Tampa Bay Lightning
When the levees broke...
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 2-0
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 29 shots for the victory. As in Game One, he held the Lightning in the game early in the First Period long enough for them to gain their equilibrium and eventually trounce the Habs.
7:20 MTL Petry (1), (Mitchell, Prust)
19:36 TB Filppula (2), (Hedman, Killorn)(PP)
8:06 TB Stamkos (1), (Garrison, Coburn)
12:29 TB Kucherov (2), (Johnson, Stamkos)(PP)
19:46 TB Hedman (1), (Killorn, Filppula)(PP)
6:37 TB Kucherov (3), (Johnson, Stamkos)(PP)
11:06 MTL Gilbert (2), (Emelin, Smith-Pelly)
16:05 TB Brown (1), (Filppula, Boyle)
That, folks, was one of the most satisfying playoff victories in Lightning history. The team, again, struggled to get any momentum to start the First Period with a combination of early penalties, poor passing, and faceoff impotence costing them possession. Again, though, they weathered that storm fairly well, only falling down 1-0, before Filppula's semi-soft power play goal toward the end of the frame. Montreal absolutely outplayed Tampa Bay in the First Period, and just like in Game One they absolutely blew their opportunity to land a knockout punch early. What happened thereafter was the stuff of stories and legends.
You see, the Lightning had already removed one item from their to-do list on Filppula's PP goal, but they proceeded to get everything knocked off from there. Stamkos scored on a very strong breakaway move on a nice long pass from Garrison to get that monkey off his back. Kucherov got a pair of PP goals to underline that the floodgates have indeed opened for him after Game One. His 2 goals, along with a Hedman PP tally, formed a chain of 4 goals on 4 consecutive PP shots for the Lightning as the absolutely embarrassed Carey Price, the NHL's presumptive MVP. To rub salt in the wound, the Lightning got the equivalent of a human victory cigar in the form of J.T. Brown scoring a tip in goal.
Teams that take a 2-0 lead on the road to start a series have an 80% chance of moving on, historically. I like those odds. I like the idea of avenging what happened last season even more. The Lightning have a chance to show the same cold blooded lack of mercy Montreal showed them last year in Game Three when the scene turned north after Tampa Bay fell behind 0-2 on the road. A quick goal by the Tampa Bay Lightning early in Game Three may lead to Montreal's resolve evaporating altogether. Time to step on their throats, Tampa Bay Lightning. Remember, the playoffs are a war of attrition. Advance as quickly as you can. Stay as healthy as you can. Conserve as much energy as you can. Let the other two teams kill each other in a long battle in the other Semifinal. Lay in wait for the Eastern Conference Finals. The opportunity for that scenario to play out is sitting there for the taking for the Lightning, starting with a strong opening 10 minutes at home in Game Three.
A game you could argue the Lightning won three times. Wish it counted as three wins.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Ben Bishop allowed 1 goal on 44 shots for the victory. That 1 goal he allowed was a terrible, world class softie that would've been a huge blemish on an otherwise amazing performance had the Lightning lost this game in OT. Fortunately, they got the winner they needed to erase the bad taste of that goal away, and although soft goals are still inexcusable it's important to note than Ben Bishop absolutely was the Lightning's best player tonight.
2:34 TB Johnson (7), (Carle, Sustr)
14:47 MTL Pacioretty (3), (Subban, Gilbert)
2:06 TB Kucherov (1), (Filppula)
Nikita Kucherov and Ben Bishop were the game's first and third stars. The Lightning finally got Kucherov on the board and hopefully they can get Stamkos and the PP, not necessarily in that order, out of the ditch and on the scoreboard in Game Two as well.
The Lightning played a nearly perfect road game and fought hard through a lot of adversity to put them in excellent position to start this series. As could be expected, they came out flat as a pancake after an emotional Game Seven victory on Wednesday and they had to ride some really sharp goaltending and the good graces of two strikes off of Ben's left post to survive Montreal's early surge. After about 10-12 minutes of hanging on for dear life, though, the Lightning settled down and started playing Lightning hockey. True, Montreal ended up taking the shot totals by about a 4:3 margin in the game, but the Lightning had the puck more, which is certainly more in line with the Lightning's style of play than what we saw in the Detroit series. Eventually, the Lightning manufactured what appeared to be the game winning goal on a Tyler Johnson deflection of a Carle point shot and the Lightning settled into Third Period lead protection mode. And, let me tell you, it's been shocking to see how good the Lightning have looked the last two games protecting a 1-0 lead in the Third Period. They've grown a lot in that department. That was the first time they won the game.
Then the Bishop softie happened. It's inexcusable. It's gut wrenching. It's the kind of thing that can destroy a team's morale. Credit to the Lightning though, in that they showed a lot of maturity by not hanging their heads as the game headed into Overtime. Then, in the First Overtime, Nikita Kucherov scored a breakaway goal that in any situation other than in OT in a playoff game against one of the NHL's darling franchises would've stood. Absolutely. No question in my mind. By the specter of dubious refereeing in Montreal reared its ugly head again as the goal was waved off under the guise that Kucherov pushed Price into the net. I could probably show you 100 goals exactly like that in the last decade that have stood up. That was the second time they won the game.
But, the refs decided they should play on. And play on they did when a Montreal turnover led to a quick pass to the slot for a quick release by Kucherov that beat Price for the winning goal. That was the third time they won the game, and the one that actually counted. In retrospect, I just wish the game counted as three wins for all the heavy lifting they had to do to get it.
Of course, there's a lot of controversy on the zone entry on the play that became the winner, with still shots being waved by the Canadian media showing Filppula as offside. The video, however, shows the play was less cut and dry, but still very close. It's really a case of Montreal trying to beat the wrap on a technicality, though, considering they got puck possession and had an easy opportunity to clear that they choked away. It's also karmatic justice considering how many times Tampa Bay has been shafted by the referees in games against Montreal over the past two seasons. No tears should be shed for the Habs, regardless of how much the northern hockey media tries to frame this as a tainted win.
Moving on to Game Two, the Lightning find themselves in the envious position of playing with house money on the road. They've accomplished what they need to stealing home ice to start the series. Now they've got a chance to really put the Habs behind the eight ball before heading home to Tampa Bay. It would behoove them to do so and shorten the series, because as we all know playoff hockey is both a marathon and a war of attrition. The fewer games you can play to get to 16 wins, the less energy you have to expend and the fewer opportunities you have to get players injured. So the message should be clear: seize the opportunity now and try to put Montreal away sooner rather than later.
Bishop rises up.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Tampa Bay Wins the Series 4-3
Ben Bishop stopped all 31 shots he faced for the shutout win in the clutchest of clutch moments. He was not on his game to start, fighting the puck hard for the first 25 minutes or so of the game. But, the longer it went on, the stronger Bishop got. By the end, Bishop looked sharp as a razor and ready to hand out his brand of U of Maine Justice in the postseason for the very first time. It's appropriate that on the night of Bobby Taylor's last broadcast at color of Sun Sports that his fellow Goalies Union, Local 813 member stole the show.
3:58 TB Coburn (1), (Callahan, Killorn)
18:42 TB Stralman (1), (Bishop)(EN)
The Lightning pilfered this one. They were incredibly nervous and played about 45 minutes of scared, hot potato hockey. That said, they hustled, they worked hard, and they capitalized on the break when it came to them on Coburn's goal. It wasn't pretty. Cripes, even the anthem singer was playing hurt. But, in the end, figuring out how to pull out a series like this is so critically important for an extremely young team trying to make a transition to becoming an elite franchise. Now that they have that experience, it's going to get easier from here on out because they've lived through a tight series against a difficult, veteran opponent where they had to overcome a lot of adversity. It bodes well for the Montreal series and on into the future.
It also bodes well, in a weird way, that Stamkos and Kucherov still couldn't get a goal. For those two guys to go 7 games without a goal has to be the very definition of, "due." If I were the Canadiens, I'd be pretty terrified because if either of those guys get 1, especially Stamkos, the floodgates are liable to open. Both players had ten bell opportunities they just missed in Game Seven.
Going against hometown Montreal, might we also see Jonathan Drouin again starting Friday? It still seems that Stamkos needs a little more speed/skill on his wing, and Drouin has it. Just sayin'.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot in 10:02. For the little he played, he was very assertive and nearly won the game himself with a near end to end rush on one power play. He's forced his way into the lineup and forced Cooper and the staff to play 7 defensemen.
You gotta believe, daddy!
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Series Tied 3-3
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 24 shots for the victory. Would he get style points for how he played tonight? Likely not. He looks nicked up and he was fighting the puck a bit all night long. Buy he battled like a maniac to get the job done.
3:47 TB Johnson (5), (Kucherov, Hedman)
11:10 TB Garrison (1), (Stamkos, Kucherov)
9:09 TB Johnson (6), (Palat, Kucherov)
12:26 DET Tatar (2), (Kronwall)(PP)
1:39 DET Tatar (3), (Datsyuk)
14:51 TB Killorn (2), (unassisted)
19:03 TB Paquette (1), (unassisted)(SH)(EN)
It's hard not to be proud of the way the Lightning played tonight. It was gritty and gutty. They were being physically assaulted by Detroit throughout the game as uncalled interference escalated to uncalled head shots like Kronwall's obvious elbow to the chin of Kucherov. They battled on. In fact, the refs took it a step further and decided they were going to punish Jon Cooper for openly questioning the lack of interference calls in this series by awarding Detroit a 7-2 power play advantage and allowing Detroit to get away with anything short of murder in this contest. True, they blew a call that led to the Lightning's third goal on an uncalled trip in the neutral zone, but fairness never entered into the equation tonight. It was 7-on-5, at best, most of the night, but unlike the Montreal series last year the Lightning battled on.
And, yes, I'm deliberately mocking Coach Babcock's mindless platitudes earlier about fighting through his team's clearly illegal strategy of throwing the kitchen sink at the faster, more skilled Lightning team to try to nullify their athletic advantage. It was a pretty overt admission his team is cheating their rear ends off, couched in some hot garbage about having the heart of a champion. Whatever. He and his gaggle of clutch and grab cheap shot artists can battle their rear ends onto a charter flight to Tampa for Game Seven on Wednesday.
The Lightning made a conscious decision tonight to stay true to themselves. It's not easy when things are stacked up against you to stay in character and not deviate from your structure. In fact, when guys start trying to execute flying elbows on your star players, it's a whole lot easier to let things degenerate into an Ultimate Fighting match, which appeared to be Detroit's preference at times tonight. The Lightning played their brand of hockey, got the all important first goal, and won. Note: that's the key. If you get one on Mrazek, chances are he's going to give up 2-3 more, often quickly, so the same recipe will be required for Game Seven success. It wasn't perfect. The power play was still 0-for-2 and neither Stamkos nor Kucherov managed their first goals of the postseason. But, hey, that just means they're due in the biggest game of the year on Wednesday, right?
Coach Cooper said tonight they exhibited that they learned something from the Montreal series last year. True. But, I think they learned 10x more protecting that lead in the Third Period. The plays made by young guys like Paquette, Sustr, Killorn, etc. are all invaluable experience that will help this team turn the corner from a regular season team to a team that can confidently do business in the second season. I really liked what I saw on that front.
On a side note: that steal, deke, and insurance score by Alex Killorn? That man has a way of scoring big goals, doesn't he?
Nikita Nesterov had 1 hit in 5:16. The Lightning coaches weren't going to let Detroit matchup against him at even strength and with the Lightning only getting 2 power plays out of the zebras, Nesterov didn't see the ice very much. Understandable.
Soul searching time.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Detroit Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop allowed 3 goals on 29 shots for the loss. The second goal was on him, after surrendering a lollipop of a rebound to Drew Miller after a long shot from the bad angle. That's an untimely goal, but I'm hard pressed to be too mad at Ben when he's gotten zero goal support. He can be better, but that's the same for the entire team at this juncture.
19:37 DET Sheahan (2), (Kronwall, Zetterberg)(PP)
15:46 DET Miller (1), (Glendening, Ericsson)
15:47 DET Datsyuk (3), (Ericsson, Helm)(PP)
18:22 DET DeKeyser (1), (Quincey, Andersson)(EN)
Contrary to what some are urging me to do, I'm not going to write a post mortem on a team that's only down 3-2 in a playoff series. There's still a lot of hockey left to be played in this series and the Lightning may still yet prevail, but a lot of issues have been exposed in the past three games, not all of which are within the team's control. The effort in the first 10 minutes of this game was exemplary, but unlike the regular season this team can't seem to buy a bounce lately. Combine that with a strong tactical approach by the Wings that often colors outside the lines of legality and some roster composition issues (self-inflicted), and you get this dark cloud of doom that now seems to be hanging over this team.
First, let me get this out of the way: the Detroit Red Wings are getting away with bloody murder from the officials. They're executing the old clutch and grab Devils playbook, and with the refs looking the other way, I can hardly fault them for it. NBCSN put together a "highlight" package at the Second Intermission of how Detroit is "defending" Tyler Johnson, and it mostly involves hitting him without the puck, tripping him without the puck, interfering with him, and just about every other underhanded trick in the book. Tyler Johnson couldn't have played in the NHL in the early 90's with the amount of clutching and grabbing that was going on, and if the league is going to allow a return to that brand of hockey, it's going to make it a lot harder for Tyler and some of the smaller Lightning forwards to make it in the league today. I would hope Yzerman takes that video to the league and makes enforcement of interference away from the puck a point of emphasis again, because it's absolutely had an impact on the last three games.
With that said, another reason Johnson and his linemates have struggled throughout this series is that the Lightning are essentially a one line team. Let's be honest about this. On paper, yes, there's a 40 goal scorer on another line and plenty of other talent that can chip in. None of those players have scored consistently all season long though, and the only line that has is the Palat/Johnson/Kucherov line. They're getting focused on right now, and other than the fourth line of Morrow/Boyle/Brown, no one else has showed much hope to step up. So you've got Steven Stamkos, who had 43 goals in the regular season, with 0, and he's helping to drag down Nikita Kucherov on another line (who isn't helping himself by playing a bit timid on the perimeter), who had 28 goals in the regular season and also is sitting on 0 in the playoff right now. That's 71 regular season goals doing squat right now.
Part of the issue that I think Jon Cooper and Steve Yzerman will have to do some soul searching about in the offseason, is that they've basically ignored the need to replace Martin St. Louis on Stamkos' wing. They need a pace-pushing playmaker with high hockey sense to help Stamkos play his best, a formula we know works from a half decade and two Richard Trophies of empirical evidence. The team has a logical candidate to fill that role in rookie Jonathan Drouin, but rather than let Drouin take his lumps during the regular season and groom him to be ready by this point of the season, they've used him sparingly. Because of that, you can't trust him to play 18-19 minutes with Stamkos right now and he's been a scratch for 4 of 5 games in this series. And, by now, I think it's fair to say it's been a mistake. Stamkos managed to score 43 goals with grinding types like Callahan and Killorn playing with him, but he hasn't looked like the same formidable player in the process, and it's been exposed in this playoff series so far. It's not rocket science, though. They know a formula that works and they already drafted the personnel needed to make this work. They just have to set it in motion now.
I'll also, again, mention the 0-for-3 power play. It looked a lot better in 2 of the 3 opportunities tonight, but it's been horribly inconsistent too. And, like Stamkos' line, it's not for a lack of knowing the correct formula to fix it. The Lightning need a righty PP QB manning the center point. Pop in any tape of when Adam Oates was running the PP here and you'll see what I mean. It's been a hole in this organization since Kurtis Foster packed his bags and until that hole is filled, the PP will never run at its highest potential.
With all that said, the Lightning still are very much alive in this series. It doesn't feel like it, but they are. Were I in the Lightning's shoes, I would simplify my approach for Game Six. Focus on getting the first goal. Make it a greasy one. If they can get that first goal, they give themselves a fighting chance. But, to get that first goal, they have to show a maturity and character beyond their young years. It's a gut check time. Time to grow up a little.