Yesterday before the game, I talked about some things I wanted to see. Today, I can start to talk about some of those things and also some general thoughts about last night’s opening victory by the Tampa Bay Lightning over the New Jersey Devils.
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The top line didn’t look great. They rarely seemed to get the kind of time and space in the offensive zone to operate like the second and third lines did. Even the fourth line out-possessed them at even strength for much of the first couple of periods. The line did even things out over the third period when the Lightning really dominated the Devils. However up to that point, the first line had the worst possession numbers on the team.
In Corsi For vs. Corsi Against, Kucherov ended up 12-15, Stamkos ended with 11-12, and Miller finished out with 19-13. Miller ended up with some shifts after partial changes or other odd-ball situations that got him out on the ice with other lines that helped his possession numbers. However, they were also the line that was put in the worst position for zone starts with only 33% of their zone starts being in the offensive zone.
It was good to see Cooper putting the first line out there at the end of the game with the Devils pulling Kinkaid for the extra attacker. Kucherov made a really nice stick handling move after stealing a pass to step around a defender and skated down the ice to get the empty net goal.
But I’d like to see that line be more assertive in the offensive zone. Miller is supposed to provide some of that for the line, but it didn’t shine through very well. On the other hand, it seemed like they were playing a lot against Brian Boyle’s line. We all know that Boyle is a defensive stalwart, so perhaps that explained a bit why the line was getting shut down so much.
Brayden Point’s Line
The Point line came through in spades last night. They picked up the first two goals of the game against Taylor Hall and his linemates. If not for a bad pass by Palat, their performance against his line would have looked even better. Palat owned up to the mistake though, and that kind of honesty and accountability is something that whole line shares. When they make a mistake, they acknowledge it and go back out to show it won’t happen again.
Their line finished with the best possession numbers for the Lightning right around the 55% mark for the game. They also started a lot of their shifts in the offensive zone, but that had to do with the Devils putting Hall’s line out for a lot of defensive zone draws trusting that their line could win the faceoff and make a successful breakout.
The line ended the game with two goals, four assists, and had a combined eight shots on goal. Johnson in particular was in shooting mode all night with nine total shot attempts. Palat and Point combined for eight shot attempts. It’s good to see Johnson playing like this. It’s reminiscent of his 2015 playoffs when he went into beast mode when he had 13 goals in 26 games. If it weren’t for a broken wrist early in the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s possible the Lightning could have taken the Chicago Blackhawks down.
McDonagh was a guy that I was hoping would step up. So far, so good. He played 23:11 second only to Victor Hedman’s 27:57. He had good possession numbers when he was on the ice, clocking in at 59% CF. No other Lightning player was on ice for more shot attempts at 5-on-5 than McDonagh on the night. He also had the lowest offensive zone start percentage of any of the Lightning’s defensemen. He also picked up a secondary assist on the opening goal of the night.
Vasy needed to come out strong and he did just that, posting 29 saves and allowing two goals. Looking at the two goals there wasn’t much else he could do. The first was the result of Palat giving up a puck to Hall right in the slot. Hall’s got such a good shot that when you put him in such a high danger position and only give Vasilevskiy a split second to read the play, Hall is going to win that match-up as often as he doesn’t. It was a great shot and he hit his spot.
The second goal came on the power play. Having to respect Hall’s shot from the faceoff dot, Vasilevskiy was lined up to stop the puck, sealing the post to keep him from going short side. The defense didn’t tie up Travis Zajac’s stick or clear him out from in front of the goal and he was able to tip it past Vasilevskiy.
Neither goal was a bad or fluky goal, the kind of goals that have seemed to plague Vasilevskiy through the latter half of the season. If the Lightning continue to play like they did in front of him, keeping the Devils to the outside and limiting high danger chances, Vasilevskiy can help put this series away quickly if he continues to perform this way.
The Third Line
Yanni Gourde is an absolute beast. He made his NHL playoff debut last night and it looked like someone had shot him out of a cannon. He’s always been one of the Lightning players that has always come out firing on all cylinders. Perhaps that energy was some of the cause of him missing on some opportunities, but he finally cashed in during a power play. If Gourde and the third line can continue to play like that and continue to produce, it takes pressure off of the other lines to have to carry as much of the weight. It also means that if the Stamkos or Point lines have an off night, they can help to pick up the slack.
Anthony Cirelli also made his NHL playoff debut last night. He didn’t look like a rookie. Like Gourde, he came out flying and looked ready to take on the world. He had 14:20 of ice time and picked up two shots on goal. He also went 5-4 in the faceoff dot. He didn’t get an assist on the line’s lone goal, but he played a pivot part on the three-on-two driving to the net and taking the defenseman out of position while also providing a screen in front.
Alex Killorn also looked the part on the line too. There is something about the playoffs that brings out the best in him. Over his career, he has scored 0.51 points per game in the regular season. In the playoffs though, that goes up to 0.71 points per game. He also goes from 0.2 goals per game to 0.33 goals per game. Seeing him pick up that goal to re-extend the Lightning’s lead to two in the third period was a great moment.
The Fourth Line
Maybe lost a bit in the shuffle was the fourth line’s performance. Jon Cooper sent them out to start the game for the Lightning and they set the tone right from puck drop. They won the puck, got into the zone, and controlled it. They played hard and aggressive and the momentum they built in the first shift carried over to the next four or five minutes of play in the first period.
There is so much experience on that fourth line. Entering the game, the third had 310 combined career playoff games, more than double any other line on the Lightning. They’ve all been here in the playoffs and they know what they have to do in their role. They help to set the tone for the rest of the team. They aren’t going to score a lot, but if they continue to play that way, it won’t be a surprise if they do start finding a way to put some points on the board.