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J.T. Miller’s hat trick is the silver lining in Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss to Ottawa, 7-4

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It was a trap. A very messy and painful trap.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ottawa and Tampa Bay have had offensively explosive games this season. Neither team has scored less than three goals in the three previous meetings and tonight would be no different. Unhappily, the Ottawa Senators defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, 7-4, in an ugly game.

J.T. Miller was a late addition to the blockbuster trade that sent Ryan McDonagh and the winger to Tampa Bay. Miller has made his impact known during his early tenure with the Lightning. The first five minutes of the first period were no exception as Miller started the play that led to the opening goal and finished it.

Miller forced a turnover along the left boards from Erik Karlsson where Nikita Kucherov recovered it near the left faceoff circle. He then made a backhand pass to Steven Stamkos along the left boards to give himself some space to move. Stamkos carried the puck below the goal line before shuffling a pass back to Kucherov behind the net. Kucherov settled the puck down before feeding a pass into the slot to a wide-open Miller (who got lost in coverage) who promptly buried his chance to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead 4:19 into the opening frame.

Prior to the goal, Tampa Bay’s forecheck was creating all sorts of chaos in the Ottawa zone. The Senators defense was left scrambling on a few plays and if it wasn’t for a few fortunate tips or Mike Condon swallowing shots the Lightning could’ve had a multi-goal lead before the game was a few minutes old. However, the good vibes would only last for 10 minutes.

Tampa’s aggression on the forecheck sparked a few ill-timed pinches by their defense and caused a few odd-man rushes for the Senators. The first attempt was thwarted aside by a great defensive play by McDonagh—the second, however, was an ugly one. Mikhail Sergachev pinched into the offensive to help his forwards take control of the puck. Sergachev came down the right wing boards and backhanded it on net.

The puck bounced back to him and into his feet. Unfortunately, Sergachev had two Senators players standing near him when the puck bounced back towards him. Sergachev tried to recover the puck, but it bounced over his stick and onto the stick of Magnus Paajarvi. Paajarvi passed it to Jean-Gabriel Pageau who then lofted a pass to a streaking Tom Pyatt—Pyatt had no one covering him due to Steven Stamkos cheating a bit too much in the offensive zone. Pyatt came in on a partial breakaway but was stopped by Vasilevskiy. This is where things got messy.

Vasilevskiy tried to wack at the rebound but missed it. Paajarvi crashed the net and manages to backhand it under Vasilevskiy to tie the game at 7:47. There were three Lightning players near Paajarvi and the only one who managed to get their body on him was Stamkos (who didn’t do much to impede Paajarvi in the first place. From here the first period was controlled by the Senators. Tampa Bay struggled to clear their own zone repeatedly and eventually took a penalty because of it (Anthony Cirelli for hooking).

Tampa Bay largely contained the Senators power-play until the final 20 seconds. Marian Gaborik carried the puck into the high slot before feeding a pass to Ryan Dzingel at the top of the right faceoff dot. Dzingel carried the puck down below the faceoff dot before ripping a snipe over Vasilevskiy’s shoulder to give the Senators the lead. Anton Stralman tried to block the shot—and in the process possibly screened Vasilesvkiy—but wasn’t able to get a piece of the shot. (I’ll elaborate more in the second half of the recap).

To add insult to injury, the first of many bounces would go Ottawa’s way 40 seconds later. Mark Borowiecki dumped the puck along the left wing boards and managed to send it around to Cody Ceci at the right point. Ceci faked a shot to fake out Miller and then fired it on net once he had a lane. The puck was tipped in by Pyatt (who was standing in front of Vasilevskiy) and before the Lightning could collectively blink the score was 3-1 Ottawa in a span of three minutes.

Entering the second, Tampa Bay had gained a little momentum from a later power-play, but it looked as though it would dissipate during the opening minute of the second. However, a tripping penalty on Paajarvi 39 seconds into the period provided the Lightning with an abbreviated 5-on-3. Tampa would proceed to struggle to enter the Ottawa zone for several attempts before they managed to get set up a few seconds before the 5-on-3 ended. Tampa Bay maintained control as Ottawa got their fourth penalty killer on the ice and proceeded to get a few shots on net. Miller netted his second of the game after a point shot from Kucherov bounced towards him. Miller settled the puck down and then looked at his passing options before squeezing a shot under Mike Condon’s arm to get the Lightning within one at 2:03. Miller had all day to make this decision.

The goodwill Tampa Bay garnered from Miller’s early goal was quickly sapped away as their weak penalty kill left Marian Gaborik uncovered in the left faceoff circle to snipe one in to give the Senators their two-goal lead yet again.

To add insult to injury, Ottawa’s second fortunate bounce produced Mike Hoffman’s 20th goal of the season six minutes later. Tampa Bay failed to recover a rebound behind the net as Ottawa cycled it to the point where Erik Burdoerfer fired it towards Vasilevskiy. The puck never made it to the net as it bounced off Victor Hedman’s leg and directly onto the stick of Hoffman. Hoffman easily buried his opportunity as Vasilevskiy sprawled out to attempt a desperation save—5-2 Ottawa.

Miller would score a hat-trick three minutes later on another Lightning power-play, but it did little to move the needle for Tampa Bay. Ottawa’s third fortunate bounce of the game came at 18:30 when an Erik Karlsson pass attempt bounced off Chris Kunitz stick and past Vasilevskiy to make it 6-3. It was that kind of night for the Lightning (though even before the bounces Tampa Bay was not playing well enough to deserve a win).

Peter Budaj was brought out to play the third period, and rightly so—I’ll elaborate later on this. Budaj’s last game with Tampa Bay was on December 29th against the Flyers, and it showed early as Ottawa increased their lead to 7-3 after Hoffman scored his second of the game on a rather innocent shot—while being stick checked by Anton Stralman. It’s hard to fully blame Budaj on the goal, but he probably should’ve had that one.

Tampa Bay would manage to close the gap with seven minutes left as Stamkos found McDonagh at the side of the net for his first as a Bolt. It was nice to see McDonagh get one after the trade, but the goal did little to alter the outcome of the game.

Tampa Bay laid an egg this evening (a rare one, but an egg nonetheless), and even if you discount the fortunate bounces Ottawa got they still surrendered four goals to a team that is in the bottom ten of the league in goal scoring. That’s a recipe for losing—period.

The Good

Former Rangers

This will be short and sweet (cause I have something else I want to rant on). Miller has been outstanding since arriving in Tampa Bay. Prior to tonight, he was a point-per-game player and was impactful in all three zones. Adding tonight’s three goals this evening just adds to the shrewdness of Steve Yzerman adding him to the McDonagh trade at the last moment. McDonagh scored his first goal as a Bolt as well and has been solid in the defensive zone as he acclimates himself to the team’s defensive structure (or lack thereof).

The Bad

Defensive Structure

I’m not surprised, and none of you should be either. I’ve repeated myself ad nauseam about the Lightning’s defensive issues. This team left Andrei Vasilevskiy out to dry this evening. Anyone carrying on about workload needs to stop and take a good look at this game. You can only blame Vasilevskiy on one goal—Dzingel’s goal (which, in all honesty, was just a damn good shot—those happen and sometimes a goalie can’t do anything). However, let’s not be lazy and jump on a narrative that completely ignores the real issue the Lightning have.

The defense has been a problem since January. I’ve said it, beat reporters have said, the rest of Raw Charge has said it—the defense has not been good enough. This team has the offensive power to run any team out of the arena on any given night. That does not absolve them for playing like my rec league hockey team when we’ve drunk too much on a Monday night.

Ignore the bounces that helped the Senators tonight and you still see the same issues that have plagued this team since 2018 rang in, including the horrid penalty kill. Failing to recover loose pucks in the corners, failing to cleanly exit the defensive zone, excruciating turnovers in all three zones of play, and an over-reliance on Vasilevskiy stopping everything within a five-foot radius of the net.

I’m not buying the whole fatigue narrative that so many want to throw out there. You can disagree, and I’ll hear your opinion out on it, but don’t put forth a weak argument without taking into account that this defense was the primary reason for nearly all of the goals this evening. Let’s all stop, breathe, and collect our thoughts on the mess we had to watch this evening. Let’s not overreact because Tampa Bay lost a rather meaningless game in the middle of March (and their first regulation loss in nearly three weeks).

It isn’t going to be sunshine and rainbows every game—these games happen. What matters is how Tampa Bay responds moving forward. The positive aspect of this is Tampa Bay usually responds well when these games happen. They went through the same issue in January and managed to battle through to have a better February.

The penalty kill is a whole separate mess that requires far more attention than anything else, in my opinion. It’s been a trainwreck for months now and it doesn’t look to be improving in any aspect.

The Whatever

Have at it, everyone. This one should spark a good discussion in the comments.

Highlights