After (almost) every Tampa Bay Lightning playoff game, I’ll be here to offer up my thoughts about the game. Some of these thoughts will be analytical, some emotional, and some just whatever. Sometimes these thoughts will be really nicely structured and thought out ahead of time. Sometimes, they’ll just be a stream of conscious talking. We’ll never know until I start writing.
So here’s our first one of the playoffs. The Lightning came out for the first period and Amalie Arena was rocking through the first 20 minutes. If you had a prop bet of Alex Killorn scoring a shorthanded goal as the first goal of the NHL playoffs...congratulations, you probably won like a million dollars or something. The Lightning went up 3-0 in the first period, controlling the play and the puck very well. Then the second period started and the Columbus Blue Jackets started to turn it around and they got their first goal. Then in the third period, the Lightning started coming apart, pushing too much for another goal, and gave up three more.
They blew it. They had the game in hand. A 3-0 start and a 3-1 lead after two periods in a playoff game? They should have had it. They should have closed it out. Simple as that. This team has been in the playoffs too many times. They should have known better. Unfortunately, they didn’t and they got slapped in the face for it.
BUT! And I say but...this was just game one. It’s a seven game series. Yeah, I know that’s not much comfort after a loss, but it’s true. There’s still a lot more hockey to be played. Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning have traditionally not played their best games after a longer break.
Losing the first game isn’t the end of the world either. In the previous 11 playoff series for the Lightning, going back to the 2013-14 playoffs, the team is 4-7 in game ones. Following four of those game one losses, the Lightning went on to win the series, include two Gentlemen’s Sweeps of winning the next four to finish the series out in five games. There’s still a chance for the Lightning to do that. Oh, by the way before I forget, two other home teams lost last night as well with the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets falling.
The Lightning will practice today, watch video, and come back at it Friday night for game two. I expect them to come out and play a much more determined 60 minutes of hockey. I also expect Vasilevskiy to be sharp and play out of his mind. He only lost two games in a row once this season, and never two games in a row in regulation. I expect he’ll play lights out in game two and it’s my hope that with the every other day rhythm going through game four, that he will get into a groove.
So let’s talk about some individual players.
- Victor Hedman - He did not look very good last night. He got turned around on Columbus’ second goal of the game. He was also out there for the game tying goal. He hadn’t played in a week and a half and he looked rusty. I expect that he’ll look better on Friday night.
- Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, J.T. Miller - The third line was the Lightning’s best line for much of the night. So it’s weird for me to look at the stats today and see that Killorn and Cirelli played less than Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Joseph at even strength. J.T. Miller played a handful more even strength shifts, but still was down the line in EV ice time. Killorn picked up the shortie to open the scoring, and Cirelli got the second goal. They were aggressive, strong on the puck, and controlled it. I would like to see them get at least a little more ice time on Friday.
- Jan Rutta - Rutta looked good and bad last night. He actually had the third highest EV TOI among the Lightning’s defensemen clocking in just 8 seconds less than Ryan McDonagh. Overall, his advanced stats ended up looking pretty decent though.
- Dan Girardi - He did not look great. He took a bad check to the head penalty in the first period. Granted, that shift with the fourth line was getting chippy and a lot of big hits were being thrown in both directions. But he got stuck in his own zone quite a bit and had the worst possession stats on the team.
- Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak - Once again, they looked like the Lightning’s best defensive pair. Cernak took a handful of shifts next to Hedman at even strength as the coaching staff kept Girardi’s minutes down.
- Braydon Coburn - Coburn got to watch the misery of this game from the press box. Or more likely a TV in the bowels of the arena. I won’t be surprised if he draws back in. Perhaps in place of Girardi, Sergachev, or Rutta. We might find out a little more of a hint today at practice. But I hope that he gets back into the line up.
- Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point - Eight shots on goal. 16 shot attempts. No points. Stamkos’ possession numbers were fine, but Point and Kucherov were getting stuck in their own zone far too often. The Blue Jackets didn’t give them much space. With that said, Kucherov hit a post. Stamkos had his one timers stopped on the power play. If not, this game might have turned out differently. In the playoffs, your best players need to be your best players. And these three weren’t. The depth players did their job last night. Put that together with the goalie and the top players doing their job, and you win games and series in the NHL playoffs.
Now, let me just finish this off talking about the officiating. The only zebras on the ice that did a good job last night were the linesmen. But this is the playoffs. We talk all the time about how the referees put their whistles away in the name of “not wanting to affect the game.” But in doing so, they affect the game. If they want to let borderline calls go, then ok. It’s the playoffs.
But they let some flagrantly obvious penalties go in the second period. One in particular where Hedman had his jersey grabbed, by two hands, and was pulled backwards while he had the puck and was trying to skate out of the zone. Kucherov also got away with an obvious crosscheck. I point these two out, because a lot of calls that should have been made to both teams didn’t get a rise out of the referees.
The officials did seem to realize how ridiculous the standard they set in the second period was. By how they called that period, there shouldn’t have been a single penalty called for the rest of the game, short of Happy Gilmore showing up to stab someone with his skate.
I have a feeling that the referees communicated to the teams that they wouldn’t be so lenient in the third period and they did end up calling a couple of legitimate penalties with the two high sticking calls to Brandon Dubinsky and Alex Killorn.
But let’s not blame the referees for this loss. It was not their fault. The Lightning’s special teams let them down being unable to score on the power play, giving up a short handed goal, and giving up a power play goal. The Lightning did get their one shorthanded goal, but overall, Columbus’ special teams showed up and ultimately were the deciding difference in the game.
To the Lightning, get to work today. Study tape. Get your heads on straight. I want to see you come out on Friday night and play the first period the same way you did in game one. But then carry that into the second and third period and play a full sixty minutes. Let’s take care of business here so that we can go into Columbus and take it to them in their home arena.