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Morning After Thoughts: Tampa Bay found a way to steal Game 1, but they’ll need to be better if they want to win the series

Vasilevskiy. That is all.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes - Game One Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Winning in the playoffs isn’t easy. There is no tried and true formula. Rather, it’s a mantra centered around out-working the opposition, getting timely goals, and surviving surges. The Tampa Bay Lightning did all three to take a 1-0 series lead over the Carolina Hurricanes Sunday evening. Anchored by Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 37-save performance, the Lightning survived numerous pushes by the Hurricanes to secure an early series lead.

Here are my observations from Game 1:

Vasilevskiy is already the best Lightning goalie of all-time

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said it best, “He’s the best in the league, let’s put it that way. We know that. It’s not a surprise. He’s been doing it for quite a while. We just have to figure out ways to make it a little harder on him.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy was the MVP of the Lightning’s regular season, and he’s poised to be the MVP if they win back-to-back Stanley Cups. This is what Steve Yzerman and his staff envisioned when they drafted Vasilevskiy 19th overall in 2012: a goaltender who can singlehandedly befuddle, frustrate, and demoralize opponents. He’s been a Vezina candidate for three consecutive years, winning it once, and is likely to receive his fourth nomination and possibly his second win this season. That kind of consistency is absurd in a position that is notorious for its year-to-year volatility.

Given how inconsistent the Lightning have been in front of him this season, having Vasilevskiy is akin to having a trap card ready to send their opponents to the shadow realm.

Hockey fandom always tends to lean toward “what have you done for me lately?” especially with goaltenders. Still, Vasilevskiy has already cemented himself as the greatest goaltender this franchise has ever seen and likely will ever see. Even when he has a bad game (which is becoming increasingly rare), the Lightning faithful should always have the Big Cat’s back.

Tampa Bay staves off pressure; pushes back

Sunday evening was another reminder of why we should appreciate what Vasilevskiy is and what he has been doing for Tampa Bay. Against a Hurricanes team dripping with talent and hunger, Vasilevskiy stood tall while the Lightning received opportunistic goals from Brayden Point and Barclay Goodrow to steal Game 1 of their second-round series. He helped anchor a penalty kill that went 4-for-5 and shut down Carolina’s vaunted 5v5 offense.

To better illustrate why Carolina’s offense generates so many shots and controls the expected goals battle nearly every game, I suggest looking at Jack Han’s work on his substack. He breaks down both Carolina and Tampa Bay’s offensive strategy in bite-sized sections in a way that is quick and easy to digest.

To summarize his points, Carolina’s system is designed to control shot volume and chances. Their aggressive forecheck, combined with their ability to move up the ice quickly, is what makes them so dangerous. Tampa Bay’s system is more precise, designed to utilize more lateral movement to free up space for their exceptional shooters to take advantage of.

Sunday showcased how Carolina’s suffocating attack can make a team as strong as the Lightning look slow and outmatched at times. However, hockey isn’t won simply on systems, and the way Tampa Bay defended helped mitigate some pressure while Vasilevskiy did the real heavy lifting, especially in the first period.

“He was in the zone,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Vasilevskiy’s play. “We really needed him in that first period when they were all pumped up Game 1, really exciting crowd, so they fed off that and probably put us on our heels at the beginning.”

The Lightning struggled to contain Carolina during the opening 20-minutes. At 5v5, it looked like the Hurricanes were going to break through at any moment. They controlled 53% of the shot attempts (21-18), 80% of the high danger chances (4-1), and 68% of the expected goals during the first period. The reason they didn’t? Andrei Vasilevskiy.

That kind of steadying force in net stabilized Tampa Bay and helped them play Carolina evenly in the last 40 minutes of the game. Through the second and third period, the Lightning controlled the expected goals battle (69% in the second and 54% in the third), led in scoring chances 12-9, led in high danger chances 6-2, and in shots 17-13 (Carolina led in shot attempts 29-27 through the second and third periods).

The Caveat

That kind of pushback by the Lightning was admirable, but this game was in Carolina’s control in all situations. Giving the Hurricanes five power-plays is dangerous, no matter who is in net, and it’s something Tampa Bay has to reduce moving forward in this series.

“We needed [Vasilevskiy] on the penalty kills,” Coope said. “We can’t be in situations where we’re giving them nine-plus, almost 10 minutes of power-play time in a 60-minute game. We’ve got to be better in that area. But when we needed him in those two areas, he was there for us.”

Tampa Bay’s penalty kill did an admirable job on Sunday, but the Florida Panthers were able to make a top ten penalty-killing unit look out of sorts at times. Carolina is a different beast entirely, and creating a congo line to the penalty box will cost the Lightning at some point in this series. If they want to advance, reducing the number of penalties, stick infractions specifically, would be beneficial.

Extra Thoughts

  • Losing Erik Cernak was a heavy blow for the Lightning in Game 1. They managed without him, but if Cernak is out long-term (and all signs point to him being fine for Game 2), Tampa Bay is in trouble. Cernak is a key defensive piece for the Lightning. He isn’t the best all-around defenseman on the team, but he’s legitimately a top-four defender and does a lot of heavy lifting in the defensive zone with McDonagh.
  • Regardless of Cernak’s health, Tampa Bay needs more from David Savard. He’s currently nursing an upper-body injury and is day-to-day, but Savard hasn’t looked good with Tampa Bay. I previously mentioned the severe ice time gap between Tampa Bay’s top four defenders and Savard. Given the amount of draft capital the Lightning gave up for him, Savard needs to elevate his game once he returns from injury. Being the fifth defenseman when you were supposed to be sliding into the top four to help stabilize the team’s right side is not a good look. The bright side of this is Savard’s last game (Game 6 against Florida) was his best game in a Lightning jersey.
  • As has always been the case, officiating in the playoffs is terrible (for both sides). There’s little else to say on the topic.
  • Carolina doesn’t give a lot of space anywhere on the ice, but Tampa Bay found a way. Goodrow’s goal was a bad goal for Alex Nedjelkovic to give up, but banking on the young netminder to give those up consistently is a bad bet. The Lightning has to do a better job at making his life difficult because the Hurricanes will throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Vasilevskiy.