Over the course of an 82 game season, there are games that simply don’t go your way. That was what this evening’s game as the Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Minnesota Wild 3-0. For 40 minutes, it felt like Tampa Bay was in control even though they were trailing 1-0, but a sloppy third period sunk any hope of a comeback as Jason Zucker secured his second career hat-trick this evening. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 27 saves while Devan Dubnyk made 25 for his second shutout of the season.
Overall, this was a tightly played defensive battle for two periods. Neither team gave up much in terms of quality to the opposition and both goaltenders were sharp. The Lightning had the possession edge 51% to 49%, but were crushed in the third period 63% to 37%. Both of Minnesota’s goals were deflections/tips that Vasilevskiy had no real chance on, but the problems that plagued the Lightning this evening showed early.
A poor offensive zone pinch by the defense sprang an early breakaway opportunity for Joel Eriksson Ek that Vasilevskiy denied. Numerous poor decisions with the puck ended up gifting Minnesota possession and neutralized any kind of offensive momentum the Lightning could generate.
Case in point, the first goal.
Steven Stamkos does a fine job entering the zone with possession, but then decides to try and glide through three Wild players. He loses the puck and before his linemates can react to the turnover the Wild are already in the neutral zone on a 3-on-2. Zucker is left unimpeded to race toward the net after lofting a pass to Ryan Donato. Dan Girardi had two options here; give Zucker a push to slow him down and zone Donato to the outside (not enough to draw an interference penalty) or fully commit to blocking Dontato’s shot. He chose to go after Donato’s shot, but haphazardly tried to block it (which is surprising for him). The shot goes through unimpeded and Zucker manages to get just enough of it with the shaft of his stick to alter its trajectory past Vasilevskiy. A rough one to take given this wouldn’t happen if Stamkos hadn’t tried to glide through three defenders and turn the puck over, but the Lightning were stubborn as a whole tonight.
After the game, Jon Cooper elaborated a bit on this point, “We played a stubborn game tonight. Stubborn in the sense that we didn’t manage the puck at all...they clogged up the middle really well. They back pressured really well and when you’ve gotta kind of play that grind it out game we refused to play it tonight.”
Trailing by one during the second didn’t raise much concern given how much Tampa Bay pressured Minnesota, but penetrating the slot continued to be an issue as was getting clean shots on Dubnyk. Even with an early power-play after Luke Kunin was called for holding at 1:11 the Lightning struggled to get anything dangerous toward the Minnesota net.
This didn’t deter their aggressiveness as the Lightning continued to attack Minnesota and brought the physicality as well.
Kunin down the tunnel after taking this open ice hit by Paquette. pic.twitter.com/Nde4Nbhsat— Giles Ferrell (@gilesferrell) March 8, 2019
This is a clean hit by Paquette, Kunin’s head was never touched, but the force of the hit created whiplash with his head and he went down to the ice hard. Kunin struggled to get back to his feet and stumbled as he made his way toward the Wild bench. Play continued as one official hovered near Kunin, but it wasn’t until the Lightning bench (specifically Victor Hedman and Brayden Point) yelled at the officials to stop play so Kunin could get off safely. He did not return to the game, but there was an small update by Wild coach Bruce Boudreau afterward.
Kunin is a little woozy, Boudreau says— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) March 8, 2019
“You hate to see a player come off the ice like that.”
Here’s hoping Kunin will be alright moving forward. I hope it isn’t serious enough to keep him out.
Tampa Bay continued to attack Minnesota, but to no avail. As the second reached its final minutes the pace began to alternate between each team and some frenetic play started to show for both teams. Culminating in two great chance for both.
Incredible sequence. Fiala waits and waits but is denied by Vasilevskiy. Cirelli gets a breakaway immediately after and Dubnyk makes a diving save. pic.twitter.com/JEuHfcLMek— Giles Ferrell (@gilesferrell) March 8, 2019
Tampa Bay’s efforts faltered in the third, however, as Minnesota took control and never looked back. Their forechecking pressure finally caused the Lightning to crack at 6:04 when Zucker scored his second of the game.
Adam Erne blocking a shot here is fine. The fact he was injured on the play is unfortunate, but his inability to do anything sent everyone else in the defensive zone scrambling. Once Jared Spurgeon dumped the puck back in, Girardi should’ve taken note of Vasilevskiy going behind the net to play it and that Zucker was flying in to steal it. Girardi is essentially in no mans land here. Vasilevskiy has the puck stolen from him because he doesn’t sense Zucker coming in. Hedman does a good job stopping the first shot, but no one is able to locate the puck before Zucker hit it in mid-air to make it 2-0. The goal was initially waved off for a hi-stick, but after review it was called a goal. Another unfortunate sequence for the Lightning, but it wasn’t like they were playing well at this point.
A slashing penalty on Nikita Kucherov on a transitional chance for Minnesota gave the Wild a power-play at 9:50. This was then turned into an abbreviated 5-on-3 when Paquette was penalized for hooking at 11:13. Tampa Bay killed both penalties, and managed to push play back into the Minnesota end where they received a power-play of their own at 14:53 when Spurgeon was called for slashing.
Tampa Bay managed to get set up and move the puck in the offensive zone on this man advantage, but they were plagued by the “too much passing” bug that has afflicted them at various points of the season. After failing to convert on this chance, it was all but over for the Lightning.
Zucker managed to complete his hat-trick on an empty net goal at 18:13 after failing on two previous attempts (and a nice glove save by Stamkos to deny one chance).
Cooper’s sentiments about the Lightning being stubborn ring quite true. Tyler Johnson commented, “Tonight, we got a little bit away from our game plan, a little bit away from what we know works.”
Dan Girardi put it in a more concise way, “We just couldn’t find a way to match their intensity.”
Games like this happen over the course of a season, and though it may sting to see the home winning streak end at eight and Vasilevskiy’s personal winning streak end at 10, the Lightning are still comfortably atop the standings with another chance to clinch a playoff spot Saturday against Detroit. On to the next one.
The Weather Was Nice?
Seriously, the weather has been great the past few days!
Honestly, there isn’t a real big positive to take from this game. Tampa Bay didn’t play well even when they were dictating the pace during the first 40 minutes. Their passes and decision making with the puck were poor all evening and they were bailed out by Vasilevskiy early. Credit has to go to Minnesota for playing a fantastic road game and giving Dubnyk a rather easy night in net.
No clinching of playoff spot tonight, but that’s alright. What Tampa Bay needs to focus on is getting back to their game and being able to adapt when needed. They didn’t do that this evening.