The Tampa Bay Lightning played very good hockey for about 10% of this game.
10% was almost enough, as the Lightning fell just short of making the Wild regret going to an all-out defensive strategy in the final minutes of a 2-1 win for the home team.
The game started off as expected for the Tampa Bay Lightning as the fourth in a four-game road swing through the north-er parts of North America. The Bolts were a little sloppy and sluggish with the puck, and while they fired their fair share of shots towards Minnesota Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper, the Wild had the better scoring chances, including Nino Neiderreiter hitting the goalpost on an open net with Ben Bishop scrambling stickless in his crease.
Moments later, Zach Parise partially fanned on a tic-tac-toe passing sequence that saw him miss an open twine by a wide margin, but the chance was still a terrific one following another bad play by the Bolts near their own blue line.
The Wild followed that up with a Zach Parise breakaway after a long in-zone shift by Tampa Bay. Teddy Purcell played catch with Valterri Filppula between the slot and the half-wall and tried to make an ill-advised lateral play with the puck that Parise intercepted and took the other way, forcing Bishop to make a big save.
For what has been a very effective and efficient 5v5 team this season, the Bolts have a penchant for heading to the penalty box, and Radko Gudas took an obligatory boarding call on a questionable hit midway through the first period, sending the Wild to the power play. That put the Bolts' atrocious penalty kill (12 kills in a row notwithstanding) out to try and keep the game a scoreless tie.
The increasingly feckless kill didn't take long to cede a goal, however, as Nedierreiter jammed a loose puck home on the rebound of a Jared Spurgeon one-timer following a simple cross crease pass that eluded the Bolts' penalty kill formation. That pass has been a struggle for the Lightning to defend all year, and while much fan chagrin was aimed at the Bolts defense not clearing the front of the net, even more problematic is the frequency with which opposing power plays set up cross-crease feeds, putting the kill in scramble mode.
The Lightning got a late power play in the first period after Radko Gudas had some words with former Lightning forward Stephane Veilleux, but the slumping man advantage unit continued to slump and the Lightning went into the first intermission down a goal and with some carry over power play time.
In the second period, with the remainder of the power play wasted, Bishop had to make save after save as the Wild came out guns blazing and the Lightning continued to sleepwalk through their fourth road game in a row. Bishop was forced to make highlight reel saves on Mikael Granlund in the slot, Jason Zucker on a breakaway, and Kyle Brodizaik all alone just to keep the Lightning within a goal.
Through the first 30 or so minutes of the game, Nikita Kucherov (and his line, with Nate Thompson and J.T. Brown) was the only one with any jump at all, finding seams in the coverage and getting dangerous looks in and around the slot. But the Wild did a very nice job, with Ryan Suter playing a ridiculous amount and with last change, of keeping the Bolts' top two lines neutralized offensively.
Brown later undid some of the good effort he'd been putting in after a nice tap away steal on a backcheck; he then ended up giving it right back trying to feed the puck out of the zone to Victor Hedman. Jared Spurgeon quickly took it down the right wall and fed it in front to Dany Heatley to make it 2-0 Minnesota.
Again, the Bolts relied on the Kucherov line to get some semblance of offense going. A nice extended stay in Minnesota's end by that line resulted in a power play opportunity for the Bolts, but the Wild were able to kill it off and following that chance started to pack it in and protect the lead, opting to play dump-and-chase and make safe, defensive, "let's not get scored on" decisions with the puck.
Following that shift in strategy by Wild coach Mike Yeo and increased offensive pressure from the Lightning, Tampa Bay started to get some more good looks on Kuemper, including a nice sequence where the Wild netminder stopped Martin St. Louis on a cross-slot feed for a 1-timer. He also stopped an in-tight rebound opportunity to keep his club ahead by two with less than 10 minutes remaining.
After those good looks, it was a pretty harmless looking play that broke Kuemper's shutout bid with 6:07 left. Valterri Filppula, in his first game back from a lower-body injury sustained two games ago against the Ottawa Senators, tipped home a long point shot to make it 2-1.
That sparked a furious rally for the Lightning, needing just one more goal to maybe salvage a point out of a game they deserved to lose in regulation. Kuemper made one more terrific save -- on Alex Killorn in the slot -- before Jon Cooper pulled Ben Bishop with just under two minutes remaining.
Zach Parise missed a mostly clean look at the empty net just as Bishop came to the bench, but the Lightning turned around and moved the puck well at 6v5. Tyler Johnson had the best chance to tie it late with Bishop on the bench, but his attempt from the side of the net hit the far post past a sprawling Kuemper. The Lightning would never re-gain control in the offensive zone and the Wild held on for a 2-1 victory.
- The Lightning were lethargic and sloppy for most of the night before the Wild built their lead, and while they really turned it on late, there is certainly some score effects influence at work there, as the Wild only took 4 total shots in the final twenty minutes. That's not a credit to the Lightning's suddenly improved defense -- it's due to the Wild decidedly changing how they played, packing it in and playing to hold the lead rather than build on it.
- That strategy often leads to what we saw late -- a big surge by the trailing team -- and the Lightning pressed hard to claw back in. For the Wild, playing all-out defense only works if your goaltender can survive the requisite barrage, and Kuemper certainly did, stopping 12 of 13 shots in the third period alone and 34 of 35 on the night (.971 save percentage).
- I'm pretty sure Ryan Suter is a robot, because holy crap does he take a lot of shifts. Wild coach Mike Yeo seemed to send him out every other shift; of course, an early injury to Wild defenseman Marco Scandella excarbated that, but he's already leading the league in average time on ice/game and he skated a whopping 34:31 tonight against the Bolts, almost 8 minutes more than his nearest teammate (Jonas Brodin) and a full ten minutes more than the top on-ice guy for the Lightning (Victor Hedman at 24:34).
- The Bolts, 6th worst in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage at 48.2, were dominant in the dot against the Wild, winning 36/56 draws (64.2%). Tyler Johnson and Valterri Filppula both won at least 70% of their draws.
- In spite of the lackluster overall effort, Martin St. Louis had a hell of a night in terms of puck possession -- the Lightning controlled 81.0% of all shot attempts when number 26 was on the ice (17 attempts for, 4 against) which is unbelievably dominant control of the puck even considering score effects.