With a difficult February schedule looming on the horizon, the Tampa Bay Lightning need to bank as many points as possible now, particularly against weaker competition.
A couple bad bounces early and an inability to do anything on their power play doomed the Lightning on Tuesday night in Raleigh as they failed to bank points against a team jockeying for position to draft 1st overall this summer, falling 4-2 to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Lightning didn't get off to the start they wanted coming out of the All-Star Break, as a Eric Staal scored just 22 seconds into the game off of defenseman Anton Stralman to give the Canes an early 1-0 lead. Carolina built off the quick strike goal, carrying the balance of play early and extending their lead to 2-0 when a point shot caromed hard off the endboards and to the side of the net where Nathan Gerbe was waiting to put it home.
The Lightning, now facing an unexpected 2-0 hole on the road against a team they've typically dominated under Jon Cooper, burned their timeout early to regroup. Afterwards they turned on the jets in the back half of the first period, taking the frame's final 10 shots on goal and finishing with a 13-7 shots advantage.
A wide drive to the front of the net by Cedric Paquette resulted in a goal for the Bolts who pulled within a goal at 2-1, as the newly constructed line of Alex Killorn, Paquette, and Jonathan Drouin combined with the TKO trio to give the Canes fits in their own end, but failed to find another goal.
The teams traded chances in the first half of the second, with Steven Stamkos nearly scoring in the slot on an early power play, but Anton Khudobin made a few nice saves in weathering the man advantage. Carolina would then go on three consecutive power plays of their own, scoring on the first with a long-screen (a screen set by Cedric Paquette) shot to extend the Canes lead to 3-1. Tampa Bay managed to kill the other two and added a shorthanded goal to bring the score to 3-2 when Brian Boyle blocked an attempt by Victor Rask and finished a breakaway with a backhand through Anton Khudobin's five hole for his 10th goal of the season.
The Bolts would get one more power play themselves in the period and promptly did nothing with it, heading into the second intermission still trailing by a goal and looking to equalize in the final 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, the Lightning power play would fail them once again, with no shots in a full two minutes of 5v4 action and a quick transition goal capped off by Jiri Tlusty to bring the Canes lead back to two goals at 4-2. Carolina would retreat into a shell for the rest of the period with Tampa Bay pressing to claw back into the game, but they were unable to solve Anton Khudobin and ultimately fell 4-2 in their first game of the season's second half.
- Nikita Kucherov took a puck off the face on the power play in the 2nd period and was patched up on the bench; he returned to the game and finished with 15:08 of ice time, so he seems fine moving forward.
- Brian Boyle's breakaway shorthanded goal in the second was his 10th of the season for him with the Tampa Bay Lightning, especially surprising given he scored just 8 total goals in his final two seasons with the New York Rangers. But then, it's really not surprising. Random variance has a huge effect on scoring numbers in the NHL, and while Boyle has some skill for a big grinding forward, the reason he's potted 10 is because he's shooting over 12% for the year. He shot under 5% his past two years with New York.
- A reasonable expectation for Boyle moving forward? Given his defensive usage, he'll likely regress towards his career average (7.8%) and end up around 13-15 goals.
- Jon Cooper, like other aggressive coaches following the example set by Patrick Roy in recent seasons, pulled Ben Bishop down two goals with 2:30 remaining in an attempt to tie the game. Losing 5-2, 6-2, or 4-2 ultimately doesn't matter. A regulation loss is a regulation loss and goal differential tiebreaker is likely irrelevant for the Lightning this season.
- The power play has been atrocious all year and continues to be so. Full two-minute advantages cannot pass without a single shot on goal. This is unacceptable. Someone needs to be held accountable for the 5v4 unit's inability to create shots and chances. Something has to change.
- Ben Bishop stopped just 18 of 22 shots on the night (.818), and generally speaking did not have the strongest outing. With next to zero trust in backup Evgeni Nabokov and the team's desire to keep Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis developing in the AHL, the Lightning need to see more of good Ben Bishop in the season's second half.
- At the other end, Anton Khudobin was outstanding, stopping 28 of 30 shots faced (.933), including a handful of underrated saves on very good Lightning scoring chances.