You might have guessed that the Tampa Bay Lightning were due for some regression against Western Conference foes after a very good start against them, with marquee wins over teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, and Los Angeles Kings.
But the current trip to the Pacific Division has been downright disastrous, and Thursday night in San Jose did not see the Bolts buck the losing trend.
The first period got off to a quick start, as both teams looked to use the speed and skill in their lineups to generate scoring chances. But the Lightning quickly found out why the Sharks are near the top of their division. With rare speed, size, and skill and tremendous forward depth, the Sharks were all over the Bolts early.
Tommy Wingels -- moved to the second line for the Sharks with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau due to Brent Burns' return from injury -- opened the scoring when three Lightning players lost a puck battle along the wall and Logan Couture walked to the slot with the defenders on his back, finding Wingels in a seam for a quick wrister that beat Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback to make things 1-0.
The Bolts managed a bit of a pushback, getting some zone time and managing a few shots on Sharks netminder Antti Niemi in transition, but could't find twine. They also had a near-perfect power play set-up that spent a full two minutes in the Sharks' end with terrific passing and some action around the crease but couldn't find the back of the net.
The Sharks came back off the successful kill and capitalized on some more poor defensive zone coverage when Brad Stuart slapped a loose puck through a crowd and behind Lindback as the Bolts scrambled in front of their own net.
Stuart's goal made it 2-0, but without Anders Lindback -- who made a handful of heroic saves -- it could have very easily been 3-0 or 4-0. In total, he faced 18 shots in the opening frame as the Sharks pressed the issue and did a good job of retrieving pucks for second and third opportunities. They also forced Lindback to move around a lot in his crease, utilizing the area behind the net and making Lindback briefly lose sight of the puck with quick plays in and around the crease and below the goal line.
The second period saw perhaps some of the best hockey played by the Lightning on this road trip, as they held the puck in the San Jose end for much of the first ten minutes and at one point held an 8-3 advantage in shots on goal. But Niemi and the Sharks weathered the storm and kept everything out of the net, and another bang-bang play by the Couture line ended up on Tommy Wingels' stick in the slot and behind Lindback for a very deflating 3-0 goal.
The Sharks followed that up with some more back-and-forth play in the third, but kept the Lightning off the scoresheet again before scoring a pair of quick goals to turn this one into a laugher. One came off a terrible own-zone play by Richard Panik, who backhanded a pass through the crease and off Lindback straight to a waiting Scott Hannan along the left wall. Hannan then slapped it straight at the slot, where both Joe Thornton and Brent Burns got a piece of it before it went past Lindback. Just seconds later, another coughed up puck ended up behind Lindback as Patrick Marleau beat Victor Hedman to an aerial dump-in an deposited it into the net to make things ugly at 5-0.
Tyler Johnson added the only marker for the Bolts late in the game with a nice finish of a good four-man transition play that started with a Mark Barberio controlled entry starting from his own zone. In that one play, Barberio has looked better than he has all season, but unfortunately it takes a 5-goal deficit to see that type of reckless abandon in attacking from the blue line. Barberio fed Panik on the right wing, who flipped it cross slot to Ondrej Palat, who then one touched it to Johnson for the quick shot past Niemi, spoiling the shutout bid for the Sharks netminder, who still finished with a tremendous .973 save percentage.
And so, now 0-3 on this current Western swing after going 7-0 against the mighty West to start the year, the Bolts are back to the drawing board tomorrow against the Anaheim Ducks, with another chances to snap out of their longest losing streak of the season. Don't hit the panic button yet, but maybe lift the glass cover and put your hand over it for now...
- Some of this is score effects, but the Lightning actually outshot the Sharks for the night, 37-36, and played their best at the start of the second period where they had control of the puck for much of the first ten minutes. Wingels' second goal was a real backbreaker that the Bolts never recovered from.
- Valterri Filppula got absolutely killed at the dot, mostly by Logan Couture. Filppula ended up winning just 26% of his draws, while Couture won 74% of his. Faceoffs establish puck possession, and while what you do with the puck once you have it is far more important than winning/losing a draw, the Lightning routinely put themselves in a position to defend by losing own-zone draws and had to work to re-gain entry by losing them in the offensive zone.
- There were only three penalties called in the entire game, all in the first period. Neither team scored on any of their opportunities (Tampa Bay was 0/1, San Jose 0/2). The Lightning special teams units played very well, limiting good looks on Lindback for the most part, and their one power play opportunity was outstanding at moving the puck, creating looks, and retrieving pucks. Valterri Filppula, Martin St. Louis, J.T. Brown, Teddy Purcell, and Victor Hedman played the full 2:00 on that one man advantage and while they didn't score, they looked very good with Hedman running the show from the center point.
- The power play was one place where this was evident, but it's been true now for a few games (since the Stamkos injury) -- this team doesn't have a good bunch of "shoot first" players. There are a lot of good distributors, playmakers, puck handlers, and skaters, but no elite finishers, or even guys who look to shoot the puck first. The Bolts are going to continue to struggle to score goals if this continues, and it's been very problematic on the current road trip and ongoing offensive slump.
- Alex Killorn replaced Brett Connolly as "2nd line center" but skated just 13:44, all of it at 5v5, and won just 38% of his draws. Connolly, down on the fourth line with Nate Thompson and BJ Crombeen, skated just 8:53, and still hasn't got a fair look as a top-6 winger.
- Anders Lindback got the start, and while his overall numbers continue to look pretty bad (31 saves on 36 shots, .861 save percentage) he was battling hard, tracking the puck well, and making big saves way too often. The Sharks worked the puck into scoring areas with ease and forced Lindback to move around in his net, opening up holes for quick passes to the slot or point which their shooters exploited. But by no means does this one go on the goalie. Lindback was good. The Sharks were just much, much better.
- If you're looking for a small silver lining, the Lightning did look pretty good in their overall possession game, controlling 51.7% of all shot attempts for the game and building most of that advantage in the first and second periods before the score got out of hand. Unfortunately, it was all Sharks in terms of converting on possession and chances, as the Lightning were stymied by Antti Niemi until well after the game was decided.
- J.T. Brown led the way with the Lightning controlling 70% of all shot attempts when he was on the ice. His success as a second line right wing may keep Brett Connolly down on the fourth line in the future, however.