Last night’s game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks was an exciting one to watch for Lightning fans as they won 7-1. The game started off a little slow with Ondrej Palat being called for tripping just 15 seconds into first period. It was a rough penalty to take so early, but it also stopped a dangerous chance from in tight off of a pass out of the corner. The penalty killers did an incredible job getting two shots on goal against Martin Jones, while Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t have to make a single save.
Vasilevskiy had a really strong night. Unfortunately, his shutout bid was thwarted in the third period on a nice shot from Marc-Edouard Vlasic with just over five minutes to go in the third period. The Lightning defense played better around him, helping to box out defenders and clear away rebounds. Vasilevskiy came to play though and made some key saves, especially when the Lightning were looking for their flow in the first and second periods after penalty kills and power plays chopped up the periods.
Carter Verhaeghe Is Rewarded for Hard Work and Good Play
Last week, I started writing an article about Verhaeghe, but couldn’t quite find the right words to describe what I was feeling about him. Mostly it came down to the thought of at what point does the offensive production have to start matching the positive possession stats before giving up on a player. Possession wise, he has been in the top half of the Lightning’s forwards in most relevant stats. He hasn’t been playing bad. In fact, his stats look a lot like Jonathan Marchessault’s did in 2016-17 and we know what he’s done since walking away as an unrestricted free agent.
Despite his good possession stats, the team was severely under performing his Expected Goals Against rate. He also saw some of the worst goaltending performances behind him of any forward on the Lightning. He only had one assist, a secondary assist, to his name and that came in the second game of the season. He had gone 14 games after that without a goal or assist while also being in and out of the line up. He was averaging only 9:17 of ice time going into last night’s game.
But boy oh boy did he come out flying against the Sharks. On his first shift of the night, after the Lightning’s first penalty kill, his line got deep into the zone with Verhaeghe putting the puck down low. Stamkos got to the puck and moved it back up the boards. Marc-Edouard Vlasic tried to play the puck but missed it allowing Verhaeghe to get it back. He had Vlasic coming up on him from behind and another Sharks defender trying to close him off. He had the vision though to find Johnson out in the slot with a pass. Johnson wristed the puck on goal and it squeezed between Martin Jones’ arm and body and just got into the net. This broke Verhaeghe’s 14-game pointless streak and also gave him his first primary assist in the NHL. Verhaeghe worked hard on the shift and showed off great vision and hands to find Johnson with that pass while being challenged.
In the third period, Verhaeghe once again factored in on a goal. Stamkos had to dump the puck in from the red line with no room to get through the neutral zone. Verhaeghe zoomed into the zone where Aaron Dell was attempting to play the puck behind the net. He knocked Dell’s stick off the puck, passed the puck to Stamkos who moved it across to the other side of the net for Johnson to tap it into the empty net. Verhaeghe got a secondary assist, but that goal was all him.
Verhaeghe also got himself a nice two-on-one rush in the third period and took the shot coming down the right win side. Dell just got the blocker on the puck to deflect it wide of the net. It was once again feeling like Verhaeghe just couldn’t buy a goal having another great opportunity stopped by the goaltender.
With him having such a great game, Jon Cooper gave Verhaeghe a shift in the final minute with the Lightning leading 6-1. The game was already finished, but Cooper rewarded him with that shift. Pat Maroon found the puck in the neutral zone, saw Verhaeghe streaking, and flipped the puck up to him. Verhaeghe settled the puck down, had a defender cutting him off from making a move into the middle, and he sniped the puck far top corner to finally get his first career NHL goal.
It may have been the 7th goal in a 7-1 win, but you wouldn’t know it by the reaction of the players and coaches on the bench. In his post game interview, Stamkos talked glowingly about Verhaeghe. About his worth ethic and how he works hard every practice. About him not complaining. And about knowing what it’s like to be a young player in the NHL being in and out of the line up and searching for that first goal.
Confidence is a wonderful, and frustrating, thing in professional sports. These players (and this really goes for all sports) have been playing the game for most of their lives. They’ve made it their career of being professional players. They may not all have the highest end skill set, but even to get to the AHL, you have to be a really good player. Suffice it to say, but even a fourth liner in the AHL would tear up your local beer league. Even an ECHL fourth liner should do the same.
With Verhaeghe, I was never that worried about his hands, skating, or hockey IQ. I could see that he was working hard. I could see him getting his chances and doing the right things with the puck. He just couldn’t get it going with offensive production. Last night should be a huge confidence booster for him. Mathieu Joseph similarly struggled through the start of last season, but once he got that first goal, he had a few more follow them up quickly. That’s what confidence will do for a player. Hopefully, this will be a springboard for Verhaeghe to really get him going and putting up some points the rest of the season.
“Oh yeah, I’m Steven *bleeping* Stamkos.”
One of the best comments of the night came after Stamkos’ first goal of the game. The Lightning were on the power play and Victor Hedman’s pass was a little too far in front of Stamkos for a one-timer. He went to his back hand to receive the pass. Stamkos shuffled his feet a little bit, reset the puck, and then went “Oh yeah, I’m Steven *bleeping* Stamkos” and zipped the puck past Martin Jones’ ear and into the top corner. That’s the kind of shot that one of the best shooters in the NHL is capable of making on a regular basis.
Cirelli Line Continues
One of the best lines all night for the Lightning was Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, and Alex Killorn. The Lightning struggled a bit with possession and expected goals percentage in the first two periods, but that line didn’t. Those three had the best xGF% on the night all being over 73% and were the Lightning’s top three forwards in CF%.
Victor Hedman and Jan Rutta were a solid pairing
With the Lightning going back to just six defensemen, the defensive pairings became a little more solidified. Hedman and Shattenkirk started the game together, but were eventually split up with Rutta joining Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev joining Shattenkirk. Rutta had probably one of his best games of the season. It’s been hard for him being in and out of the line up and not having any consistency with his defensive partners at all. He hasn’t had any opportunity to develop a solid rapport with one partner.
Rutta found some confidence with the puck though and was tied for second among Lightning skaters in Individual Corsi For taking four shots at 5v5. He created a rebound chance that ended with Alex Killorn potting a goal. He ended up picking up a secondary assist on the goal after Cirelli tapped the puck and Killorn finished off the goal with a nice bar down shot from right in front.