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Poor play doom Tampa Bay Lightning as they fall to the Golden Knights, 4-1

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Nearly everybody loses in their first game back after Bye Week.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

An overall poor performance doomed the Tampa Bay Lightning this evening as the Vegas Golden Knights took two points (and swept the season series) by a score of 4-1, for the Bolts’ first game back from Bye Week.

Let’s just get into it...

Defensive breakdowns, poor passing, and inconsistent offense were the story of the first period between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The opening minute looked promising for the Lightning, but all the good fortune that the opening faceoff and offensive zone time they managed was for naught. James Neal deflected a Deryk Engelland point shot to give the Golden Knights the lead 56 seconds into the opening frame. The goal itself wasn’t the issue—at least in my eyes.

The issue was how Neal was allowed to park himself in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy and be in the position to deflect the shot. Watch the replay and you’ll see Neal was untouched until it was too late.

As you can see here everyone is looking at David Perron along the boards. Neal is sitting at the side of the net. Both of the Lightning defensemen are involved in the play here. The Lightning player cut out of the shot here is Steven Stamkos who was initially following Neal but stopped and moved to cover the point shooter.

This screenshot is a little over a second later. You can see Stamkos trying to block the shot. You can also see Girardi recognize that Neal is in a dangerous spot so he goes to move him away. Unfortunately...

He’s too late as Neal tips the puck right as Girardi makes contact. This kind of defensive lapse was becoming a little more apparent even with Victor Hedman in the lineup. Hedman could make up for a lot of mistakes on his own. Without him? Well, the first period had a few more situations like this occur and luckily those chances either went wide or Vasilevksiy stopped them.

Tampa Bay did bounce back a little during the second half of the opening frame, but again poor defensive positioning cost the Lightning late in the period.

Here we can see Erik Haula assessing his options as Girardi is the main defender trying to play him. Stamkos is covering the slot while Kucherov is playing above him in case he tries to bank it off the boards. Haula chooses to feed a pass between Stamkos and Kucherov instead (risky, but it pays off). Brayden McNabb receives the pass at the point and then feeds one to Nate Schmidt (who is already in shooting position).

Kucherov does what he is supposed to do and everyone else on the Lightning does as well—except for one person. I’m not exactly sure why Kunitz didn’t pressure the point more in this situation. Schmidt was floating towards the boards in a shooting stance when McNabb received Haula’s pass. Hell, if Kunitz played up a bit more he could’ve given Vasilevskiy a better look at the shot. Vasilevskiy misplayed the shot and Vegas went up 2-0.

I wish there was more to talk about in the first period, but it was largely a poor period from the Lightning.

Queue up the second, please.

Jon Cooper mixed up his offensive lines as well. His top six at the start of the game were:

  • Kunitz-Stamkos-Kucherov
  • Palat-Point-Johnson

In the second Cooper chose to go with this alignment for the top-six:

  • Johnson-Stamkos-Palat
  • Point-Namestnikov-Kucherov

Tampa Bay noticeably came out aggressively at the start of the second period and it finally paid off as they were rewarded a power-play at 9:04 as William Karlsson was called for tripping Kunitz.

The worrying thing about the Lightning getting a power-play was how great the Vegas penalty kill has been since the first matchup between these two teams earlier in the season. Since allowing two power-play goals in their 4-3 win over Tampa Bay the Golden Knights had not allowed a power-play in 25 opportunities.

Number 26 was where the streak would end, however.

The coaching staff altered their power-play units during the Philadelphia game and they chose to stick with the different sets on this man advantage. The first unit comprised of Mikhail Sergachev, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov.

The unit immediately went to work with crisp passing and good puck recovery. They finally managed to get past Marc-Andre Fleury after a beautiful passing sequence.

The first great play was by Sergachev at the blueline. The young Russian managed to keep a clearing attempt in the offensive zone and kept the play alive. As you can see from the screenshot Kucherov is all by himself at the right face-off circle.

Sergachev makes the pass to Kucherov who then waits half a second before feeding a pass to Steven Stamkos at the other faceoff circle (at this point Vegas’ defenders are scrambling a bit).

Once Stamkos has the puck he has two options: shoot or pass to Palat. Vegas only has one defender who can even try to attack Stamkos and Engelland is still turning once Stamkos receives the pass. Additionally, Palat is left all alone in front just begging for any kind of puck to come his way.

Stamkos sees this and feeds Palat who then taps it past Fleury to give the Lightning some much-needed life. As for the stick check by the Vegas defender there? I’m unsure, maybe he thought he was closer than he was.

It took over 30 minutes for Tampa Bay to get a groove going, but they finally managed to tilt the ice in their favor and close the gap to a single goal. The remaining half of the second period was controlled by the Lightning, and they even managed to kill off a hooking penalty to Yanni Gourde (the penalty kill has not been strong as of late).

Unfortunately, Vegas capitalized on one of their few chances during this period (I won’t subject you guys to any more screenshots haha).

Deryk Engelland bounced a pass off the boards in the neutral zone to David Perron. Sergachev tried to play the puck at the blueline, but the puck bounced past him and directly to Perron’s stick. Anton Stralman tried to block a shot, but Perron made a beautiful toe-drag (and used Stralman as a screen) and quickly shot it on net.

Vasilevskiy never seemed to see the shot as it beat him on the far side. The goal could’ve also been the fault of Vasileskiy not being able to fully extend his right pad since Kunitz was in his crease when the shot was fired. I’m honestly unsure since if that is the case, Kunitz looks like he makes contact with Vasilevskiy’s pad, but was it enough to cause a problem on the goal? You guys tell me.

On to the third, folks.

18 seconds in and William Karlsson scores his 24th of the year. Vasilevskiy didn’t even see the shot come through the mess of bodies. Not much to break down on this goal. Vegas won the faceoff cleanly and Karlsson simply fired it through everyone.

The first half of the third was one of the more lethargic performances by the Lightning this season. After Karlsson’s goal, it looked as if what momentum they did have was sucked out of them. Vegas had a few more dangerous chances, but Vasilevkisy managed to stop them.

A power-play at the midway point of the period was largely ineffective and riddled with turnovers. The worst of which was made by Sergachev off of a faceoff. Sergachev has always been known to look very casual when he makes passes or moves with the puck, but in this instance, he needed to put a little more behind this pass.

The Vegas defender was clearly cheating on the pass when Sergachev made the play and that is one of those plays that just can’t happen. A two-on-one (while shorthanded) occurred because of that play and if it was for Reilly Smith hitting the post the final score would look even worse. They dodged one there, but that play summed up the Lightning’s play this evening—not good enough.

This game was poor from the get-go for Tampa Bay. They’ve had very few stinkers like these, but it’s a long season—they’re bound to happen. Nonetheless, with no Hedman in the lineup the Lightning’s defensive play was lacking and their forwards seemed a step behind Vegas.

The Good

Penalty Kill

The only positive of the night. Yes, Vegas is not strong on the power-play, but Tampa Bay hasn’t been sharp over the last 10 games either. This evening, the penalty kill rose up to the task and did a good job limiting any kind of flow that the Golden Knights could establish.

That’s about it.

The Bad

Defense

This isn’t to just blame the defense specifically—I’m aiming more at the entire team. As a whole Tampa’s play in the defensive zone was sporadic, discombobulated, and poor tonight.

Not picking up players (Neal goal), failing to close off shooting lanes (Schmidt goal), and losing puck battles were all apparent in this loss. The scoresheet will show Stralman as a -2, Stamkos a -3, and Kucherov a -3. Were they the worst players for Tampa Bay this evening? I’d say no, but the team as a whole needs to take this loss. They were all, from the top line/pairing to the bottom line/pairing, not good enough this evening.

Credit to Vegas for playing a great road game though. They jumped on loose pucks, clogged the neutral zone, pushed Tampa Bay out of their crease, and made life rather easy for Marc-Andre Fleury.

The Whatever

Poor Play At the Wrong Time

First, let me state that Tampa Bay has built a cushion of points for a dip in play (that many of us expected to come at some point this season).

Aside from that, Tampa has not looked sharp since the new year has rung in. Their only ‘impressive’ win would be their victory over Toronto on January 2nd. The Detroit win was ok, but it’s Detroit (they’re 22 points behind Tampa Bay). The Carolina game had many of the same issues that were apparent in this game, sans one factor—Victor Hedman.

Tampa lost to a Montreal team (in a shootout) that has had one of the worst cases of identity crises the league has seen. They were blown out by an Ottawa team that has had trouble scoring all season, and they were handled by a Calgary team that finally had found some consistency to its game. Add in Vegas’ season sweep and Tampa has looked less like a juggernaut and more like a team trying to get itself out of a rut.

That could be exactly what this is though—a rut. One that a lot of us expected, but Jon Cooper’s “entitlement” press conference was only two weeks ago. Since that presser? 2-2-0 with a lot of uneven play. Cooper said in his post-game presser, “We just aren’t playing smart right now”, and from how the team has played since the New Year I’m inclined to agree. They’re still working hard, but they’re starting to cheat a little more than they were earlier in the season.

The upcoming road trip isn’t going to be easy. Three Central teams in a row with Minnesota, Chicago, and Nashville, followed by a trip to the always ‘friendly’ Philadelphia. Winnipeg closes out the month. They then go on the Western Canadian part of their trip taking on Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver.

Tampa Bay has earned its cushion and place in the standings, but the issues they’ve had since New Years need to be solidified if they want to come out of this upcoming road trip at or above .500.