They say good teams find ways to win even in games they don't deserve to be in.
So perhaps Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum is proof positive that the Tampa Bay Lightning might just be a good team.
After 58 minutes or so of being almost completely outplayed, the Bolts found a way to turn things on in the waning moments of regulation, evening the score with a pair of Valtteri Filppula goals in the final three minutes to force overtime and a shootout, which they won on tallies by Filppula and rookie forward Nikita Kucherov. Ben Bishop stopped John Tavares and Tomas Vanek to earn his 18th win of the season.
The first period was played at a higher pace than we've seen lately in games the Lightning have participated, as both teams moved through the neutral zone fairly easily and shots on net weren't exactly hard to come by. Poor neutral zone and transition defense by the Lightning reared it's ugly head again, as the Bolts gave up what seemed like handful of grade A scoring chances to the Isles, a fast team that likes to use their speed to create offense on the rush rather than with a grinding/cycling offensive zone style.
Fortunately for the Bolts, goaltender Ben Bishop stayed hot, stopping all 12 shots he saw in the first and keeping the Islanders off the board in spite of a number of terrific chances as the Islanders seemed to break through into the Lightning zone with relative ease.
The game looked to be headed for yet another low-scoring final when Kyle Okposo finally broke through on a carryover power play to start the second period. A long one-time from the center point on a feed from John Tavares eluded Ben Bishop, who couldn't find the puck through a couple of screens in front, giving the Isles a 1-0 lead.
Victimized by poor defensive play for much of the second period, Bishop was forced to come up with way too many high quality saves to keep the Lightning in the game. The highlight was a terrific stop on a bona fide 2-on-0 break that the Islanders somehow failed to convert. Perhaps most troubling, however, was how easy odd-man rushes and breakaways seemed to be for the Islanders, who seemed to be cherry-picking a little but blew by flatfooted and pinching defensemen in neutral ice all night long.
Frans Nielsen appeared to put the game out of reach with a goal scored on a rush with Michael Grabner with less than 10 minutes remaining in regulation time, as Matt Taormina got caught deep in the offensive zone leaving Valtteri Filppula to rotate back and cover the left point. Grabner, one of the fastest skaters in the entire league, played the puck nicely off the boards to himself and blew past Filppula, leaving Sami Salo as the lone man back. Filppula was unable to recover and get to the second man on the rush leaving Nielsen alone for a quick wrist shot that beat Bishop for a 2-0 lead.
Ironically, it was Nielsen who also put the Lightning right back in the game with less than three minutes remaining. An ill-advised backhand outlet through the middle of the ice was intercepted by Filppula right in front of Isles goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who stood no chance to stop the high, quick snap shot from Filppula that got the Lightning on the board. It was exactly the type of giveaway the Lightning have been prone to make at times this season, but for once, the Bolts were able to capitalize on a glaring error made by an opponent.
The goal galvanized the Bolts, who pressed hard for an equalizer with Bishop pulled for an extra attacker. Nikita Kucherov made a nice play carrying the puck towards the net and pushing it through a defender's legs towards Nabokov which led to a mad scramble in front. Nabokov, flailing around in his crease, was unable to find the puck, which bounced around the blue paint before it ended up on Filppula's stick for a push-in goal that tied the game with 3.8 seconds remaining before the Islanders secured the two points in regulation.
- Valterri Filppula has been a tremendous get for the Lightning after signing as a UFA this summer. But one underrated aspect of his game so far this season has been his production in shootouts -- after converting another attempt tonight, Filppula is now 4/6 on the year in shootout attempts (66.7% shooting percentage) and has four of the team's nine total shootout goals. So nearly half of the entire team's production in the skills competition is coming from one player. He's been instrumental in helping the Lightning get the bonus point, as the Bolts improved to 5-1 in the shootout this season.
- Speaking of the skills competition, how about Nikita Kucherov? While he's still finding his feet a bit as an NHLer and the points aren't coming in bunches (yet) during regulation play, the Russian youngster has been, like Filppula, a godsend in the shootouts. He's 2/3 (66.7% shooting percentage) on the year himself and put a filthy Forsbergian shot through Evgeni Nabokov's five hole for the shootout game-winner tonight.
- I didn't really expect to be saying this at this point of the season, but with the injuries this club has sustained, Andrej Sustr is playing like a legitimate top-4 NHL defenseman right now. He's head and shoulders above Mark Barberio and Matt Taormina both literally and figuratively and until Victor Hedman returns from injury (reportedly soon, perhaps as early as Thursday) I don't see why Jon Cooper shouldn't ride Gudas-Carle and Sustr-Salo for as many minutes as they can handle. Barberio, Taormina, and Eric Brewer all struggled mightily in transition especially against a fast Islander's team that exposed some weakness on the bottom half of the Lightning blue line.
- The Islanders blocked a whopping 27 shots in this game (compared to just 9 for the Lightning).
- Ben Bishop stopped 28 of 29 shots at even strength (.965 ESSV%). The script for the Lightning is pretty similar -- find Bishop just a little goal support and the team has a very good chance to win.
- Richard Panik skated just over 10 minutes of TOI as the 10th forward on the "non-4th line", rotating in along with B.J. Crombeen as Jon Cooper went with 11F/7D again. While he's lost his spot alongside Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, he led the Lightning tonight in terms of possession, as the Bolts controlled a stellar 78.6% of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) with him on the ice. The Islanders managed just 3 unblocked shot attempts towards Bishop when Panik was on the ice, compared to 11 headed towards Nabokov.