Desperation is what makes teams on the brink of elimination dangerous. It’s what can lead to series changing moments, something the Tampa Bay Lightning is well-versed in—both positively and negatively. Monday night’s 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers showed how desperate Tampa Bay’s intrastate rival was to keep their season alive, and the Lightning failed to meet that desperation.
“We’re trying to close out the series, and they’re trying to extend it,” center Brayden Point said. “Both teams should be desperate here. I thought they were more tonight. We’ve got to be better in Game 6. We’ve got to bring that intensity. We’ve got that desperation a little more.”
With their backs against the wall, the Panthers started their third goaltender of the series; rookie Spencer Knight. Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger faltered when Tampa Bay increased their pressure in Games 1-4, but Knight looked as poised as a tenured veteran in net for Florida. Whether it was due to blissful ignorance and just embracing his first NHL playoff action or a sign of what kind of star Knight will be is still left to be seen, but the rookie came out and shut down the reigning champs after giving up a goal in the first minute of play. He also became the second-youngest goaltender in NHL history to win his first-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I’m just trying to have fun. It’s still hockey, right?” said Knight in his post-game interview.
The cacophony of cheers from the Florida fanbase at BB&T Center supported his statement.
Multiple camera angles caught the young netminder smiling after stoppages in play. It was evident he embraced this opportunity with a positive mindset and reflected it in his game. He was aggressive, confident, and seemed unfazed by Tampa Bay’s attack. Florida fed off of his play after a rocky first period and proceeded to gain more control as the game progressed. Their disciplined approach (only two penalties in Game 5 for Florida) stymied Tampa Bay’s offensive punch. The Lightning failed to do their part on the penalty front with five trips to the penalty box.
“We’ve got to take less penalties.” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “It’s killing us, and for whatever reason, they must not take very many. They do a good job because it seems like we’re the only ones taking them.”
Suspect officiating aside, the Lightning has done themselves few favors in this series concerning penalties. They’ve always been a team that takes a lot of penalties, and for the first four games of the series Florida was willing to trade power-plays. However, after seeing how severely mismatched their special teams are compared to Tampa Bay’s, Florida wisely reverted to a more disciplined mindset with elimination breathing down their necks. Through five games, Tampa Bay is converting at an absurd 41% on the power play. Florida hasn’t been a slouch on the man advantage at 26%, but they know they don’t have the same shooting talent Tampa Bay does. The Panthers adapted in Game 5; the Lightning failed to do so.
At five-on-five, it’s been Florida dominating play. Through five games, the Panthers lead in shots 198 - 163, shot attempts 238 - 196, scoring chances 124 - 90, high danger chances 43 - 35, and have controlled the expected goals battle at 55%. Now, a portion of Florida’s control does stem from the Lightning leading more in this series, but that’s little excuse for how meager Tampa Bay has looked at five-on-five. What makes the optics look worse is the Lightning have scored first in four of the five games this series—they’ve held leads in each game.
“They elevated, and we didn’t,” said Cooper.
Another frustrating aspect from Game 5 was how Tampa Bay slightly flipped the script on the Panthers at five-on-five last night. For the first time in this series, the Lightning held the edge in expected goals (56%) and shot attempts (45-44). Even more surprising is Point failing to register a shot on goal and looking pedestrian compared to what the Lightning faithful are accustomed to.
If Tampa Bay wants to advance to the second round, let alone deeper into the playoffs, they need to iron out their five-on-five issues. Florida has been a matchup problem all season, but there is little reason for the Lightning to struggle as much as they have.
“I think we just played slow tonight,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We talked about that at intermission. We weren’t coming back and supporting the D. We were standing still too much, and that didn’t allow the D to jump in the play, and they weren’t getting up in the play.”
Slow is something the Lightning aren’t used to.
“I think we just hung onto it a little too long, and they got into a defensive structure, and they’re good,” Point said. “Once they’re in that structure, they’re tough to get around...I think we’ve got to play a little bit faster to catch them on their heels a little bit and hopefully get more zone entries with possession.”
The Lightning knows they have to be better; they need to back it up on Wednesday night if they don’t want to face their first Game 7 in two years.
- The final faceoff of Game 5 essentially threw away any “high” ground the Lightning were hoping to have with Florida’s shenanigans in this series. It’s one thing to criticize your opponent for taking liberties and mucking up the game between the whistles, but to do it yourself comes off as hypocritical. Message sending be damned.
- I’m still not sold on David Savard on this Lightning team. I haven’t been impressed with his decision-making or overall play in this series. For a player that was expected to see a lot of ice-time with Victor Hedman, he’s been stapled to the third-pairing and fifth in overall ice-time while Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and Hedman carry the load.
- To better illustrate the gap between those four and Savard’s ice-time, here is Tampa Bay’s ice-time by defensemen: Hedman 117:40, McDonagh 108:37, Sergachev 107:21, Cernak 99:09, Savard 78:58. That’s a massive dip for someone touted as the missing piece to Tampa Bay’s defense.
- Anthony Cirelli might have found the back of the net a few times this series, but his play driving is still leaving a lot to be desired—43% Corsi for and 45% expected goals for at five-on-five. He has managed to outscore Florida 4-3 while on the ice, but his underlying numbers are still nowhere near what is expected of him, and it’s something we should be legitimately concerned about. He had the same issues last postseason that was masked by the stellar play of Yanni Gourde’s line.
- Speaking of Yanni Gourde, he’s also been sinking in terms of possession (41%), as has his line with Blake Coleman (40% CF) and Ross Colton (47% CF). Combined, the trio struggles at five-on-five against the Panthers, getting out-attempted 52-45 (46%), out-chanced 25-17 (41%), and losing the expected goals battle at 35%. They’ve managed to outscore Florida 2-1, but process over results, folks.