I just got home from Amalie Arena following Game five of the Eastern Conference Final. The Tampa Bay Lightning took it to the Washington Capitals early and then coasted to the 3-2 win. The last five minutes of the game were a bit anxiety inducing but Andrei Vasilevskiy turned out to be a great remedy to that anxiety. Yeah, he gave up the one-timer goal to Alex Ovechkin with Braden Holtby on the bench. But that was a heck of a shot. The rest of it though, he came up with some truly big saves to seal the win.
The Paquette Line
All through the playoffs, I’ve seen a lot of fans complaining about how the Paquette line has no skill. They can’t score goals. What the heck are they even doing on the ice? It’s true that they’ve struggled to put the puck in the back of the net but they are also bottom liners. That’s kind of the expectation of bottom liners. If they were better at putting the puck into the net, they’d be playing further up the line up.
What they do bring to the team is something else. Those three players in particular: Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette, and Ryan Callahan bring a lot of energy when they step on the ice. They come to play every night. They are the consummate professionals.
Kunitz has been around the league forever. He’s played top to bottom in the line-up and he’s had some terrific offensive seasons. Ryan Callahan has also spent time as a top liner and had some really strong offensive seasons earlier in his career. Both of those players, even though their skills are no longer that of top liners, understand how top line players play. That experience gives them insight into how to play against such players. Paquette isn’t in that same mold but he is a player that understands the defensive game and where to be.
Since game three, they’ve been getting thrown against the Capitals’ top line including Alex Ovechkin. That was mostly by the Capitals’ choice as they were trying to take advantage of what they viewed as the weakest line on the Lightning. It didn’t turn out quite the way they hoped. For most of the playoffs, the Brayden Point line has been tasked by the Lightning as the shutdown line. They struggled in that role against Ovechkin. The Paquette line has taken up that mantle and done quite well in that department over the past three games.
Earlier in the playoffs, I felt that the fourth line was getting some good chances despite not generating gols. Some of it was just not being as good of shooters as other players on the team. Some of it was some bad puck luck just not getting the puck to bounce for them. And some of it was just good goaltending coming up with good saves on them. While I did see some fans harping on that fourth line, often by narrowing in on a couple of mistakes, this line has actually been a consistently good possession line for the Lightning.
That good play finally paid off for them in the form of two goals for their line. Paquette opened up the scoring on the very first shift, which is something the Lightning haven’t done often in the playoffs. He did that just 19 seconds into the game. They followed that in the second period with Callahan having some puck luck go right for him (and Toronto agreeing that he wasn’t attempting to knock the puck in with his hand as he was getting leveled from behind by Ovechkin) and he bounced a goal in 33 seconds into the second period.
This line has gone under the radar for many fans because of that lack of scoring. But they have been fantastic within the confines of the role given to them by the coaching staff. It was nice to see them get rewarded for playing their role by providing some offense and Callahan ending up with the game winning goal.
Palat is turning out to be a difference maker for the first line. I was talking with a few people before the game about that. The basic consensus is that while Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are a great pair, it seems that they need for their third linemate to be somewhat regularly switched up. It seems that they can find success early, but then perhaps they get a bit too complacent or maybe too predictable, and the success dissipates. That necessitates a change.
Vladislav Namestnikov was their first left winger. He helped them to great success for the first part of the season. By the end of December though, the line had lost it’s magic and Namestnikov was moved off. Jon Cooper tried some different options like Yanni Gourde and Alex Killorn before J.T. Miller joined the team at the trade deadline. He instantly clicked on the first line and they took off like gang busters over the last ten or twelve games of the season. They continued on fairly well into the playoffs,but again it had become stale.
In steps Ondrej Palat and they immediately pick it back up. The thing is though, I get the feeling that there are some within the organization that would like to see Palat hanging out with Stamkos more. He seems like such a perfect complement to him. He’s a left handed left winger that’s a playmaker. That puts him in a good position to pass the puck on his forehand to Stamkos’ forehand for shots.
He is also an underrated defensive player that plays with hustle, strength, and persistence. I feel he was really the piece that made the Triplets tick back in 2014-15 and he’s doing that again for the Stamkos line. Meanwhile, the Point line hasn’t missed a beat with losing Palat, but gaining Yanni Gourde. I put that down to the fact that Point is much like Palat in that he is a possession driver himself that makes the line go even when a winger gets switched out.
Moving forward, the Lightning have a chance to close this series out in six games when they travel to Washington on Monday. One thing they’ve had going for them in this series is that the Capitals have played a lot more minutes. Perhaps we’re seeing some of the fatigue from playing those extra games and overtime games from earlier in the playoffs setting in for the Caps.
The Vegas Golden Knights were the only team left in the playoffs to play the same number of games through the first two rounds as the Lightning as they picked up a sweep and a six game series while the Lightning played two five game series. The Golden Knights are already up 3-1 in their series and have an opportunity to close it out Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg and play in the Stanley Cup Final.
If the Lightning are able to do the same in the next game or two, then the Golden Knights could potentially have played one less game than the Lightning. It’s not a big difference, but when you get this far into the playoffs, every advantage you can get is needed.
It would be in the Lightning’s best interest to come out of the locker room on Monday night with their hair on fire. Don’t cruise in thinking they’re just going to coast to a series win after winning three straight. The Capitals aren’t done yet and the Lightning need to shut the door. Don’t give them hope that they can come back to Amalie Arena where they’ve already won two games and knock out the Lightning in game seven.