Tonight we learned what happens when two teams commit to playing pond hockey defense for extended periods as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the New York Islanders 7-6. Normally, 7-6 games are fun. But this one was more about lapses and mistakes by the Lightning that made the game much closer than it needed to be.
The Lightning took the lead just two minutes into the game. Rookie Anthony Cirelli finished a wrap around shot that ran up the stick of Islanders goalie Christopher Gibson and into the top of the net. None of the players seemed to realize the puck was in the net but they would get plenty more chances to watch the Isles fetch the puck out of their net.
Less than thirty seconds later, the Lightning doubled their lead to 2-0. The first goal was a little fluky but the second was the purest distillation of the horrid defense showcased by both teams tonight. Chris Kunitz fed an easy pass from low in the zone to Tyler Johnson who was just hanging out in the sweet spot between the right faceoff dot and the slot. He could have paused to document the moment with a selfie because no one was anywhere near him. Instead, he fired a shot past Gibson and the game should have been over right there.
Instead, the Lightning decided to take a whole bunch of penalties and propel the Isles back into the game. It started about half way through the period when the Lightning had a power play. Nikita Kucherov sent a shot from the point directly into an Isles defender leading to a breakaway that forced Victor Hedman to take a penalty.
Almost immediately after, Kucherov made things worse by taking a penalty for himself giving the Isles a 4 on 3. The home team took advantage of the opportunity as Ryan Pulock beat Andrei Vasilevskiy with a shot from the left circle.
Just a couple minutes after the goal, the Lightning took a too many men on the ice penalty giving the Isles another chance. The PK held and the Lightning escaped but this was the beginning of a pattern of mistakes that would keep the Isles in the game despite being the inferior team.
With just over five minutes left in the period, the Lightning added one more to the scoreboard on another open look at the net. Brayden Point pulled up in the right side of the zone and passed the puck to Victor Hedman skating in as the trailed on the left side. Hedman received the pass, skated toward the net with minimal interference, and beat Gibsion high far side with the shot.
The Lightning ended the period in control of the game. They were the better team at 5v5. But their mistakes gave the Isles a goal and that would be the theme of the game.
Tampa started the second period on the power play after a late Isles penalty at the end of the first. They weren’t able to convert and almost immediately took another too many men on the ice penalty to give the Isles a power play.
The Bolts would be first to score on that power play though as Anthony Cirelli stole the puck at the blue line leading to a 2 on 1 with Brayden Point. Cirelli showed poise waiting for the right moment to slide the pass to Point who finished the chance.
Despite the goal, the Lightning were not able to kill the remainder of the penalty as Ryan Pulock added his second goal of the game shortly thereafter. So just in case you’ve lost count, the score at this point was 4-2 Lightning. But stay focused because we’re not even halfway through the scoring yet.
In an unnecessary development in an already stressful game, Victor Hedman took a bad spill into the boards after getting tied up with Brock Nelson. Hedman initially appeared to be hurt and was slow to get back to his feet. He never went to the locker room though and remained on the bench.
On his first shift back, he contributed to the next goal. For the Islanders. J.T. Miller made a poor pass to start the breakout. Hedman wasn’t able to handle it and turned the puck over to Josh Bailey. Bailey passed to Anders Lee who beat Vasilevskiy to cut the lead to just one goal. How the Lightning could have just a one goal lead in a game this one-sided seemed absurd. And that would also be a theme for the rest of the game.
Just past the halfway point of the second period (yes, we’re still in the second period), the teams traded 2 on 1s. Mikhail Sergachev made a solid defensive play to shut down the Isles 2 on 1. Braydon Coburn recovered the puck and made a good pass to Steven Stamkos. The captain carried the puck into the zone, passed to Miller, and Miller stretched the lead back to two goals.
A few minutes later, after drawing another penalty, the Bolts would stretch the lead even further to three. Yanni Gourde fed a pass to Serchachev at the point and the rookie defender caught all of a one-timer beating Gibson cleanly. Ondrej Palat helped out with a screen but the shot was the real star of that play. Sergachev has been playing well lately and was finally rewarded with a goal after a long drought going back to December.
The Lightning got another power play near the end of the period. And again, they scored a goal. This one was probably the prettiest of the game. The play was one they tried earlier and nearly scored the first time. Nikita Kucherov set up in his normal shooting spot. But instead of shooting, he executed a perfect fake-shot pass to Miller in front of the net. All Miller had to do was keep his stick on the ice to get his second goal of the game.
This play was another example of weak defense. The Isles were completely beaten on this play earlier in the game but Miller’s deflection missed the net. To give up this play twice in the same game while leaving Miller wide open on both occasions is inexcusable. No shame in getting beat by Kucherov. But not even trying to take away that play after getting beaten by it earlier in the game is pretty bad.
As the second period ended (finally), the score was 7-3. And I, dear reader, was thinking the game was well over at that point. Well, I was wrong! So wrong. So so horribly wrong.
The Lightning came out in the third period looking like they body swapped with the Isles Monstars style during the intermission. To say they had a passing interest in playing defense would be aggressive flattery.
The Islanders scored THREE GOALS in FIVE MINUTES to cut a 7-3 LEAD to a 7-6 LEAD!!! I suggest you read that sentence several times, take a break to go get a drink of water, and then come back and read it a few more times.
The first goal came on a power play that carried over from the previous period. The Lightning looked to have decided that they would rather give up a goal than put in the effort to kill the penalty. They got what they deserved and the lead dropped to three.
In an ominous sign, a shot from Thomas Hickey from the red line took a deflection and hit the post. Given the way this game went, I’m shocked it didn’t go in the net. But don’t fear, more goals would follow shortly.
A terrible turnover after a failed breakout (stop me if you’ve heard this before) led to a goal for Anthony Beauvillier. Adam Erne ultimately made the turnover but it wasn’t all his fault as the breakout was borked from the beginning by Hedman. Jordan Eberle took the puck from Erne, passed it to a wide open Beauvillier, and the young forward beat Vasilevskiy five hole.
Barely a minute after, Beauvillier scored again. This time he deflected a Johnny Boychuk point shot past Vasilevskiy. Braydon Coburn stood in the crease and watched it happen doing nothing to challenge Beauvillier.
At this point, it seemed like someone was going to have to score double digit goals to win this game. Fortunately for my health, that’s not the way the rest of the game went. The Lightning tightened up defensively and got back into the game offensively. They controlled play for the remainder of the period and held on to both points.
Listen, the Lightning were the better team in this game and deserved the win. Ultimately, they scored seven goals and earned the two points. But to just call this a win and overlook the defensive lapses and mistakes would not be telling the whole story. Two of the goals were the direct results of broken breakouts. Several others were due to unnecessary penalties. Another was because of disinterested defense in front of the net.
They can overcome these kinds of mistakes in March against bad teams. But they won’t be able to do that against good teams in April in May. They need to clean up these messes. And that can start with their next game on Saturday against a potential first-round playoff opponent, the New Jersey Devils.
You can find highlights here