At some point, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to have to stop giving up leads.
If they want to establish themselves as legitimate Eastern Conference contenders and secure the #2 seed in the Atlantic Division -- which would guarantee a favorable first-round match-up -- this problem is going to have to eventually be fixed.
On Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the Bolts got away with it again, giving up 1-0 and 4-2 leads and laying a major egg in the third period while holding on for a 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The first period opened up the way you might expect considering the Leafs -- like the last two opponents for the Lightning -- were playing the second half of a back-to-back. The Bolts scored on their first shot of the game, a harmless wrist shot from just inside the blue line by Radko Gudas, that found its way through traffic and into the back of the net just a minute into the game.
After carrying the balance of play through much of the early part of the first period, the Leafs would take a 2-1 lead with a couple of quick transition goals. Gudas, who scored the opening goal for Tampa Bay, lost his stick along the wall following an offensive zone faceoff, forcing him to skate across the rink lengthwise to either retrieve a new one or to make a change. That left Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson to rotate down to the net to cover and left Phil Kessel open long enough to snap a quick pass through the crease behind Ben Bishop to tie the game at 3:31 of the first.
Toronto's goals, however, came without any extended zone time or long forays into Tampa Bay's end, as the Bolts mostly controlled possession of the puck, particularly at 5v5. That eventually led to long, tiring defensive shifts, and to penalties. David Clarkson, prized off season free agent acquisition (and embarrassing dud so far this year) was called for interfering with Victor Hedman, sending the Lightning to the man advantage.
After Sami Salo shot a puck into a crowd in front of James Reimer, the Leafs penalty killers scrambled around, allowing Valterri Filppula to calmly collect the loose puck and snap it quickly through two defenders right to Steven Stamkos on the left circle for a quick one-timer that Reimer had zero chance on, tying the game at 1-1. Stamkos would then give the Lightning the lead for good later in the period as the Leafs lost him in defensive coverage in front of the net. Tyler Johnson fed the puck to him for a quick shot to make it 3-2 Tampa Bay at 15:39.
At 5:55 of the second period, the Lightning built on their lead when Steven Stamkos completed a natural hat trick, scoring his third goal of the game. Eric Brewer made a nice play to hold the puck in on a blown zone exit by the Leafs' Joffrey Lupul. Brewer shoveled it on net, putting the shot low off Reimer's pads to the waiting Stamkos, who buried the rebound for a 4-2 Lightning lead.
From that point on, it was all Leafs.
Perhaps it was deliberate -- instruction from the coaches to take the foot off the proverbial pedal, to ease up since the Lightning must face the Ottawa Senators in their own back-to-back situation tomorrow. That type of tactical, calculated risk would be easier to swallow than the alternative: that the Lightning packed it in and coasted to the end of a game that they had not yet won, letting themselves be dominated by a tired Toronto Maple Leafs squad that had played the night before.
In either case, the Leafs pushed back, outshooting the Lightning 22-8 in the final twenty minutes of the game. They drew within a goal when Jake Gardiner swooped around behind the net and lifted a quick fadeaway wraparound over Bishop to make the score 4-3. Fortunately for the Bolts, the undisciplined play for the Leafs continued when Jay McClement took a crippling high-sticking penalty late with the Leafs pushing for an equalizer.
On the ensuing power play, Tyler Johnson probably got away with what could have been an interference call on a zone entry. He then scored a put-away goal on the man advantage off a feed from Ryan Malone as Tim Gleason (the man he knocked down on the way in) couldn't get back in time to stop the shot from in close. That gave the Lightning the insurance goal they needed to put this game away for good and put the Lightning three points ahead of the Leafs in the standings with a pair of games in hand.
- Ben Bishop made nearly as many saves in the 3rd period (21) as James Reimer made the entire game (25). That's a cute stat but it also point out just how much Tampa Bay folded it up in the third period in full-fledged "weather the storm" mode.
- Former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Paul Ranger had a scary moment at the conclusion of the first period on this hit from Alex Killorn. As Killorn pointed out after the game, he has no record with the Department of Player Safety and does not have a history of dirty play in his short career. Boarding was absolutely the right call, but the NHL must be careful not to punish to the result of the hit rather than the legality of the hit itself. Ranger clearly looks up to the clock and sees time expiring and decides to turn with the puck at literally the last second in an effort to shield it from Killorn to run out the period. Killorn, at that point, is already committed to the hit and drives hard through what he expects will be Ranger's shoulder. Instead, it's the back of his head and the numbers on his jersey. Tough play to judge but ultimately, it seems like 5 minutes + the game will be punishment enough for Killorn.
- According to various reports, Ranger was "stable, conscious, and alert" as of 5:53 PM Eastern after being stretchered off and taken to the hospital. Nick Kypreos was reporting that Ranger may be released from the hospital as soon as this evening.
- After facing three straight tired opponents on the 2nd night of their back-to-backs, the Lightning will face a back-to-back of their own as they face the Ottawa Senators tomorrow. Jon Cooper has a tough decision to make. Go with his gut and back to Ben Bishop -- as he has done in the past with success this year -- or give Bishop the night off and go with the data, starting a rested Anders Lindback instead against the fading Sens.
- After tomorrow's game, there
is only one back-to-back setare two back-to-back sets left on the schedule for the Lightning: March 29 and 30th against the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings on the road and April 10 and 11 at home versus the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets.