Nesterov, Nikita

NHL Playoff Game Night: 6-8-15 Lightning at Blackhawks

Blackhawks get their butts kicked by a one-legged goaltender.

Stanley Cup Final
Game Three

TB-3
CHI-2

Tampa Bay Leads the Series 2-1

Ben Bishop allowed just 2 goals on 38 shots in a gritty, brave, tough performance that will become the stuff of legend if the Lightning go on to win this series. His left side, whether its his knee, ankle, hip, whatever, is badly hurt. There were several times in this game he looked awkward moving right to left and where he was in obvious pain trying to get up from his stance. Playing a position that is simultaneously the most physically demanding, mentally demanding, and critically important in the sport, for him to turn in that performance was nothing short of amazing. Incredible. Vinik is commissioning an opera about that performance as we speak, and rightfully so. Did he have a hiccup with the Richards soft goal off his glove? Sure. But, did I mention he was playing on one leg?

First Period
5:09 TB Callahan (2), (Hedman, Brown)
14:22 CHI Richards (3), (Hossa, Shaw)(PP)

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
4:14 CHI Saad (7), (Hossa, Keith)
4:27 TB Palat (8), (Kucherov, Johnson)
16:49 TB Paquette (3), (Hedman, Callahan)

Cedric Paquette and Ben Bishop were the game's first and third stars. Paquette is authoring a legend of his own through three games of this series, outplaying a future Hall of Famer in Jonathan Toews thus far by not only helping to limit Toews defensively, but also scoring goals in the wins in Game Two and Game Three. When you add what he's done on the PK, blocking shots, winning faceoffs, and closing out games, he's become one of the biggest stories of this series. When you consider two years ago, coming out of junior, Paquette's skating was south of subpar, it's nothing short of incredible to see what he's doing right now. The hard work both he and the organization have put in to get him ready for this moment is paying off like a super jackpot lottery ticket.

I was utterly shocked by how flat Chicago looked to start this game as the Lightning had another flying start to this game. They absolutely deserved the first goal and they got it on a Callahan bomb from the right circle that Crawford waved at for another soft goal. Unfortunately, that goal woke Chicago up as they unleashed the next 16 straight shots en route to tying up the game on the power play with Richards' center point shot that glanced in off Bishop's glove. So, both teams traded soft goals, and we all settled in to another epic, heavyweight struggle. Things looked very dicey with the Lightning staggering after that goal, especially in light of the fact they utterly lucked out with Chicago blowing looks at two open nets in the process of their 16 shot surge.

In an incredible show of maturity, the Lightning came out of the First Intermission storming and took the game by the throat from the Second Period on. I thought they had the better of the run of play in the final 40 minutes, but they just couldn't get the go-ahead goal while every Lightning supporter wearily looked creaseward at Ben Bishop struggling mightily with his ailing left side. When the team blew a 5-on-3 opportunity in the Second Period after Bishop got run over by Brandon Saad on a shorthanded rush, the dread that perhaps this wasn't to be the Lightning's night started to set in.

That fear was amplified quickly in the Third Period after they scrambled for the first four minutes of the Third Period and eventually conceded a Brandon Saad one-timer from the slot to fall behind 2-1. At that moment, everyone in the hockey universe outside of the Lightning bench had to be thinking that the experienced, battle-tested Blackhawks were surely about to break the Lightning's backs. Thirteen seconds later, the Lightning quickly peeled themselves off the canvas and bloodied their elders' noses with an improbable greasy goal off the rush, jamming home a rebound off a bad angle Kucherov offering in front. In the blink of an eye despair was replaced by hope, and the Lightning team that was so shaky for the first four minutes of the Third Period found its equilibrium, and its swagger.

And then, the golden moment happened. Cedric Paquette won a defensive zone draw, which was wound around to Ryan Callahan, who sprung Victor Hedman to lead a 3-on-2 rush. Hedman swung left and wide in the offensive zone, and centered to Paquette for the one-time redirection for the winning goal. What a play by Hedman. What a 200 foot play by Dump Truck.

The Lightning have held a lead in the Third Period of every game in this series thus far. They've scored the first goal in every game of the series thus far. They've been the better team, and they could easily be sitting on a 3-0 series lead were it not for the late hiccup in Game One. The Stanley Cup seems theirs for the taking if they can find a way to overcome the Bishop injury. One way to do that might be to consider starting Andrei Vasilevskiy in Game Four, thereby allowing Bishop four days to rest before Game Five on Saturday. It's a difficult decision for Jon Cooper to have to make, but the calculus right now is that the Lightning have accomplished what they needed to in Chicago. They're playing with house money in Game Four, and might be in a spot where they can afford to gamble on young Vasilevskiy harnessing lightning in a bottle for one game. With a healthier Bishop in Game Five, whether the Lightning are up 3-1 or tied 2-2 in the series, holding home ice, they'd feel like the favorites to me. Tough decision to make, for sure, but it's the kind of decision a special coach like Jon Cooper tends to make correctly.

Nikita Nesterov had 1 blocked shot in 4:57. He surrendered a 2-on-1 on a missed keep at the point and didn't see the ice much again thereafter. Look, I'll say it again: as tight as these games are, there's no way Nesterov's seeing the ice much. That's especially true on the road with Chicago having the last change. It remains a fair question to ask why Nesterov gives the team more utility in the lineup than Drouin or Namestnikov.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 6-3-15 Blackhawks at Lightning

Prevent defense prevents Tampa Bay from winning Game One.

Stanley Cup Final
Game One

CHI-2
TB-1

Chicago Leads the Series 1-0

Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 21 shots for the loss. He was solid, but unspectacular. I can't fault him on either goal as he was screened by three bodies on the first goal and was the victim of a quick change turnover right into the slot on the second goal. With that said, he got outplayed by Crawford tonight in a game where one more big save was the difference between winning and losing.

First Period
4:31 TB Killorn (8), (Stralman, Filppula)

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
13:28 CHI Teravainen (3), (Keith, Shaw)
15:26 CHI Vermette (3), (Teravainen)

Alex Killorn was the game's third star.

The Lightning could very well be kicking themselves pretty hard at the end of this series for what transpired in the final 45 minutes of this hockey game, and especially that Third Period. They came out like a house of fire for the First Period and really had Chicago on their heels. I have no doubt that it was a clash of styles for the Blackhawks to go from a bigger, less fleet of foot Anaheim club in the Western Finals to the speed and aggressiveness of the Lightning, and Tampa Bay cashed on the beautiful tip in goal by Killorn. It was hard not to be proud of the way the Lightning handled themselves in the first 15 minutes, where they really came out to win rather than to throw roses at the feet of Chicago as triumphant conquerors the way some in the media, like Mike Milbury, evidently thought they would. They could've built an even larger lead, but Crawford quelled any uprisings by the Lightning the rest of the way.

From the last five minutes of the First Period on, though, Chicago slowly and steadily turned the momentum of the game, sans a few hiccups late in the Second Period, until the Lightning were in a completely passive defensive shell in the Third. The Lightning are not built to win games 1-0, nor would it be prudent to try to do so anyway because when you allow the other team possession so easily, greasy goals (like a screened goal) eventually follow. That was what happened on Teravainen's tying goal and then J.T. Brown was put in a tough spot to handle a hot pass by Hedman up the wall that he tipped into the slot to Vermette, who fired it home for the game winner. And that, folks, is how a prevent defense prevents you from winning.

I still would love to see what happened to Nikita Kucherov swinging around Crawford's net on the play just before Teravainen's tying goal in the Third Period, mind you. It sure did look like he got high sticked in broad daylight, and a call there might've been the lifeline the Lightning needed to get across the finish line. It was an... interesting... decision by NBC not to air a replay of what occurred.

Now the Lightning find themselves in a near must-win situation for Game Two. It's a really dangerous spot to be in. Tonight's effort wasn't bad. They defended well, and if you told me the Lightning would hold Chicago to 2 goals in this game I would've told you the Lightning probably won. But, they can't get off their possession game like they did the final 45 minutes of the contest. The scary thing is Chicago will be playing aggressive and loose knowing they're playing house money with a road win already in their back pocket, so the Lightning have to be ready for Chicago to push and they also have to remain disciplined and not get away from their defensive game despite having only scored 1 goal in Game One. It's going to be a challenging couple of days for Cooper and the coaching staff to get the Lightning into the right frame of mind after letting this one slip away.

Psychologically, the Lightning are in the tough position of needing to learn the lesson of the night for when they're protecting a lead in a tight game, but they simply cannot bring any regret or frustration to the rink the next day. What's done is done and there's a lot of hockey left to be played in this series. Any negativity or temptation to indulge in self pitying wishful thinking about what might have been will only keep them from focusing on what still needs to be done. Were I Coach Cooper, I'd start the next practice by telling everyone that anyone who is still pouting about what happened in Game One can stay in the locker room, because everybody needs to be on point to win Game Two.

Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 1 blocked shot in 6:23. Given the gravity of these games, and that most of them are pretty tight, Nesterov's just not going to get a ton of ice time. With that in mind, it's fair to ask if the Lightning might be better served dressing a 12th forward instead, although the coaching staff clearly doesn't trust any of their other options enough to give them meaningful ice time, either. This is a difficulty that should remedy itself with another year of seasoning for the likes of Drouin and Namestnikov, but that's cold comfort when you're playing for a championship this year.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-29-15 Lightning at Rangers

Mission Impossible = Mission Accomplished

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Seven

TB-2
NYR-0

Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-3

Ben Bishop looked sharp in light work stopping all 22 shots he faced for the shutout. He didn't face very many chances, but he was sharp on the ones that came at key moments of the game, particularly with the Rangers pushing after Tampa Bay went up 1-0 in the Third. In a spot where the New York media had preordained Lundqvist was going to roll over Bishop after Ben got a big number put up on him in Game Six, he doled out some U of Maine Justice and got the last laugh.

First Period
NO SCORING

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
1:54 TB Killorn (7), (Carle, Filppula)
11:17 TB Palat (7), (Johnson, Bishop)

Bishop and Alex Killorn were the game's first and second stars.

One game after being shelled for 7 goals on their home ice and with the entire hockey world writing their epitaph, the Lightning defied conventional wisdom and turned in the single greatest defensive effort in the history of the franchise. Coming into this game, the northern hockey media pounded an incessant drum beat for 2-1/2 days about how the Lightning simply had no chance. The Rangers held a 7-0 lifetime in Game Sevens at home. They had won 6 consecutive playoff Game Sevens, an NHL record. And, yes, Lundqvist was nearly unbeatable in Game Sevens, having won all 6 of those Game Sevens. How would the young Lightning, after getting embarrassed in Game Six, possibly rebound in the face of a mountain of ominous statistics? It was 2-1/2 days of an all out national media blitz which screamed, "The Lighting are DOOMED! DOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMED!"

From Jon Cooper (who was maligned by the likes of New Yorker Keith Olbermann as a "junior college coach" after Game Six) through Steven Stamkos, and down to the likes of Killorn, it seemed that every single member of the Lightning organization absorbed the hyperbolic shark jumping of the national media and chose to use it as a motivational lens to focus in on the task at hand and play about as close to perfect a defensive game as is humanly possible. The Lightning didn't just defend like demons in their defensive third like they did in Game Five, they contested every single inch of ice for the full 200 feet. It was a symphony of positioning, support, and pure hustle the likes of which have never been seen by players in Lightning jerseys, even in the 2004 Cup run. Combined with a forechecking/possession game that was far closer to their normal swarming effort of the regular season, this really was the complete game. Note: it wasn't just the Triplets or even the top two lines tonight, either. The checkers, oft maligned, were superb tonight. Ryan Callahan and J.T. Brown, in particular, were difference makers in all three zones and very threatening in the offensive zone. Were it not for some scintillating saves by Lundqvist, this could've easily a 4-0 or 5-0 win by the Lightning.

All in all, you have to be thoroughly impressed with it all. It really proves what I've always thought about this franchise: they play better the in the disrespected underdog role with a gigantic chip on their shoulder. In situations like this, they always play better than when they're too fat and happy on media plaudits or from the league banquet circuit. The Lightning are, and ever shall be, gate crashers in the NHL. Embrace it, bask in it, and use it as fuel, like they did tonight. I'm thoroughly impressed that a team this young could figure out how to strangle the life out of a grizzled, Presidents Trophy winning team in their barn under the harsh scrutiny of the biggest media market in the world and punch their ticket for the Stanley Cup Finals.

And, it's just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, Sinatra said if you can make it there... well, you know the rest. I said it after Game Six of the Montreal series, which was a gem in its own right, but were I Jon Cooper I'd tell this group, "Now that you've shown you can do it, especially on the defensive side of the ice, don't shortchange yourself and settle for anything less. You know how it's done and the sky is the limit. So go out and do it, now."

Now, I could use this moment to further expound on my thoughts about Rangers fans, the New York media, and Martin St. Louis, but nah. Success is the best revenge, so I'll take the high road instad. I would like to note, though, that the Lightning didn't get a power play the entire game, matching the Game Seven travesty in 2011 against Boston. The Rangers got 2 power plays in the Second Period with the game 0-0, one of which was a very soft "hooking" call on Morrow, showing the refs had no problem giving the Rangers some opportunities to score that all important first goal, whereas some obvious infractions like a high stick taken by Nikita Kucherov, went completely uncalled. So, as expected, and as has been the norm against the traditional, big market teams, there were times the Lightning had to play (and win) 5-on-7. And no, NHL, just because the Lightning won doesn't mean we forgive, or forget. And yes, NHL, you ought to be ashamed.

As a post script, Steven Stamkos treated the Prince of Wales Trophy like a piece of molten hot lava. That's good captaining. We'll pass the rest of the night away with NBCSN holding a wake for the New York Rangers rather than giving the just plaudits the Lightning deserve, and then see this weekend whether Chicago or Anaheim advances to the Finals. I will say this about both teams: after having gone through a very hot Petr Mrazek, the presumptive MVP in Carey Price, and a living legend like Henrik Lundqvist, neither of those teams have netminders that should intimidate the Lightning's snipers. And, if the Lightning start to play defensively on a plane closer to what they did tonight, consistently, then I really like their chances to go all the way.

Nikita Nesterov played just 3:10 tonight. Game Seven? 0-0 game most of the way? On the road with the Rangers holding the last change? Yeah, Nikita was there for moral support and water bottle filling only. Not surprising.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-26-14 Rangers at Lightning

Game Four redux, unfortunately.

Eastern Conference Finals
Game Six

NYR-7
TB-3

Series Tied 3-3

Ben Bishop allowed 5 goals on 26 shots for the loss before giving way to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who allowed 1 goal on 7 shots the rest of the way. Bishop never looked completely comfortable in this game, but I can't really fault him on any of the 5 goals he allowed. The Rangers' first two goals had distinct puck luck elements to them off of soft point shots that hit traffic in front. The remaining 3 goals in the Third Period resulted from a complete defensive meltdown by the Lightning in front of Bishop, as they neglected to even attempt to play that side of the game down 2-1 coming out of the Second Intermission.

First Period
3:36 NYR Brassard (7), (Miller, Boyle)
15:30 NYR Yandle (2), (Brassard, Nash)
17:20 TB Callahan (1), (Stralman, Bishop)(PP)

Second Period
NO SCORING

Third Period
3:02 NYR Miller (1), (Brassard, Nash)
6:00 NYR Sheppard (1), (Moore, Glass)
7:14 NYR Brassard (8), (Miller, Nash)
7:50 TB Kucherov (8), (Johnson)
10:21 NYR Nash (5), (Yandle, Miller)(PP)
13:21 TB Kucherov (9), (Johnson, Nesterov)
18:19 NYR Brassard (9), (unassisted)(EN)

I'm just at a loss to explain what's transpired in both Game Four and Game Six of this series. I honestly can't fault the effort of the team in both games. As with Game Four, the Lightning had the majority of possession, shots, and chances through the first 40-45 minutes. Perhaps they didn't have the same quality of chances tonight as they did in Game Four, but still, they didn't necessarily deserve to be down 2-1 heading into the Third Period either. The Rangers rode a bit of puck luck and good goaltending to the advantage heading into the final frame. There, as in Game Four, the Lightning just absolutely left any pretense of playing defense in the locker room and just got burned to death because of it. They were so impatient to fly the zone to seek the equalizing goals they just absolutely went brain dead with turnovers and poor defensive zone coverage. Maybe it's better that Game Seven is on the road, because the team seems to have a healthy fear of those types of mistakes playing in the other team's barn that doesn't exist when they play at home lately.

I'll say this also: it's pretty clear if the Lightning are to win Game Seven it'll be a 5-on-7 victory, because the officiating tilted against the Lightning pretty hard tonight. For a team that had so much more possession, zone time, and the greater quantity of chances, the Lightning only got 2 power plays in the first 2 periods of the game, and none in a Second Period that they dominated. That just seems improbable bordering on impossible, and it's even more frustrating when you consider the phantom hooking call Nikita Kucherov got in the Second Period and the obviously embellished hooking call on Morrow that also came in the Second Period. When you contrast that against the pretty nasty slash Nikita Kucherov took away from the puck by Staal in this game (no call) and the pivotal non-call on a trip of Tyler Johnson that occurred early in the Third Period (again, no call), well...

I'll let you draw your own conclusions about which way the officiating will tilt in Game Seven. If I had my guess, it'll be an anything-goes affair where the refs will just about completely pocket their whistles and the Lightning will need a mixture of the defensive discipline they got in Game Five in MSG and the stellar goaltending they got against Detroit in their previous Game Seven in this playoff run. That's entirely possible, despite the media's breathless rush to proclaim the Lightning DOA based on the Rangers' all-time home Game Seven record. But, it requires the Lightning to buckle down mentally again like they did for Game Five. Honestly, they just need to realize they're still in a great spot. If you offered any team in the league the opportunity to play in Game Seven of their conference finals at the start of the year, they'd have taken it gladly and thanked you for the opportunity. That's all the Lightning need to take to heart after tonight. 7-3 aren't the numbers that matter. 3-3 and the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals with a single victory are. Things are never as bad as they appear, and a change of fortune and redemption are just a game away.

Nikita Nesterov was +1 with 2 penalty minutes in 11:00 of ice time.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.

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