Sitting atop the NHL and seemingly scoring at will, it can be easy to forget that there is a fine line between success and failure in this league. All it takes is for the puck to be just an inch or two to the right to deflect off the post, or for a player to reach just a little bit further with their stick to knock a pass offline.
When a team is struggling it seems that the pucks are always ringing off the post or the sticks are always in the way. When a team is rolling, like the Tampa Bay Lightning are at present, every puck hits the post and goes in, and every pass makes it through.
Steven Stamkos’ power play goal against Columbus is a perfect example of this trend. In the second period of their game on November 4th, the score is deadlocked at two goals a piece. It is a back and forth game that has seen both teams control the tempo at times. If the clock was rolled back a year, Lightning fans would expect to lose this game, it was just the way things went.
Instead, Stamkos scored with the extra man and the Lightning went on to win in the shootout. This power play goal was an important point in the game. If they don’t score the game remains tied, perhaps the Blue Jackets are buoyed by a successful penalty kill and march down the ice and score.
At full speed, the Lightning’s skill is wonderful to behold. The puck is ping-ponging back and forth and they are seemingly toying with the Columbus defenders. Breaking the goal down shows that in addition to their skill, more than a fair share of luck was involved. In fact, there are five distinct moments when an extra inch or bounce means the difference between success and failure.
The penalty itself. At 5:10 of the second period Ryan Murray is called for interference on Nikita Kucherov. His sin? Hitting Kucherov as the Lightning winner tried to pass the puck to himself in front of the Columbus net. In the ref’s mind, Kucherov no longer possessed the puck so it’s interference. Borderline call that if it happened against the Lightning would have some folks grumbling online.
With the top unit on the ice, Kucherov tries a backhand, arial pass to Stamkos that the captain is able to bat out of the air and control. For a struggling team, that puck misses Stamkos’ stick and trickles out of the zone and they have to reset.
The next few seconds are nice and conventional. Stamkos and Vlad Namestnikov pass it back and forth as the rest of the unit settles in to cycle the puck around. Stamkos eventually gets it to Victor Hedman at the point and he has a decision to make - shoot or pass. Columbus is passively defending the zone, and Nick Foligno drifts out to casually press Hedman. The Big Swede elects to pass it to Kucherov, because it’s never a bad idea to give him the puck in a place where he can shoot it.
Kucherov likes to score goals from that location. Everyone in the league knows it. So it’s no surprise that Columbus shifts to that side of the ice to defend his shot. Kucherov sees that Stamkos is open so he pulls his stick down and passes it through two Columbus defenders. Again, if this team was down on its luck, Nick Foligno blocks the pass and clears it down the ice.
The puck eludes the outstretched penalty killer and finds it’s way to Stamkos who elects to make the extra pass to Hedman. It’s not a bad play, as it looks like the puck is bouncing a bit. Hedman has a cannon for a shot and the Lightning with Namestnikov and Alex Killorn in front of the net are set up for a deflection or a rebound chance. The play has worked exactly how it was drawn up.
Hedman scuffs the one-timer and all of that set-up is tossed out the window. The play is now broken. Boone Jenner, who was sliding in place to block Hedman’s shot, deflects it to Kucherov. Again for a struggling team, this puck doesn’t find its way to the league-leading goal scorer. Kucherov has time to skate in and one-time it from a dangerous area. Bobrovsky certainly thinks that the league-leading goal scorer is going to do that as he has already squared up and dropped into the butterfly.
Kucherov, having already floated a backhand pass past one defender, and threaded another through two skaters, decides to increase the degree of difficulty by passing it through three Blue Jackets and Alex Killorn. Again, if the Lightning are riding a 1 for 12 power play slump, there is no way this pass gets through and Coach Cooper is talking about having to simplify their game and stop trying to pass the puck into the net in his post-game conference.
The puck does make it over to Stamkos and while whatever the Russian equivalent of “Ohhh (expletive deleted)” runs through Bobrovsky’s head the captain casually roofs it into the back of the net.
The Lightning offense, when it’s clicking, is poetry on ice. It’s a beautiful blend of scripted plays and seat-of-the-pants improvisation that only extremely talented players can pull off on a regular basis. Still, despite all of their skill, a positive result is always just an inch or two away from never existing.