In a season like no other in recent memory, this Tampa Bay Lightning team continues to shed the labels thrust upon them from the failures of playoffs past. They’re too soft, they’re not mean enough, they can’t win in the playoffs when adversity strikes, and they’re a mentally weak team under Jon Cooper.
This team, this organization, has grown sick of those labels and it appears as though they’re on a mission to prove everyone wrong this year.
Nikita Kucherov’s game winner in the dying seconds of Game 2 will be remembered for years to come. This was a victory that will cement itself into Lightning lore if they manage to go all the way and win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.
The sheer joy from Kucherov after scoring the goal tells us everything we need to know about this moment.
“He [Ryan McDonagh] knew what I was going to do,” Kucherov said, “A nice pass across the ice, all I had to do was hit the open net. A hell of a play by him.”
Looking from an ice level perspective makes the sequence even more absurd.
“We had some pressure. I knew there was not much time left,” Ryan McDonagh said. “I got a little bit deeper in the zone. That’s our structure, with the weak-side D getting involved in the forecheck. I just tried to get the puck clean off the wall and made eye contact with Kuch. I was hoping he’d stay close to the back post. Sometimes he likes to fade out towards the hash marks. I put the puck to the net and Kucherov did a great job.”
In a game that saw Alex Killorn get ejected after a bad hit on Brock Nelson in the first period, and Brayden Point leave the game after an unknown injury early in the second period, the Lightning were reduced to just nine forwards to go up against an Islanders team that is known for grinding teams down.
“In the end, it was gutty,” Cooper said. “That’s what this effort was. It was gutty.”
Gutty might be the apt description for the Lightning this postseason. Seven one goal wins with four needing overtime (including the fourth longest playoff game in league history), a never-say-die attitude, and all without their star captain who hasn’t played a second in these playoffs.
“Just try to gut it out, no matter the scenario,” McDonagh said.
Cooper has mentioned several times how he feels this Lightning team has changed from years past. "Sandpaper" is the term he likes to use to describe how they’ve mixed some toughness in with their all-world skill. Deadline additions like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow have proven to be exactly what the Lightning needed this postseason. Those two combined with Yanni Gourde have become one of the most dominant lines in these playoffs. They’re the trio that Cooper sends out to start every game, and almost every period, to set the tone.
Pat Maroon continues to prove his worth by getting under the opposition’s skin on a nightly basis while also managing to contribute three assists in his limited amount of ice time. And the biggest surprise of all has been Zach Bogosian, of all players, trying to show the hockey world he isn’t what he was during his years in Buffalo.
Individually, these players probably don’t move the needle much, but combined with the continued brilliance of Point, Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning look like a team on a mission.
“Gutty might be the slang word for it. It consumes character, resiliency, personality, adversity,” Cooper said. “It’s really what it was. Just unbelievably proud of the guys.”
Cooper has definitely shown more personality in celebrating this postseason than in years past.
Three fist emphatic fist bumps and never have the words “f*ckin’ right” felt more emotionally driven from the usually stoic head coach.
“I think I blacked out at the time,” Cooper said. “I’m not sure what I did.”
We all saw it, Coop. And we loved every second of it.
Cooper’s emotions stemmed from the multiple hurdles his team had to get over just to secure victory. From the aforementioned departures of Killorn and Point limiting him to three forward lines, to the expected push-back from an Islanders team that was embarrassed off the ice in Game 1, and to killing off four power-plays against an Islanders unit that was peppering Vasilevskiy.
New York had 22 shot attempts on the man advantage and 13 were on net. The Lightning only managed eight shot attempts with five on net on their power-plays. It’s a cliche that a team’s goalie has to be their best penalty killer, but without Vasilevskiy’s play on the penalty kill the Lightning don’t win this game, period.
“Between Vasilevskiy and all the kills, it was definitely the difference in the game,” McDonagh said.
At 5v5, Tampa Bay was actually the better team for most of the game. The only period that saw the Islanders control play at even strength was the first period. Overall, the Lightning out attempted (38-33), out shot (16-14), generated more high danger chances (8-6), and generated more quality with 57 percent of the expected goals at 5v5. If it wasn’t for the Islanders power-play then New York would’ve been suffocated for most of the game offensively.
Even the Islanders lone goal, from Matt Martin, was a fortunate bounce off Tyler Johnson’s stick. The Islanders aren’t going to consistently beat the Lightning if their fourth line is the only one scoring in this series.
“Just play the right way,” Kucherov said. “We had to be disciplined defensively and wait for our chances.”
Sounds awfully close to what the Islanders try to do to teams.
“You’ve just got to play simple,” Coleman said. “There’s no real secret sauce...just work hard, compete.”
A phrase that I heard many a time during my Navy career, “Keep It Simple Stupid.”
It’s worked for the Lightning exceptionally well this postseason, and it might just carry them to the Stanley Cup.