In what was likely the most entertaining game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the entire hockey world was shown, yet again, how incompetent their officiating body is in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 victory over the Dallas Stars. Neither team escaped the atrocious officiating that plagued Game 4. Now the narrative, instead of focusing on the back and forth battle between two good teams, circles around missed, blown, suspect, and downright laughable calls.
All for the sake of ‘managing the game’.
It’s sad, especially because Tampa Bay came back on two occasions in Game 4 and Dallas came back after trailing in the third period. We saw a Lightning team refuse to let bad bounces dictate their fate. We saw a Stars team show the kind of desperation that usually would have tied the series. We saw a hockey game between two defensively strong teams score nine goals last night.
Instead, fans from both sides will be locked into a nonsensical diatribe about officiating.
Stars fans will decry the missed trip by Tyler Johnson (which sent Roope Hintz to the locker room), Brayden Point digging a puck out of Jan Rutta’s pants (closing his hand on the puck), and the overtime penalty to Jamie Benn. Whereas Lightning fans will rage on about two missed high sticking penalties (that were clear as day), and Brayden Point’s hilariously bad embellishment call at the end of regulation.
What fails to be mentioned in this useless argument is that, at the end of the day, teams have to figure out a way to play past it.
Last night, Tampa Bay figured out a way by converting on three of their four power plays. As much as Dallas wants to complain about the situation, they had a 4-on-3 man advantage at the beginning of overtime to tie the series: they failed to convert on that golden opportunity. That’s not on the officials, that’s on the Stars.
Another facet that isn’t talked about is how fortunate Dallas was being tied at the end of regulation. Three of Dallas’ goals were thanks to fortunate bounces going their way. John Klingberg’s opening goal was thanks to a fortunate bounce after a Lightning player blocked his initial shot (which was eerily similar to Joel Kiviranta’s goal in Game 1). Corey Perry’s goal bounced off the side of the net then Andrei Vasilevskiy’s skate before it caromed into Perry’s stick and into the net. Joe Pavelski’s second goal of the night bounced directly off Kevin Shattenkirk’s hip and into the net.
On Tampa Bay’s end, two goals were thanks to fortunate bounces. Point’s power-play goal doesn’t happen unless Alex Killorn’s pass attempt isn’t knocked into the air by Andrej Sekera’s stick, and Yanni Gourde’s power-play goal doesn’t happen without Esa Lindell’s block going directly to him.
This was a game that felt like it was going to be determined by a random bounce.
Instead, it was decided by an atrocious officiating standard that is designed to ‘even things out’. Once Mikhail Sergachev was called for holding at the start of overtime, the next penalty was going to be on the Stars; that’s just how NHL officials operate. To them, it’s about ‘managing the game’ and giving equal opportunities.
So, with that reality facing both teams, the only thing either squad can do is find a way. Dallas was finding ways to keep the game close even though they weren’t controlling play nearly enough. At 5v5, Tampa Bay controlled attempts (53-43), scoring chances (23-16), high danger chances (12-8), and quality (xGF% 58 percent).
Taking a look at where both teams were shooting from shows how deadly Tampa Bay was comparatively.
However, there has been an underlying issue for Tampa Bay in this series that has been masked: depth scoring.
The top line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat have dominated this series. Aside from Yanni Gourde in Game 1 and Steven Stamkos in Game 3, there hasn’t been another forward away from the top line scoring in this series, until Game 4. In this series, Point has four goals, Palat has two, and Kucherov has one. The rest of the forward corps has four—combined (Gourde has two, Stamkos and Killorn both have one). The Lightning defense has chipped in three goals (two from Shattenkirk and one from Victor Hedman) in this series, but overall it’s been the top line or bust for Tampa Bay.
The top trio has carried Tampa Bay this postseason. Dallas has been unable to find an answer to them, as evidenced by the rampart line shuffling Rick Bowness threw out in Game 4. However, no team has found an answer for the Lightning top line this postseason.
During this postseason, the Lightning top line has been a buzz saw, no matter the competition. In all situations, they’ve out attempted (482-213), out shot (242-113), out scored (29-9), generated more scoring chances (215-95), generated more high danger chances (93-34), and generated more quality (xGF% 69 percent)
So, it comes to no surprise that in the Stanley Cup Final, and in all situations, Tampa Bay’s top line has out attempted (91-33), out shot (49-18), out scored (8-3), generated more scoring chances (41-17), generated more high danger chances (23-8), and generated more quality (xGF% 69 percent) than Dallas. In other words, complete domination.
It might not matter if the Lightning receive any more depth scoring for the remainder of the series. With how much the top line is tilting play, it might be enough to win it all.
Until it happens though, the Lightning better prepare for a Stars team that isn’t going to go quietly into that dark night.