo. The game marks Marchessault's graduation from prospect status on the website, meaning he'll join Nesterov in the 2015-2016 Lightning class.
One bad shift costs the Lightning a signature win.
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 33 shots for the OT loss. He was excellent in the game, and it was a difficult game to be excellent in because it had long stretches of inactivity after which Bishop would have to make a Grade A save on a high quality chance. He deserved better than the finish.
0:10 BOS Marchand(34), (Bergeron, Krug)
Bishop was the game's second star.
Considering the setup to this game, with the clunker in Philly last night and Stralman missing the game, this was a strong, strong effort by the Lightning. They got everything but the result, which robs them of a richly deserved signature moment. This felt like a playoff game. "Playoff atmosphere" is an overused cliche in the regular season, but it would've actually been applied correctly tonight. Unfortunately, the Lightning just couldn't get anything past Gustavsson and one flat shift by the 4-man unit to start OT cost them, big time.
With 3 games left to play in this 10-game segment of the season, Tampa Bay needs just 1 more point to stay on minimum playoff pace. They also retain a lead in the Atlantic Division title chase based on the ROW tiebreaker and their game in hand on Boston.
There are just 15 games left to go in the regular season, and they'll be gone in the blink of an eye.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 shot in 11:05. Rookie defender in a 0-0 game all the way through regulation? He simply wasn't getting the ice time tonight under those circumstances.
Jonathan Marchessault had 1 shot in 12:02. He had 5 other attempts on goal, though, that were either missed or blocked. So he was active in limited IT.
All good things...
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 39 shots for the loss. It was an unfortunate result for Andrei, because he was the only reason the Lightning had any chance at all tonight. He played really well.
4:07 TB Palat(11), (Koekkoek, Johnson)
16:51 PHI Gostisbehere(13), (Raffl, Couturier)
7:21 PHI Gostsbehere(14), (Giroux, Streit)(PP)
13:57 PHI B. Schenn(22), (Giroux, Simmonds)
14:53 TB Namestnikov(11), (Johnson, Kucherov)
19:33 PHI Simmonds(24), (B. Schenn)(EN)
Vasilevskiy was the game's third star.
So ends the Lightning's franchise record 9-game winning streak. The Lightning got the goal early in the First Period and then played the role of spectator the rest of the night. They were flat, lifeless, and unfocused. They were second to loose pucks all night long, they were weak on their sticks, and their decision-making, positioning, and passing were remarkably poor. That's one of the worst games the Lightning have played in years, and would be easier to shrug off if, A.) They hadn't played poorly in their last game a stolen a win, and B.) They didn't have a good Boston team on a back-to-back tomorrow night. Just as concerning, as quickly and unexpectedly as Callahan and Killorn started playing well on Stamkos' line, that trio has gone back into the witness protection program again. Look, I love "The Triplets," but the Lightning will go as far as the vets like Stamkos and Callahan can take them, because they will have to give the Lightning the scoring balance they need to compete in the playoffs.
Get well soon Brayden Coburn and Andrej Sustr.
Slater Koekkoek had a helper, his first NHL point, and was +1 with 2 shots, 1 hit, and 2 blocked shots in 13:27.
Jonathan Marchessault had 1 shot and 2 hits in 9:12. If you blinked, you probably missed him tonight. He's 7 games from graduation from prospect status on the website.
Vengeance of the Blind Squirrel
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 39 shots for the victory.
9:08 TB Stralman(9), (Namestnikov, Marchessault)
11:20 TB Stamkos(24), (Killorn, Carle)
3:14 TB Carle(1), (unassisted)
5:35 PIT Kuhnhackl(1), (unassisted)(SH)
11:53 TB Johnson(9), (Palat, Marchessault)
16:01 PIT Wilson(2), (Rust, Letang)
Matt Carle was the game's first star! Yes, Matt Carle. I referred to the fable of the blind squirrel in the last game after Carle had a solid +2 night. Today, I can't dismiss Carle's game so easily. Mind you, it'll take a lot more games like that to justify Carle's salary, but you celebrate the good games Carle has on the rare occasions they come. In lesser news, Steven Stamkos was the game's second star and scored his 300th career NHL goal. Yawn.
Kudos to the Lightning for responding well to their near debacle against Winnipeg. They got the advantage today with the spot start of Pittsburgh's backup, and they jumped all over Zatkoff in the First Period and made sure they got the knockout early in the Second Period when they established the 3 goal advantage.
The win is gigantic. Tampa Bay jumped to 2nd in the Atlantic and opened a 3 point lead on the last team out of the Wild Card with the win. They also kept hope alive they might be able to run the table for the rest of this 10-game segment of the season and get back on track to make the playoffs comfortably.
Slater Koekkoek had 1 shot, 2 hits, and 1 blocked shot in 9:27.
Jonathan Marchessault had a pair of helpers and was +2 with 1 shot and 1 hit in 9:08. Someone's making the case to be a regular in the lineup and make Condra a semi-permanent scratch.