At some point, something is going to have to be done about the Tampa Bay Lightning penalty kill.
The Lightning entered play tonight against the Nashville Predators for the first time since the Sochi Winter Olympics. They started off near the bottom of the league in every major penalty kill metric -- kill percentage, shots against, and shot attempts against.
After giving up a 2-0 lead with three consecutive power play goals allowed, those numbers will drop.
The first period was played fairly evenly, with neither team getting the better of shots or scoring chances as both sides tried to shake off the rust of time off or fatigue after returning to North America following the Olympics.
In spite of the continuing rumors surrounding him, Bolts captain Martin St. Louis showed for at least one period that he has only one setting: "go". In the first, he scored a pair of goals -- one at 5v5, one on the power play -- to put the Lightning ahead 2-0 at the end of twenty minutes. One came off a rebound from a backhand shot by Ondrej Palat; the second was a shot on the power play that hit Preds goaltender Carter Hutton in the pads and somehow trickled through.
In spite of the 2-0 lead, however, Nashville played a strong period and it didn't seem like the type of game Tampa Bay would be able to put away early.
The second period went mostly the same as the first; about midway through, J.T. Brown blocked a shot and went down on the ice and goes straight to the locker room with what will undoubtedly be labeled a "lower body" injury. He later returned to the bench and the ice, saving the Lightning from another blow to organizational forward depth.
Then, the Lightning parade to the penalty box began. The Bolts took three minor penalties in the second and a major (a fight between B.J. Crombeen and Rich Clune) putting the Preds on a pair of power plays with a chance to draw even without having to crack the tough 5v5 play which has been a signature of the Lightning all season long.
First was a too many men call on the Lightning as Martin St. Louis and Nikita Kucherov botched a line change. The Lightning penalty kill, which has been near the bottom of the league by almost every measure all season long, started off mostly keeping Preds to the outside. But eventually Nashville found an open point man in Ryan Ellis for a shot pass and an empty net shot from the left side by Matt Cullen, bringing the Preds within a goal at 2-1.
Then, rookie forward Vlad Namestnikov took a questionable hooking call after the resulting 5v5 play following the goal, as the Preds smartly turned the power play goal into even strength momentum that had the Lightning scrambling around in their own zone.
More bad penalty killing ensued as Roman Josi walked straight in from the blue line and buried a huge slapper past Bishop, who had little chance with Hornqvist standing in front. That tied the game a 2 goals apiece. Tyler Johnson got caught high in the zone attempting to break up a D-to-D feed and Sami Salo failed to vacate the front of the net and challenge the shooter, allowing Josi all the time and space he needed to blast away past a screened Bishop.
Again the Preds followed their power play success with a good 5v5 shift, hemming the Lightning in and forcing the Bolts to chip in change, not generating nearly enough shots or scoring chances in and around Hutton, who looked shaky for most of the night.
The Preds used those power plays and the resulting 5v5 momentum to take over the game, outshooting the Lightning 13-4 in the second period.
The third, unfortunately, didn't look much different from the second, as the Lightning managed a measly 3 shots on goal in the final frame of a listless effort.
The Lightning got their second power play of the game on a tripping call to Paul Gaustad drawn by Ryan Malone, but the Bolts did nothing with that power play and Malone took a penalty at the end of it to kill the last few seconds and put Nashville on yet another man advantage with a chance to win the game in regulation.
That's exactly what they did, as a long shot towards the net was jammed through Bishop by Patric Hornqvist to seal a come-from-behind 3-2 victory for Nashville.
The Lightning had a few late chances -- Nikita Kucherov hit the post on a snipe that beat Hutton cleanly, but still no luck for the awfully snakebitten rookie. Tyler Johnson had a good look at a mostly empty net from the left circle but a sliding Shea Weber snuffed that attempt out and the Preds closed out an easily earned 3-2 victory.
- Minor penalties are going to happen. This is hockey and players will make mistakes. So while it's easy to point the finger at Ryan Malone for his boneheaded call that led to the game-winner, or Vlad Namestnikov for his call that led to another Nashville goal, the real problem here is and always has been the penalty kill. The Lightning are giving up the 7th most unblocked shot attempts in the league at 4v5 and the 10th most shots, and they're killing off 79.4% of power plays -- 5th worst in the NHL. They are allowing entry with control, not challenging the puck carrier, and not sealing off passing and shooting lanes. At times, the penalty killing strategy seems to be "skate around and then hope Ben Bishop makes a save". This is unacceptable. It must be addressed.
- Jon Cooper called the final two periods "disgracefully embarrassing" which is actually a bit of an understatement. The Lightning played, quite frankly, the worst hockey we've seen in some time. They lost all the 50/50 pucks. They were chasing the puck all night in the defensive zone. They could generate little to no offensive zone time or good scoring chances on Carter Hutton. It was ugly. And all that said, they still didn't give up a 5v5 goal.
- Center depth is still a little iffy. The lines looked out of synch with Johnson, Pyatt, Namestnikov and Thompson as the four pivots. This team desperately needs neutral zone wizard Valterri Filppula back in the lineup. Steven Stamkos wouldn't hurt either.
- The Lightning had just seven shots on goal in the final two periods. 40 minutes of hockey. Including almost a full two minute power play. Seven shots on goal. Seven.
- Breaking even in shot attempts were Nikita Kucherov (55.6% Corsi For) and B.J. Crombeen (50.0% Corsi For). Everyone else got destroyed.
- It's typically not a good sign when the only offense you do muster comes from a player that reportedly wants out of town. The Lightning got very little in the way of good scoring chances that didn't come off Martin St. Louis' stick. You have to wonder if the lack of offense from the rest of lineup hurts even more.