After falling behind 2-0 in the first period and losing 3-1 to the Devils on Saturday, a narrative of the Lightning’s “slow starts” emerged in the Tampa media. I spent part of the day on Twitter poking holes in the narrative and pointing out that the Bolts started strong against NJ, controlling much of the play, but getting beat twice by the types of goals that sometimes just happen in hockey games. But even I can’t deny that they started slowly tonight. Started slow, continued slow, and finished slow.
The onslaught from the Rangers started from the jump with New York outshooting Tampa 22-13 and outchancing them 8-3 in the first period. But despite that, Tampa hung in the game largely on the back of Ben Bishop. The Bolts got a power play at the end of the period and nearly scored on a beautiful pass from Drouin on the left half boards to Kucherov in the slot for a one-timer. But it didn’t get past Rangers backup goalie Antti Raanta, and the period ended scoreless.
The second period was more of the same type of hockey with the Rangers dominating the play. But the results were much different. They put four goals on the scoreboard with a seemingly never ending barrage of grade-A scoring chances. Coming into the game, the Lightning coaching staff switched the defensive pairings. And at no point in the game did Tampa ever seem comfortable with their responsibilities defensively either in the neutral zone or defensive zone. The Rangers constantly sped through the neutral zone carrying the puck cleanly into the Tampa defensive zone and creating odd man rushes. On the rare opportunities when New York didn’t score on the rush, they set up in the zone and moved the puck through acres wide passing lanes. At the end of the second period, the shot breakdown was more than 60/40 in favor of the Rangers.
The Rangers added two more goals in the third period including Michael Grabner scoring his third goal of the game on yet another odd man rush after yet another defensive breakdown in the neutral zone that carried into the defensive zone. The Lightning did get a garbage time power play and Nikita Kucherov found Steven Stamkos at the back post for a deflected goal to break up the shutout. But the game had been well decided by then.
The Lightning play next on Tuesday against the Islanders who looked good in beating Toronto 5-1 tonight. I would expect the team to say all the standard cliches after tonight’s game. The effort wasn’t good enough. They have to start faster. They have to play better defensively. They have to be more responsible. Maybe they’ll even have a players-only meeting tomorrow.
But a more appropriate response would be for the coaching staff to examine why they broke up three defensive pairs that had collectively allowed the sixth least shots and fifth least scoring chances against coming into this game. Instead of sticking with a lineup that had been playing fairly well despite back to back losses to the Canadiens and Devils, they elected to make big changes to the defensive assignments and the team immediately had its worst defensive performance of the season. So while the players will undoubtedly say what everyone wants to hear, I hope the coaching staff will examine the reasons they made those changes and how those changes impacted the team’s performance tonight.