As the remaining seconds of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 79th game against the Boston Bruins ticked away, any realistic hope of making the playoffs were dashed to the tune of a 4-0 loss to a division rival.
The Lightning was never in control of this game — the Bruins came out hungry to clinch a playoff spot for the first time in two seasons. This was evident when Boston carried play for large portions of the game. Boston’s first two goals were due to poor defensive positioning by the Lightning, while the Bruins’ third goal was a display of perfect passing on the power play.
Andrei Vasilevskiy should hold his head high since he was the only thing keeping this game from becoming an absolute slaughter. Tampa Bay had small surges of offensive possession during the second and third periods, but nothing they did had any effect on Tuukka Rask or the rest of the Bruins.
Even with Brad Marchand being ejected for his ridiculously dirty spear (will he be suspended for any length of time beyond the regular season by the inept Department of Player Safety?) on Jake Dotchin at the end of the first period didn’t provide much of a spark for Tampa Bay.
A five-minute power-play that bled into the second period produced two shots on goal and a myriad of issues entering the offensive zone. Boston had a game plan for shutting Tampa Bay down by smothering the Lightning in their own zone and clogging the neutral zone, and they executed it to perfection.
The Bruins first goal was a slightly fortuitous bounce off a rebound by Vasilevskiy. The puck fell in between Victor Hedman and Andrej Sustr who both tried to swat at the puck but missed. Drew Stafford was able to corral the puck and lift a backhanded shot over Vasilevskiy’s left shoulder to put Boston up 1-0 early in the second period.
If the first goal could be summed up as “lucky bounce”, then the second goal could be summed up as “shit offense leads to shit defense.” Jonathan Drouin made a nifty play to get around two Boston defenders and had a small amount of space to put a shot on net, but instead decided to blindly perform a drop pass hoping to catch Ondrej Palat streaking behind.
Unfortunately, the second Bruins defender poked Drouin’s pass and pushed the play towards the Lightning zone. Once Boston quickly established possession in the Lightning zone, Riley Nash slid a pass between a kneeling Anton Stralman to a wide-open David Pastrnak (who was inexplicably not covered by the closest Lightning player…which was Drouin) who promptly put a one-timer underneath Vasilevskiy’s blocker to make it 2-0.
The nail in the coffin came when Yanni Gourde took a high-sticking penalty while in the offensive zone during one of the few times Tampa Bay actually had some semblance of possession in the offensive zone. During the ensuing power-play, Boston made Tampa Bay’s penalty look like junior players as they quickly moved the puck (and in turn the Lightning penalty killers out of position) and forced Vasilevskiy to make timely saves.
Vasilevskiy could only do so much as Boston’s passing forced Lightning defenders out of position with 18 seconds left on the penalty kill, where Zdeno Chara blasted a one-timer between Vasilevskiy’s legs to put the game out of reach. The fourth goal was an empty-netter and had no effect on the game.
In a game that was Tampa Bay’s biggest of the season the Lightning laid an inexcusable egg. There was no visible desperation from the Bolts and they were consistently outskated and outfought by a Bruins team that was clearly hungry. Although the Lightning isn't mathematically eliminated yet (there is still a slim chance they make the post season) losing this game almost solidifies their early tee-times for the summer.
Conversely, this Lightning team deserves some praise for being in a position to battle for a playoff spot with three games remaining after being dead last in the Eastern Conference shortly after the new year rung in. Since general manager, Steve Yzerman traded Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle, and Valterri Filppula, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the best teams in the NHL.
It’s because Yzerman’s trades opened positions for younger players to fill that the Lightning had a resurgence, and made many in the NHL look over their shoulders and pray that Tampa Bay wouldn’t make the postseason. This team dug its own grave early in the season with its poor play, and even a spirited post-deadline surge wasn’t enough to fully turn the season around. But this team still showed it has the capability to play.
Once the season ends and Lightning management and coaching staff get together to figure out where everything went wrong, hopefully some changes are made.
The system the Lightning run defensively clearly isn’t effective moving forward, and the 5v5 offense really needs to see an uptick in production (this team has ridden a great power play all season).
Yes, having Steven Stamkos back will help, but the Lightning cannot rely on talent alone to become an elite team again. They need to look at their strategies and adapt to the changes other teams have made.