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Morning After Thoughts: Lightning and vintage McDonagh squeeze Panthers in Game 2 victory

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Tampa Bay erased Florida’s home ice advantage.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Florida Panthers - Game Two Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There’s a reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning was viewed as the favorite against the higher-seeded Florida Panthers; after two games, it’s clear experience is that reason. Some would call the Lightning’s 3-1 Game 2 win over the Panthers “opportunistic” given how tilted shot attempts and expected goals were for Florida. Folks who have seen this Lightning team and organization mature since their 2015 Stanley Cup Final berth know better.

Game 2 showcased Tampa Bay’s experience and, by extension, Florida’s inexperience. Coach Joel Quenneville stated after Game 1, “That’s the difference between teams that know how to win. We’re looking to get educated.” Tampa Bay’s education of Florida continued last night.

Structure, McDonagh, Lead the Way

Tampa Bay’s structure and patience on both sides of the puck shone in Game 2. Ryan McDonagh, specifically, stood out as a crucial piece in securing a 2-0 series lead for the Lightning. Paired with Erik Cernak, the veteran defender has been a rock for Tampa Bay, again.

He led the team in blocked shots last night with four and has six between the first two games; he’s the stalwart of the penalty kill and a calming presence on the back end. He’s provided complimentary offense through his passing, positioning, and patience. He’s also made life hell for any Panthers player trying to pressure Andrei Vasilevskiy. In a microcosm, the McDonagh we’ve seen to start this series is reminiscent of 2014 McDonagh, who helped anchor the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final berth.

He’s been a stud; there’s no way around it,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It all starts in the D-zone; he’s a selfless player and sacrifices his body all the time. He’s a Stanley Cup champion and been in the league a long time. He’s a warrior and fearless teammate, and that’s shown the last two games.”

At a glance, his advanced metrics don’t paint a pretty picture from last night’s game, but metrics only provide one piece on examining play. Watching last night’s game showed how good McDonagh was; punishing plays toward the net, blocking shots, forcing players to the perimeter, maintaining a healthy gap during transition—he played near-perfect defense.

It’s clear Tampa Bay is taking every lesson they learned en route to their championship last year to heart. They played the same style that ended with the raising of Lord Stanley. They controlled play early, pushing Florida back with an aggressive forecheck and pouncing on scoring opportunities. Both goals showcase these traits.

Anton Stralman helping the Lightning score goals; I always knew he still loved Tampa Bay. Joking aside, this is clearly a fortunate bounce, but you make your own luck in the NHL, and Tampa Bay’s puck retrieval and aggressiveness make this goal happen.

As great as Mackenzie Weegar is, he is not a fast skater. He can be abused by quicker players who are just as smart as he is. Brayden Point is one of those players, and my lord, what a move to undress the defensive stalwart on this goal. That’s only one of Tampa Bay’s difference makers (the team has four).

As the game waned and the Panthers' desperation kicked up, the Lightning locked it down—clogging shooting lanes, forcing play to the perimeter, and neutralizing Florida’s dangerous transition offense. It was identical to how the Lightning closed games out last season.

“We just tried to stick with the game plan,” McDonagh said. “Whether you’re up or down, you’ve got to make some crucial plays. You need guys to sacrifice their bodies to make some blocks and make some plays. Every one of these guys was willing to do it. Everyone is pulling the same direction, and that’s a good feeling in the locker room.”

Neutralizing your Opponent

A hockey mind I follow on Twitter, Jack Han, provided a succinct game plan on how to neutralize Florida’s offensive strategy before the series started, and it’s abundantly clear the Lightning took the same notes Jack did.

You need to subscribe to Jack’s substack to get the full breakdown of it, and I highly encourage it, but to summarize:

  • Pound the stone - the stone in this instance is Weegar, the rock of Florida’s defense. Make his life difficult with aggressive forechecking, bodying him on pinches, and exploiting his lack of speed. Eventually, Weegar will instinctively back off his normal aggressive playstyle.
  • Domino effect - if Weegar is forced off his game, this trickles down to everyone else on Florida’s defense. Gustav Forsling has never seen this kind of action and begins to struggle; the second pair of Brandon Montour-Markus Nutivaara begin to take unnecessary risks and get exposed, the third pair of Keith Yandle-Radko Gudas are then overexposed and make mistakes that cost Florida.

Tampa Bay has taken this exact approach through the first two games. Game 1 showcased this approach more than Game 2, especially the exploitation of Weegar’s aforementioned lack of speed, but the Lightning has also added to Jack’s proposition—they’re doing it to all of Florida’s defensive pairings. Take note of the odd man rushes Tampa Bay was getting last night—a lot in the first period. That was an additional adjustment the Lightning made to exploit Florida’s over-aggressive defense jumping into the play. Tampa Bay could’ve been up three or four goals if they hadn’t been pass-happy on their odd-man rushes. Those weren’t lucky; the Lightning designed their entry defense to negate that aspect of Florida’s offensive attack.

Identify and neutralize; another aspect that has helped Tampa Bay into a 2-0 series lead.

Vintage Vasy

There is little left to praise about Vasilevskiy. He’s been phenomenal for the Lightning ever since he took the starting job from Ben Bishop during the lost 2016-2017 season. He’s improved every season and has become the de facto anchor of the Lightning—if he is locked in, good luck finding a way to beat Tampa Bay. Game 1 saw the Big Cat struggle on a few goals, but, as he’s done time and time again, he bounced back in a big way last night.

A 32-save performance feels pedestrian for Vasilevskiy, not because Tampa Bay allows a plethora of quality chances against, but due to the effortlessness, he displays. Every movement, every shift, every twitch is deliberate. The instincts he displays are otherworldly, and combined with the technical precision of his style Vasilevskiy is clearly a different breed of goaltender. We’re lucky to have him.

Side Notes

  • Florida appears more concerned with “message sending” than playing competent hockey. A lot of attention has been brought to the Panthers' fourth line, specifically Ryan Lomberg. Lomberg has 45 NHL games to his name and five points. His entire purpose is to stir scrums and draw penalties. If Florida’s design is to get under Tampa Bay’s skin, he’s fighting a losing battle. If Corey Perry couldn’t get under the Lightning’s skin, Lomberg won’t.
  • Outside of their top line Florida isn’t doing much offensively. They drive play exceptionally well, but if the shooters aren’t Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, or Carter Verhaeghe, their finishing talent isn’t good enough to keep up with Tampa Bay. That 20-goal season for Noel Acciari feels ages ago. That said, Tampa Bay still needs to keep the pressure up; Florida isn’t going to go down easily (there’s no way the Lightning sweep them).
  • In Game 1, Cooper stated Florida did nothing special, and it was largely Tampa Bay’s mistakes that cost them goals. Last night was a textbook example of what mistake-free hockey looks like for the Lightning. Florida managed one goal in a period where they dominated play; that isn’t exactly inspirational.
  • Starting Chris Driedger should’ve been the play Quenneville made to start the series. He’s been the best goaltender on Florida’s roster all season, and not starting him in Game 1 feels foolish, both in retrospect and when it happened. Driedger gives Florida the best shot at winning this series. I would be surprised if Quenneville goes back to Bobrovsky; the only way I see it happening is if Driedger implodes in Game 3.
  • Speaking of Game Three, there will be 7,000 fans in attendance at Amalie Arena on Thursday night. The BB&T Center was rocking throughout Games 1 and 2. We best see the Lightning faithful tear the roof down with their cheers these next two games.