If you were to sample Twitter after Game Two you would think that the Tampa Bay Lightning were on the verge of elimination. There were the usual calls for the head of Jon Cooper on a platter, the cries that this team lacked heart, grit, physicality, etc, and that Andrei Vasilevskiy was playing, at best, average hockey. So, yeah things are going great.
The fact is, the Lightning are tied in a seven-game series that a lot of people thought was going to go at least six games. Yes, it’s been wildly frustrating to see shot after shot after shot turned aside by Joonas Korpisalo. It’s not fun to see the multitude of shots that don’t even make it through the Columbus defense. This is not fun hockey to watch, but that doesn’t mean the Lightning are playing bad.
They are playing quite well for the most part. Granted, the moments their attention has waned, the puck has ended up in the pack of their net. For the most part they just aren’t getting the bounces or the goals right now, but they are doing all the right things that will lead to goals if they keep at it. The worst thing they can do now is panic and start mixing things up or taking unnecessary chances to produce offense.
At 5v5 in this series they have 223 shot attempts vs 139 allowed. They have 15 more high danger chances than the Blue Jackets (31 - 16) and they have posted a 7.82 xGF in the series so far. Those are really good numbers. Unfortunately, at this point they are just numbers and the solid play hasn’t translated to actual goals yet, but if they keep posting these types of numbers, the puck will eventually go in the net.
One area of the game that has been a disappointment so far in the series is the special teams. This is where the Lightning should have a distinct advantage, even without Steven Stamkos on the ice. During the regular season the Lightning had the fifth best power play while the Blue Jackets were sixteenth. Yet, in this series it’s Tampa that is 0 for 6 with the extra skater while Columbus has converted 2 of their 8 opportunities.
Why is the Lightning power play scoreless so far? Pretty much the same reason they’re struggling at even strength - Columbus is smothering their offense and preventing second chances. Of the 10 shots they’ve had on net on the power play only one of them has been a rebound attempt. And it’s not from a lack of opportunity. While Korpisalo isn’t allowing much in the net, he hasn’t exactly been clean when it comes to controlling the puck.
The Lightning just haven’t been able to get to them before Columbus has swept them out of danger, an indication that the Tampa players haven’t been able to get into position in front of the net.
If the team was to make any changes it would most likely be on the special teams. Tyler Johnson, who has been really good at even strength, has been set up in Stamkos’ office on the power play and the Blue Jackets have pretty much ignored him. They aren’t worried about his one-timer. Perhaps adding another large body in front of the net such as Patrick Maroon or Blake Coleman would be a better option. Maroon spoke about needing to take away Korpisalo’s “eyes”. In other words obstruct his vision so that he has to move a little to see the play.
Three of the four goals that the Lightning have scored this series have bounced off of something, only Brayden Point’s game winner in quintuple overtime beat Korpisalo cleanly. That’s how they’re going to score moving forward, he’s just playing too well to expect to beat him with clean wrist shots.
As for Stamkos, it seems his return is still in question. During Friday’s media session, Coach Cooper responded to a question about his status with a terse, “He’s rehabbing.” There was no further expectations set or positive news about how he’s been practicing. The coach could just be playing his cards close to his chest, but it seems that the captain’s return is still an indefinite amount of time away.
As for the opposite end of the ice, the penalty kill has struggled a bit in the series. Their coverage has been a little off, and Vasilevskiy hasn’t been sharp. The Blue Jackets like to generate their offense from behind the net and it’s worked a couple of times for them so far. The Lightning penalty killers have been slow to pick up the players in front of the net and Vaslievskiy has been caught deep in his crease a couple of times.
It’s important that the Lightning don’t lose their focus while shorthanded. Much like an overmatched soccer team using set pieces to generate goals, the Blue Jackets have to rely on the power play to pick up some offense. If the Lightning can lock it down, they force Columbus to get out of their game a little bit as they have to push for offense at even strength.
Is it time for Coach Cooper to shuffle the lines up yet? Not really. Three of the four lines have been more than holding their own (the Mitchell Stephens/Cedric Paquette/Patrick Maroon line struggled a bit on Thursday) with the nominal third line centered by Yanni Gourde really clicking. There may be some benefit to flip-flopping Alex Killorn and Blake Coleman to give that second line a little more battle in the corners, but that would be a small adjustment at best.
It seems a little earlier in the series to start subbing players in, and any changes would be at the bottom of the roster. Mitchell Stephens hasn’t been as strong on face-offs as he had been in the regular season so moving Paquette back to the middle and subbing in Carter Verhaeghe for Stephens might help that bottom line a little, but again any gains may be minimal.
As the series “moves” to Columbus the Blue Jackets now have the last changes and we’ll see if Coach Tortorella tries to move his top line away from Cirelli’s line. They’ve still been able to generate a little offense (Pierre-Luc Dubois has been the best player in the series so far) but matching them up against any other Lightning line may allow them to spend a lot more time in the offensive zone.
If the Lightning were turning the puck over, or not generating any opportunities it would be a good time to worry. If they were pinned back in their own zone all game long and getting eviscerated by the Blue Jacket’s forecheck, it would be concerning. That isn’t happening. They are getting their chances and if they keep playing at this level, they will start scoring goals. Or Joonas Korpisalo should be awarded the Conn Smythe after the first round.
*stats provided by Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com