For about 45 minutes on Saturday night, you had to wonder just what was going on with the "new-look" Tampa Bay Lightning.
An overhauled coaching staff, some new roster pieces, and an oft-trumpeted commitment to team defense were the talking points of the offseason as the Tampa Bay Lightning look to climb out of the Eastern Conference cellar in Jon Cooper's first full season behind an NHL bench.
After the first game against the Bruins, there were some gaffes, but all in all, a strong performance on the road against a very tough defensive team. Following that up with another tough away contest against the only team that finished 2012-2013 better than Boston did is ... less than ideal, but that's just what the Lightning faced.
And boy did it look bad.
Sure, the Lightning have gone through some serious organizational and on-ice growing pains, so it makes sense that they've had some bad nights in their past. They've been held to some horribly low shot totals in the past:
The other times Tampa Bay was shut out: Nov. 22, '99, 2nd period at home in 4-1 win over PHI; Dec. 2, '99, 2nd period of 3-1 loss at PHX.— Damian Cristodero (@LightningTimes) October 6, 2013
But to be held without a shot on goal for an entire period in 2013 is just ... mind boggling. Full credit goes to Chicago's defense for making hay in the Tampa zone, denying clean breakouts and clogging shooting lanes, but a full twenty minutes without a shot on goal?
That's something Chicago hadn't done to the opposition since 1946.
Fortunately for the Bolts, Ben Bishop handled everything the Blackhawks threw at him in the 1st, finishing the period with 12 saves. So while the skaters were jarringly outmatched and outplayed by Chicago's superior forward corps, Bishop routinely bailed the Bolts out of long shifts and a repeated inability to clear their own zone or generate meaningful possession of the puck.
The Bolts didn't record their first shot on goal until 21:22 into the game when Nate Thompson fluttered in a weak wrister on Corey Crawford to make sure he was really, actually there and not a hologram.
Through the second period, the Blackhawks continued to dominate control of the puck to a truly ridiculous level and started to convert on their onslaught of scoring chances. Patrick Kane broke the ice with an even-strength goal from the side of the net after newly-reunited defense partners Sami Salo and Victor Hedman got caught defending the same man in front of the net, leaving Kane and Bryan Bickell essentially unguarded.
Brandon Saad made it 2-0 later in the period as a Chicago power play was expiring after Nick Leddy fired in a hard dump-in that took an odd carom to the front of the net, catching Bishop out of position as he went to play it and resulting in an easy two-goal lead for the Blackhawks. The way Chicago was playing at the time, a two-goal lead seemed like twenty, and even through the rest of the second period the Lightning, now needing a pair of markers to merely even the score, were still getting thoroughly dominated.
Chicago was, in almost every measurable and observable way, the superior team, deserving of the two points earned in a regulation victory.
But in a league with as much variance and randomness as the NHL, the team that deserves to win isn't always the team that does win.
In the third period, following a rare Lightning shot on net in this game (a Matt Carle wrister through traffic), new Lightning captain Martin St. Louis evaded the Chicago defense to the side of the net, collected the rebound and lifted a backhander over Corey Crawford's shoulder to stun the Blackhawks and make a game the Lightning had no business being in a game again.
With just a one-goal deficit to overcome, the Lightning suddenly and inexplicably began creating some offensive pressure by holding onto the puck for prolonged stretches in Chicago's end. They were even able to draw a penalty on Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. But in stark contrast to Thursday night in Boston, rather than coughing up the puck and giving away the game on their own man advantage, the Bolts moved the puck around effectively, attempted a few shots, and retrieved loose pucks to prevent the penalty killers from clearing the zone.
Eventually, Martin St. Louis, playing the half wall, found Teddy Purcell in the slot, who pivoted towards the net and fired a high far-side wrister that went straight over Corey Crawford's blocker and into the net to tie the game. Both teams failed to capitalize on some late chances in regulation and the game went into 4v4 overtime, where again both teams came up short in claiming the bonus point.
In the skills competition, Jon Cooper sent out new Lightning forward Valtteri Filppula first. Cooper was rewarded for his selection as Filppula made a nice deke and converted the attempt to put the pressure on Chicago to match. Ben Bishop continued his fantastic play from regulation and overtime into the shootout, not overreacting to any head or stick-fakes by Chicago's most lethal forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa, stopping shootout attempts by all three to quite demonstratively steal two points from the Blackhawks in Chicago.
In spite of the end result, this performance from the Lightning is not something they should look to repeat. Thursday night's effort against the Bruins, though it ended in a loss, is a much better formula for long-term success. The Lightning can't expect to be so thoroughly dominated at even strength and still come up with victories, and they can't ask either Ben Bishop or Anders Lindback to face 35+ shots per night, many of them terrific scoring chances, and still come out with victories like they did on Saturday. That said, the Bolts do deserve credit for not hanging it up in spite of how strongly Chicago was playing, and rallying around an outstanding individual effort like Martin St. Louis' goal to steal two points is nothing to complain about.
- Ben Bishop finished with 37 saves on 39 shots for a .949 save percentage. He was composed in net, used his size effectively, but was more athletic and aggressive than we've seen in the past, making a few highlight-worthy saves and scrambling around his crease to cover loose pucks, something you'd expect more out of Anders Lindback's game. In spite of all the rubber he faced and the prolonged time on attack by Chicago, he never faltered and looked fresh and energetic even into overtime and the shootout. Bishop was nothing short of superb at even strength, where he stopped 30 of 31 shots (.968 ESSV%).
- Andrej Sustr dropped down to the third pairing with Sami Salo back in the lineup, and ended up playing 18:38, most of it with Eric Brewer. Sustr continues to impress and while there are still a lot of areas he needs to improve, he may be on his way to earning a permanent roster spot.
- The "Top Gun" line -- former top line for the AHL Syracuse Crunch a season ago -- continues to struggle. Tyler Johnson is establishing value as a strong faceoff option (70% won tonight) but Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik are experiencing some growing pains with a crash course in playing full-time NHL defense and finding time and space with the puck against veteran NHL defenders.
- On the subject of faceoffs, Steven Stamkos won an abysmal 22% of his draws, which is problematic because it handcuffs Jon Cooper on how to use his young sniper. A lost faceoff in the defensive zone can lead to a long, tiring defensive-zone shift; a lost draw in the offensive zone is sacrificing an opportunity for a shot on net and a scoring chance. Stamkos simply must be better at the dot.
- Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who is well aware of his role with the club, recorded 8 hits in just 8:42 of ice time. Quietly, the fourth line of Nate Thompson, BJ Crombeen, and Labrie were again quite effective, particularly when matched up against Chicago's 4th line. They were the only positive possession line for the Bolts and they're regularly winning their match-ups now that they are no longer being absolutely buried in a 100% defensive role.