Tampa Bay Lightning
Name: Mitchell Stephens
Position: Center/Right Winger
Weight: 188 lbs.
Club: Saginaw (OHL)
Stanley Cup Final
Chicago Wins the Series 4-2
Ben Bishop allowed just 2 goals on 25 shots for the loss. He didn't allow a great rebound on the first goal because I thought the shot got a little redirected on the way in, and then he was essentially left to fend for himself on the second chance. The second goal was a really a 2-on-1 where Bishop just couldn't push from right to left to have any kind of chance on the Kane one-timer. That would've been a difficult chance to stop healthy, but in light of what we know now, it was impossible. After the game, it was revealed Ben Bishop has been playing with a torn groin since Game Two of the series. I feel sick for the guy that he's played this well in an extreme amount of pain and just couldn't get any goal support. I've heard people in the fan base who are way, way too quick to usher Ben out the door in the next year or two to make way for the wunderkind Andrei Vasilevskiy, but those people might want to take a moment to appreciate the mental toughness it takes to play your way through that kind of injury. That is one tough hombre. He's just a bad, bad dude. Much respect.
17:13 CHI Keith (3), (Kane, Richards)
14:46 CHI Kane (11), (Richards, Saad)
In the end the Lightning were too banged up to play their normal possession game, and when they did have good chances they just couldn't capitalize. Number one on that list was Steven Stamkos, who rang a crossbar in the First Period and then had a breakaway in the Second Period where he came to a near stop dekeing to his forehand before getting stopped by Crawford and then putting the rebound off the side of the net. I may have misheard this, but I think NBC said Stamkos had something like 20-21 scoring chances in the 6 games of this series. That's an obscene number of chances to surrender to one of the two greatest goal scorers of this generation for him to not score a goal. That'll live with him all summer, I'm sure, and that crossbar in particular was just a hair off. 1/16" lower and that's probably down and in, and we may be talking about a Game Seven at this hour. It was that close. For Steven, this is an interesting moment in his career. A lot of the 2014-2015 season was spent trying to get comfortable playing hockey again after breaking his leg against Boston last season. He still scored 40 goals and had a statistically decent playoffs overall, but truth be told there were a lot of times it still felt we were seeing the 85% version of Steven Stamkos. Now, having been through this experience, does this lead to Steven having "the mother of all summers" en route to getting back on the trajectory he was on prior to the injury of becoming the best player in the game?
Getting back to Game Six, how close were the Lightning? How razor thin was the margin between ecstasy and agony in this series? The Lightning were finally getting some zone time in the Third Period to try to tie the game and the chance came into the right circle to Brayden Coburn who breaks his stick on an A- chance, which lead to the odd man rush that put the Blackhawks up 2-0 and broke the Lightning's back. Buzzard's luck if I've ever seen it. Really the Lightning were just 1-2 bounces from winning this series, even with the rash of injuries, and that's what so maddening about what transpired in the last three games.
After the game, along with the revelation about Bishop's injury, it was revealed that Tyler Johnson's been playing this series with the bone that attaches his thumb to his wrist broken, which is why he hasn't been taking faceoffs this series. We'll find out what happened to his linemate Kucherov soon enough, along with Brian Boyle. Stamkos may also be dinged. Callahan obviously had the appendix. Paquette had both his hands shot off several times at different parts of the playoffs. Also, I suspect there may be something wrong with Garrison, although it may have just been fatigue setting in that made him look particularly slow in the past couple of games. I'm sure I'm leaving some guys out. In any event, the cumulative effect of all the centermen getting injured was that Cedric Paquette, a rookie who as it was noted had his hands shot off blocking shots several times in these playoffs, had to take a ton of important defensive zone draws and he absolutely got eaten alive the first half of Game Five and pretty much all of Game Six. 0-for-13 on faceoffs tonight? That seems almost impossible, and yet it happened. That advantage allowed Chicago to manufacture possession and zone time that they otherwise struggled to create in the flow of play and probably ultimately swung the series to them.
All that said, this feels different than the Lightning's last serious run at the Cup in 2011. That team had more of a lightning-in-the-bottle feel to it with certain players (Purcell and Bergenheim) playing over their head and the last remnants of the 2004 Cup team (Lecavalier and St. Louis) making their last real kick at the can together. I felt spent (and more than a little shafted by the officials) after that Game Seven loss in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. I knew they were an eyelash away from winning it all because that series may well have been the Stanley Cup Final that year and I knew it was a long shot for the team to get back the following season with so many older pieces, including the desiccating remains of Dwayne Roloson between the pipes. The other thing was, psychologically, I think that team had bought in to Guy Boucher's system and mystique to such a degree that when they didn't win it all, it was such a shock to their psyche he started to lose that locker room from that moment on in a slow erosion of belief. And for me, personally? I didn't want to deal with hockey for several months after that I was so disillusioned by what had transpired.
Tonight? I'm thinking about what this team has to do tomorrow and every day thereafter until one year from now they're back in this position hoisting the Cup, because I absolutely believe they can do so. This team, structurally, has the bones of a great dynasty. They're incredibly young, incredibly deep, and now they're incredibly experienced. Recall (although I'm not comparing the two) the great Edmonton team of the 80's had to take their medicine from the Islanders before they became a dynasty. And, psychologically, I think Jon Cooper can play off the fact these guys will feel a little angry they might've been cheated at the finish line by the injury bug. This team's belief shouldn't be shaken. It should be galvanized by the fact that they were playing with a bunch of hurt centermen and a goaltender with a torn groin and they still seriously, seriously challenged a historically good Chicago Blackhawks team that has been the class of the cap era. Has been. The Lightning, with the foundation they have, will be, if they commit together that they're going to be. And, that commitment has to start with tomorrow and every day thereafter until one year from now they're hoisting the Cup.
The things that need to change with the Lightning's roster are minor, and many of them will be fixed with time. Jonathan Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov will be ready to be regular contributors at this time next year and young guys like Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown have found out in these playoffs, Paquette in particular, that they can be world class players on the sport's biggest stage. The Lightning will have secondary scoring depth at this time next year, and with health should be better on faceoffs, although it might behoove Yzerman to pick up a veteran faceoff ace somewhere along the line just in case.
On defense, Victor Hedman had his coming out party in these playoffs and may finally take that next step of becoming a legit Norris Trophy candidate next season while Anton Stralman looked like an All-Star in his own right. Jason Garrison and Brayden Coburn offer solid second pair options, albeit they have their clunkers here and there, and Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov will only get better with age. That's six defensemen on a team that, because Cooper likes to play seven defensemen so much, might be best to carry eight. Where are the other two? You hope Slater Koekkoek, who looked darned good in his late season cup of coffee, comes to camp ready to mount a serious challenge for a spot and perhaps you look at signing up a hungry vet to round out the group. The Lightning didn't quite get everything they might've wanted from this year's hungry vet signing, Brendan Morrow, who was Yzerman's second choice behind Jarome Iginla for that slot. If Iginla had signed with the Lightning instead of Colorado, Tampa Bay might be hoisting a Cup right now. Remember, tomorrow and every day thereafter, including July 1st, the Lightning need to be focused on winning every little battle to make sure next year they finish what they started this season. In any event, with Morrow departing, I still like the idea of finding that hungry vet who wants one last run at glory and is willing to take a little bit of a discount rate to do so. The Lightning had that player in Simon Gagne in 2011 and they had Morrow this season. It's not a coincidence, either.
And, between the pipes, did I mention Ben Bishop is a bad, bad hombre? With Vasilevskiy now up at the NHL level, the Lightning should be able to cut back Ben's workload in the regular season more and hopefully conserve some of his mileage for the postseason. Also, given Ben's ended his past two seasons with injuries, I think it's probably time for Ben to up his postseason conditioning game once he rehabs from the groin. That's the same for all of the Lightning players, too. This is a pretty fit group, but Chicago, despite being a lot older, was healthier at the finish line partly because they played shorter series to get to this point but also partly because those guys understand the difference between being fit and being Stanley Cup fit. The Lightning don't need to train for an 82 game season this summer, they need to train for about a 106 game campaign so they won't have as much fatigue and as many injuries when they get to the finish line next season.
On an unrelated tangent, I just want to say how impressed I was with the Lightning fan base tonight. Approximately 17,000 showed up at Amalie Arena tonight despite the clunker that was Game Five, and it was extremely impressive to me and a sign of the fact that this season has created yet another groundswell in Tampa Bay just like the playoffs in '96, '03, '04, and '11 created expansions in the fan base. It didn't seem to me like NBC appropriately addressed what took place in Amalie tonight on the national broadcast, which is the annoying artifact of a national media still hell bent on pushing a preconceived narrative because of a jersey ban. It's all good, though, because they won't be able to get rid of Lightning fans quite so easily moving forward. Of all the faces in the crowd tonight, there was so much youth in the 15-25 year old range. These are fans who couldn't necessarily make it to Game Five with ticket prices being so astronomical, but if the economy in the area gets stronger and Tampa Bay can retain that youth in the area then this is going to be a nice boom for the fan base in about 5 years. The people who showed up tonight are Lightning fans for life, and if they can build careers in the area and develop some prosperity in the process, they're going to e buying tickets to the Lightning for life eventually, too. Tampa Bay's a tough place for young professionals to make a living in, and that's the toughest nut the Lightning have to crack because it's a structural problem with the market. With a team on the brink of becoming something very special and a little luck in the form of an economic surge in the area over the next few years (knock on wood) though, the Lightning could become a beast of a franchise. Tampa Bay is the 13th largest TV market in the country, which isn't too shabby, and the Lightning have begun to capture the hearts and minds of a much coveted demographic that will only become more powerful as time moves along.
I also wanted to say that this post marks the conclusion of Bolt Prospects' tenth season, and while it didn't have the fairy tale ending we hoped for (I was all ready to declare it the Bolt Prospects Stanley Cup), we remain incredibly humbled and thankful for the support of all of our readers. October will mark the ten year anniversary of the official opening of the website and it's been an honor and a privilege to write for you. Reflecting back on this time, for the staff, the past ten years have brought a lot of changes in our lives as we've built careers (day jobs) and built families. Some of us have moved to different cities and dealt with all manners of highs and lows in the day-to-day ebb and flow of the real world. Our love of Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Lightning and our continued to commitment to this thing we created ten years ago, Bolt Prospects, has been the one constant. We also would like to thank the Lightning organization, past and present, our friends and supporters in the media (the ones we can stand), and the players and their families (who are often the unheralded heroes of any player's career).
Lastly, and most importantly, we thank our own families for their support and understanding. For about eight months out of the year my significant other refers to herself as a hockey widow while I escape into my 125 square foot little home office to spend an inordinate amount of time watching hockey games and keeping up what the latest goings on were in obscure destinations such as Magnitogorsk, Russia. We do it because we love it (we darn sure don't do it for the money), and thankfully, they put up with it because they love us. That kind of understanding is pretty darned special, n'est-ce pas?
As I complete this post, which has taken forever to write, it's about fifteen minutes past 2:00 AM. That means it's already tomorrow... and the start of every day thereafter. Until... next year.
Lightning on the brink of tragedy... or opportunity.
Stanley Cup Final
Chicago Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 27 shots for the loss. The really sad thing about tonight is that, after four days of rest, I thought Bishop looked as healthy and as sharp as he has since early in the ECF. His rebound control was spot on and he looked pretty solid. Unfortunately, all of that was marred by his inexplicable decision to leave his cage and failure to communicate with Victor Hedman that led to an easy skate in goal for Patrick Sharp. I think Bishop was guilty of being a little over-exuberant and trying to do too much, and the end result was a de facto soft goal that ended up being like so many other soft goals... the margin of losing.
6:11 CHI Sharp (5), (Teravainen, Toews)
10:53 TB Filppula (4), (Garrison, Stralman)
2:00 CHI Vermette (4), (Versteeg)
Victor Hedman was the game's third star.
Give credit to Chicago. Ben Bishop wasn't the only one to benefit from the extra day of rest between Game Four and Game Five and they came out strong and put together their best opening 10 minutes of the entire series. The Lightning would have weathered it were it not for the Bishop mishap, but in the end the Blackhawks probably did deserve a lead for their work heading into the First Intermission. Part of the Lightning's problem in that First Period, mind you, was an awkward play where Nikita Kucherov tripped over Corey Crawford diving in front of his net on a puckhandling gaffe of his own, which sent Kucherov head/shoulder first into the crossbar and out of the game. Severity now becomes the question with Kucherov: it is a shoulder, collarbone, or concussion situation? Just when we might finally moving on from Goalie Gate we may be heading into 48 hours of Kuchie Kontroversy. The line juggling that ensued meant the team really had to struggle to find some continuity and get their legs back under them.
Fortunately, the team showed some resiliency and came out strong in the Second Period, eventually letting Bishop off the hook (somewhat) when a Jason Garrison cross ice pass was swept home by Valtteri Filppula. Can I just underscore how bad Corey Crawford was on that goal, for a moment. Sweet merciful Jesus, you could've timed his ability to get from his right post to his left post with a sun dial. The guy's got really slow feet, and even had to push twice just to get over to his left post extremely late. Bear in mind, the pass deflected off a Blackhawks stick and Filppula also fumbled it before he got it on frame for the goal. I cannot believe the Lightning are struggling this much with a guy with feet that slow after defeating the likes of Mrazek, Price, and Lundqvist earlier in the playoffs. Yes, I get there are injury factors at play, but the Lightning have to know this guy can't move worth a damn laterally. Instead, they've been suckered into this fool's bet of moving pucks back to their points and trying to pound them through two and sometimes three Chicago shot blockers, which creates loose pucks Chicago then collects and either deposits out of the zone or uses to trigger a counter. Just like with Mrazek, the Lightning have got to get Crawford moving laterally (Mrazek because he would get too aggressive and lose his angles and Crawford because he's a statue).
The Third Period was a shared trauma that I may end up taking to my grave. That was horrible. Two minutes into it, Jason Garrison got caught on the wrong side of the puck at the Chicago blueline leading to a partial breakaway. Jonathan Drouin did a good job using his speed to cut off the angle while Garrison did well to recover from behind and shut off the initial chance, but it resulted in a busted play that netted Vermette's game winner. Garrison, quite frankly, did not cloak himself in glory on the defensive side of the puck tonight either with several turnovers and even falling down inexplicably while trying to skate the puck out of his own zone.
The remaining 18 minutes of the Third Period were, basically, a clinic. What Chicago did to Tampa Bay to close Game Five is what Tampa Bay should have done to Chicago to close out Game One. And, indeed, it may turn out that Tampa Bay's failure to do so in Game One comes back to haunt them. In any event, Chicago played a brilliantly structured game to build a wall at their blueline, force the Lightning to chip the puck in or turn it over, and they pounced on obvious counterattack opportunities that resulted in order to get pucks behind the Lightning defense on the forecheck and generate pressure of their own. In the end, the Lightning went out meekly, without much of a push at trying to tie the game.
That leads to the question of the hour that seems to be on a lot of Lightning fan's minds: are the Lightning done in Game Six? Right now Jon Cooper's got a lot of Jedi mind tricks to play to make sure that question doesn't seep into the Lightning locker room. This team looked deader than a door nail in the Detroit series after dropping Game Five, and they were playing nowhere near as well against the Red Wings early in that series as they have early in this Chicago series. We should also point out that the Lightning's '04 Cup team also did it the hard way by defeating Calgary on the road in Game Six before their eventual Cup triumph in Game Seven on home ice. This isn't done, by any stretch, especially with a healthier Ben Bishop back between the pipes. But, it begins with the six inches of gray matter between each Lightning players' ears. Know this: there's still 28 other teams in the NHL that wish they were in Tampa Bay's position of just having to win two games in a row to take a Stanley Cup. If they treat Game Six as a negative thing to be feared, then it'll become a fait accompli. If they treat it as an opportunity to be relished, then they've got a chance to live to fight another (Game Seven) day.
Cooper's gamble nearly pays off.
Stanley Cup Final
Series Tied 2-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 2 goals on 19 shots for the loss, as Cooper did what I speculated he might do playing the rookie in Game Four to allow Ben Bishop 4+ days of rest before a critical Game Five tilt. The Lightning did a really good job defensively in front of Andrei, for the most part, which meant he didn't have to face down a ton of scoring chances. Chicago's first goal partly resulted from poor rebound control and the second was absolutely not Vasilevskiy's fault as the defense never should have allowed Saad to break in that uncontested off a faceoff loss. Vasiy also got the benefit of the iron three times in the contest, but all in all I thought he held his keep. The Lightning can't allow a team backstopped by Crawford to hold them to just one goal.
6:40 CHI Toews (10), (Sharp, Hossa)
11:47 TB Killorn (9), (Filppula, Stamkos)
6:22 CHI Saad (8), (Kane)
Alex Killorn was the game's third star.
The Lightning shouldn't be panicking after this result. They played a very strong game that they could've very easily won. I remain shocked at how flat Chicago has started all four games of this series, and unlike Game Three there weren't any really long, sustained surges from Chicago that the Lightning had to deal with. It's starting to look to me like fatigue is a serious issue that Chicago is struggling to contend with, with their thin defensive corps, in particular, chasing around Tampa Bay's youthful, speedy players. In the flow of play at 5-on-5, the Lightning definitely are beginning to look like the stronger of the two teams, and the Blackhawks' best chance for victory seems to be power plays and manufacturing goals off of offensive zone faceoffs. That's what happened tonight in the Third Period with three unforced icings and a shot that went off a crossbar and into the crowd that led to Saad's goal off a defensive zone faceoff loss by the Lightning. Penalties and unforced icings are like little life preservers for the Blackhawks now, and the Lightning need to be aware of that and stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
I wouldn't change much at even strength for the Lightning and their penalty kill was pretty strong, but the game may well have been lost in the first 40 minutes when the Lightning's ugly, regular season power play reared its ugly head again. They ended up 0-for-4 tonight, and it was a very non-threatening 0-for-4 as the Lightning reverted to the "strategy" of trying to send futile passes circle to circle through the box, which just doesn't work if you don't have some north-south puck movement first to get bodies moving and open up those passing lanes. Zone entry was pretty nonchalant, as well.
Heading into a 3-game series to decide who will hoist the Stanley Cup that starts on Saturday, those are the elements that the Lightning are going to need to tighten up to assure their success.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot and 1 hit in 9:02 of ice time. He got 2:13 of his ice time on the PP tonight as the coaching staff used Nesterov to try to give the second unit more of a shooting look. That came at the price of some iffy decision-making at even strength that led to at least one odd man chance surrendered the other way. Heading back to Tampa Bay, the well-worn critique remains: is Nesterov really the most effective use of that lineup spot, or could you use another skilled, speedy forward like Drouin or Namestnikov to throw at the worn down Chicago defense, even if they have some defensive deficiencies (which Nesterov has, if we're honest)?
Blackhawks get their butts kicked by a one-legged goaltender.
Stanley Cup Final
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?
5:09 TB Callahan (2), (Hedman, Brown)
14:22 CHI Richards (3), (Hossa, Shaw)(PP)
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.
Lightning weather the storm, tie the series.
Stanley Cup Final
Series Tied 1-1
Ben Bishop allowed 3 goals on 24 shots before leaving the game, twice, in the Third Period. He had some trouble tracking the puck, but truth be told he really only allowed 2 goals as Hossa interfered with him on the Seabrook goal. Andrei Vasilevskiy entered the game, twice, in the Third Period and stopped all 5 shots he faced for the victory. What a spot for Vasiy to step into! Tie game in the Third Period of a Stanley Cup Final game that is pretty well a must-win game? He made some key saves, particularly on the final PK, and helped the team gut out the victory. His rebound control looked like it might be an issue and there was an obvious drop off in puck handling with Bishop out, but that's about as good a performance as anyone could ever hope for in an incredibly difficult circumstance. He earned that victory, for sure.
12:56 TB Paquette (2), (Callahan, Hedman)
3:04 CHI Shaw (5), (Kruger, Desjardins)
5:20 CHI Teravainen (4), (Hossa, Sharp)(PP)
6:52 TB Kucherov (10), (Garrison, Coburn)
13:58 TB Johnson (13), (Kucherov)
3:38 CHI Seabrook (7), (Toews, Oduya)
8:49 TB Garrison (2), (Hedman, Callahan)(PP)
The NHL should be absolutely giddy about the product that Tampa Bay and Chicago put on the ice tonight, because this game had a little bit of everything. Lots of speed, lots of chances, some controversy, and a whole lot of intrigue, too. It was one of those games where, now that it's over, it almost feels like it should count for two wins. Sadly, no, but it still stands as a contest that felt like a bit of an instant classic for the league.
The Lightning came out flying in the First Period, as in Game One, buoyed by a revamped set of bottom lines with Jonathan Drouin taking a spot on the fourth line. Drouin had about 3-4 really good offensive shifts, and 2-3 shifts where he was a bit of a liability with his decision-making. Still, the added energy he gave to the bottom lines was noticeable and the overall effort of the bottom lines was critical to tonight's win. In particular, Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan, and J.T. Brown deserve a ton of credit. They played their bags off tonight. If the bottom lines can put some consistent pressure on that very thin Chicago defensive corps, it could be an advantage in this series the longer it goes.
The Second Period had a real gut check moment for the team after the Blackhawks took their first and only lead of the night on a pair of quick goals. Bishop lost track of a puck that hit traffic in front leading to a tap in by Shaw and then Hossa and Teravainen worked a pretty give-and-go for a PP goal that put the Lightning at a real crossroads in this series. Do not underestimate the importance of the deflection goal by Kucherov off of the Garrison point shot on a pretty solid response shift by the Johnson line. Getting that goal back so quickly really gave the Lightning their legs back, and then Crawford did the Lightning a tremendous favor allowing a short side softie to Tyler Johnson to allow the Lightning to carry the victory into the locker room, thereby erasing all of Chicago's work earlier in the period. That goal was terrible, and it ended up being the margin of victory, as soft goals often are.
The Third Period then became an exercise in survival from the Lightning, chequered with both controversy and intrigue. Brent Seabrook tied the game with a bomb from the high slot coming in off the rush as the late man while Marian Hossa was in clear contact with Ben Bishop's left pad, leaving Bishop unable to fully extend to try to stop the shot. Bishop didn't flop like some goaltenders would, and he clearly doesn't have the halo around him that guys like Carey Price do, so the goal counted. I'm disappointed, but not surprised, because it's always been clear the Lightning have to be that much better to win these games. The good news is that after than blown call, the refs didn't swallow their whistles (possibly a bit of a make up situation) on a pair of Patrick Sharp infractions that led to Garrison getting a bit of puck luck with a goal that ramped up and in off a Blackhawks stick on a point shot to give the Lightning the eventual 4-3 win. While all that was going on, Ben Bishop mysteriously left briefly, returned briefly, and then left for good with Vasilevskiy becoming the goaltender of record between the pipes for Garrison's goal. He calmly battled the rest of the way, including some critical stops on a big kill after a Sustr delay of game call, to preserve the win and keep the Lightning alive in the series. It's a huge improvement over last year when you consider the tomato can the Lightning had to put between the pipes when Bishop got injured before the Montreal series. If the Lightning do win it all this year, Vasiy earned his name being on the Cup with that performance.
Now we'll wait and wonder about what happened to Bishop. Was he ill? Did he get bumped into by Vermette, causing or aggravating an injury? Given that he looked OK in his brief return, I'm not overly worried. Bishop's tough and nails and I'd expect him to be in net in Chicago. If the Lightning were to lose him, though, it might be a bridge too far for the Lightning to cross. Vasilevskiy's a blue chipper, but to ask him to come in cold against Chicago and win three games in this series is an unrealistic thing to ask, and Bishop's ability to help his team as a puck handler and distributor would be a tremendous loss for the team, too.
Assuming Bishop's alright, the Lightning did a lot in the first two games of this series to prove they absolutely belong in this moment, and they could easily be up 2-0 in this series right now after holding a lead in the Third Period in each game. The really intriguing thing we've seen is the Lightning's checking line has been good enough against the Toews/Kane line to hold them down a bit and even force those two to be split up tonight. I don't think anyone in the universe, including yours truly (and I adore Dump Truck), would've thought Paquette and his band mates could make a meal of a matchup with the Toews line, but he and his group have played two of the best games of their lives against a couple of future HOF'er to start the Stanley Cup Final. Because of that, I think the Lightning have shown that at 5-on-5 they're absolutely the equal of Chicago in terms of speed, skill, and athleticism. Now, heading to Chicago, with Quenneville holding the last change, Cooper and Bowness are going to need to prove they're equal to the challenge tactically, as well. If they can be, meaning they'll have to figure out how to protect the likes of Sustr and Carle, then the Lightning should have a good chance to get at least one win out of the Second City, which is the bare minimum of what they'll need to do to stay on track to win it all.
Prevent defense prevents Tampa Bay from winning Game One.
Stanley Cup Final
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.
4:31 TB Killorn (8), (Stralman, Filppula)
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.
The Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Blainville-Boisbriand overage defenseman and captain Daniel Walcott Monday, adding a puck-moving defenseman to the organizational roster.
The Lightning have had an abundance of success under Steve Yzerman picking up undersized cast-offs who can skate and have a high hockey IQ and skill level. Walcott certainly fits the mold. He stands just 5’11” and weighs under 2-bills, but put up 41 points in 54 games with the Armada as a 20-year-old this season.
Mission Impossible = Mission Accomplished
Eastern Conference Finals
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.
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.
Game Four redux, unfortunately.
Eastern Conference Finals
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.
3:36 NYR Brassard (7), (Miller, Boyle)
15:30 NYR Yandle (2), (Brassard, Nash)
17:20 TB Callahan (1), (Stralman, Bishop)(PP)
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.