The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Colorado Avalanche 5-2 this evening in a game that displayed a looser approach from the hometown team.
Early on, the Avalanche swarmed the Lightning with an aggressive forecheck and bursts of speed. The Avalanche might not be a good team, but they do have an impressive set of fast forwards that can punish teams. Less than 90 seconds into the first period Gabriel Landeskog did just that.
Landeskog recovered a puck that had bounced away from Nikita Kucherov near the left faceoff circle and immediately drove towards Peter Budaj. Kucherov was never able to effectively check Landeskog as he moved towards the goal and Andrej Sustr also couldn’t get an effective stick check on him. Landeskog skated past Budaj and backhanded it over his glove to give Colorado the early lead.
In hindsight, Sustr could’ve reacted sooner to Landeskog, however, Kucherov was frantically trying to poke the puck away from Landeskog. In that situation, I can’t entirely blame the tall defender for sticking in the slot and zoning out Mikko Rantanen.
Luckily, Tampa Bay wouldn’t have to worry about that goal for long as Vladislav Namestnikov set up Steven Stamkos with a cross-ice bank pass that led to the tying goal 25 seconds later. Stamkos outskated Colorado defender Erik Johnson and roofed a backhand past Semyon Varlamov to knot the game at one.
From then on the momentum shifted squarely into the hands of the Lightning as they proceeded to dominate the Avalanche for large portions of the period. Chris Kunitz scored off of a deflected Dan Girardi shot to give the Lightning the lead, and everything seemed to be going in Tampa Bay’s favor.
Unfortunately, the Lightning became a little lax with their offensive pressure and with that slight reprieve the Avalanche capitalized.
Dan Girardi made a cross-zone pass to Slater Koekkoek at the blue line. Koekkoek glided towards the boards looking at his passing options. In this instance, Koekkoek has two choices: dump the puck deeper into the offensive zone or skate the puck down the boards and towards the net. Koekkoek chose to pass to Stamkos who was high in the offensive zone looking to take Koekkoek’s place at the blue line. I’m assuming Stamkos did this because he thought Koekkoek would skate the puck down the boards.
Stamkos was immediately swarmed by two Avalanche players and had the puck promptly stripped away. Erik Johnson skated down the ice and beat Peter Budaj on a rather pedestrian shot from the right faceoff circle. Yes, Koekkoek made a mistake in the offensive zone, but Budaj has to make that save. Girardi made it back into the defensive zone and took away the passing option Johnson would’ve had. Budaj just whiffed on this save and it’s been a troubling sign for him in the games he has played. He’s been rusty to start games and allowed some questionable goals. Luckily, he has managed to shake off the rust as the games have progressed, but at some point, his slow starts are going to become a concern for Tampa Bay.
The second period saw the Avalanche push the pace for the first five minutes, but Tampa Bay’s defense did a solid job at limiting their shooting angles. Unfortunately, the Lightning had some issues transitioning the puck through the neutral zone and were hemmed in their own zone for longer periods of time.
It’s a trend we’ve seen occur regularly this season, but Tampa Bay has consistently found ways to break periodic slumps during games (case in point, the Islanders game two days ago).
Midway through the second period Tampa Bay finally managed to gain some offensive pressure. Anton Stralman threw the puck in deep from the blue line where Namestnikov and Stamkos both went after it behind the net. Namestnikov reached it first and touch-passed the puck towards Stamkos—only one Avalanche defender followed them behind the net while the other stayed to the side of Varlamov. Stamkos then fed a pass to Tyler Johnson (who was wide open due to the other Avalanche defender being out of position) who immediately one-timed it towards Varlamov. The Avalanche netminder made the initial save, but the puck bounced towards Namestnikov at the side of the net (remember that Avalanche defender who was out of position on Johnson? That defender had scrambled towards Johnson and no one picked up Namestnikov as he coasted behind the net after passing the puck to Stamkos). Namestnikov lifted the puck past Varlamov to give the Lightning the lead once again.
The second ended largely the same way the first did. Tampa controlling the game in all facets, with the added bonus of actually holding the lead.
Tampa Bay noticeably eased off their pressure in the third period, but even though the Avalanche started to slowly creep back into the shot share race there were only a few hair-raising moments for Lightning fans. Before those moments, however, was the insurance goal to put Tampa Bay up 4-2. I’ll get into more detail about the first power-play unit later in the recap, but Alex Killorn’s power-play goal was a welcome sign for a unit that had struggled for the majority of the night.
As I previously stated, Budaj has consistently gotten sharper as games have progressed and he proved it twice during the final period. Budaj fended off two breakaways from the Avalanche and (hilariously) sighs of relief could be heard all around Amalie Arena.
With the two-goal lead, the Lightning laid back a little and that allowed Colorado to mount a little pressure. Fortunately, Budaj held the fort and the Lightning closed out the Avalanche with Brayden Point’s empty net goal to secure their 20th win of the season (20 wins in 28 games).
Not Playing Down to the Opposition
Tampa Bay has had a peculiar trait under Jon Cooper’s reign. They’ve developed a habit of playing down to their opposition in games that are against inferior teams. It’s been noticeable in every year Cooper has coached the team. Is it Cooper’s fault? I’m not so quick to place blame on him. Things like these tend to fall on the players' mindsets more than anything. A coach can drill a gameplan and mentality into his players, but it’s up to the players to execute it.
Last season, Tampa Bay was 1-5-0 against the three worst teams in the league (Colorado, Vancouver, and Arizona). It occurred this season when the Rangers (who were on a losing streak, playing poorly, and near the bottom of the conference) came to town.
This evening, Tampa Bay didn’t play down to Colorado. They pushed the pace after a poor first 90 seconds and didn’t give the Avalanche much room to generate offense for the rest of the game.
Penalty Kill Stands Tall
Tampa Bay only committed three penalties this evening, but with the offensive talent Colorado boasts it is always a little worrisome when they go on the power-play.
The penalty kill forced the majority of Colorado’s shots to the outside and when the puck did make towards the slot they were quick to retrieve it and clear the zone. Budaj also made his presence known with a variety of saves that quelled any kind of pressure from the Avalanche. Additionally, he didn’t provide many rebounds for the Avalanche forwards to pounce on.
Budaj’s Early Struggles
I know, he finished the game with a .933 save percentage. I know, he shut the door down after allowing that weak goal to Erik Johnson. I know.
The issue with Budaj is that he has started poorly in every game he has played in this season. Here are Budaj’s numbers before tonight’s game: 1-2-1, .867 save percentage, 3.75 goals against. Those aren’t pretty. No matter which way you try to spin the narrative.
Tampa Bay is now 2-2-1 with Budaj in net, which isn’t bad, but most of his issues have come early in games and luckily Tampa has managed to negate that by scoring themselves out of problems.
Now, I’m thinking ahead here. My worry is that Cooper rides Vasilevskiy too hard (think Cam Talbot last season for Edmonton) and wears him out. Budaj has played five times in 28 games which is a pace for 14 appearances this season; meaning Vasilevskiy is on pace to play 68 games.
If Budaj’s early struggles are simply him not playing enough then I’d like to see Jon Cooper give him a few extra starts and get him around 20 games. We don’t want to fall into the situation Edmonton is in right now (Talbot has floundered this season and is injured).
Cooper did state in the post-game press conference that the backup goalie job isn’t easy and that Budaj has struggled early in games, but he’s always bounced back.
Currently, it isn’t detrimental to the Lightning. Moving forward though? It could become a problem. The backend of the NHL season is always rife with odd occurrences.
First Power-Play Unit
Yes, the first power-play unit is still scoring and we all knew their ridiculous shooting percentages would come back to earth. However, a trend has become apparent these last 10 games. Teams are attacking the Lightning power-play more now. Teams know what Tampa Bay wants to do on the power-play and they’ve keyed in on it.
Luckily, the power-play is talented and can adapt, but there are times when they try to do the same thing over and over again. Specifically, the cross-zone (called passing across the royal road by our advanced metrics friends) pass.
Opposing penalty kills have tried to neutralize this play by aggressively attacking the puck carrier near the boards. For Tampa Bay, those two players would be Stamkos and Kucherov. By aggressively attacking them they’re forcing Stamkos and Kucherov to pass before they want to and that causes problems for the power-play.
Additionally, Colorado was aggressive attacking the points and forcing the Lightning defensemen to play the puck sooner than they would like. This isn’t new strategy teams employ, and it isn’t one to become overly worried about. However, it is something we should be aware of and understand. The first power-play unit adapted as the game progressed and it resulted in Killorn being left open for his one-timer to give the Lightning some much-needed cushion.
Just something for you all to think about.