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Morning After Thoughts: The real Lightning showed up in Game 2

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That was the team that won a Stanley Cup last season

New York Islanders v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Two Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I expected the Tampa Bay Lightning to come out more engaged and motivated after a lethargic Game 1 loss to the New York Islanders. Instead, what I saw was a team that made every shift a living nightmare for their opponent. The Lightning was aggressive, angry, and unrelenting in their pressure all evening. The team we saw last night was the team that won a Stanley Cup less than a year ago.

The issues that plagued Tampa Bay in Game 1, poor puck management, indecisiveness with the puck, a lack of motivation (or “fire,” as Blake Coleman said), were rectified en route to a 4-2 win Tuesday night.

“We know we had better, and we were better,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

The Lightning has yet to lose back-to-back playoff games since their 2019 series loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’re 11-0 after a loss in that same time frame, which is the best run of any team in league history. That kind of fortitude is hard to beat.

“Our guys these past two playoff runs, they really dig their heels in after a loss, and they did that again tonight,” Cooper added. “Now we’ve just got to keep building on this momentum we have.”

I mentioned on the Jablam Sports Hockey podcast how the Lightning could improve their offense in Game 2, and they executed that mindset near-perfectly.

The Lightning hasn’t been their best at 5-on-5 this postseason, but they tilted the ice in their favor and forced the Islanders to have their heads on swivels to keep up. New York struggled to keep up, as evidenced by Brayden Point’s goal.

Nikita Kucherov continues to be a wizard. This was only one of his three assists last night, and I don’t know which assist was more beautiful—this one or the Ondrej Palat goal. You tell me.

“He’s remarkably gifted,” Cooper said. “He does everything with grace. He’s so smooth in the plays he makes. It almost looks effortless.”

“It’s a treat to watch,” Victor Hedman said.

The top line was dominant last night. According to Natural Stat Trick, they controlled shot attempts (12-7), shots (8-2), scoring chances (7-4), high danger chances (3-1), goals (2-0), and expected goals (76%). The funny thing? They weren’t even the most dominant line at 5-on-5 for Tampa Bay.

Yanni Gourde, Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow throttled the Islanders last night. Shot attempts (10-0), shots (5-0), scoring chances (5-0), high danger chances (1-0), and expected goals (100%). A line rarely gives their opponent absolutely nothing through a whole game, but Tampa Bay’s “third line” (which is a second line in reality and gets second line ice time) suffocated the Islanders all night.

Another facet of the Lightning’s game that revived itself last night was production from the back end. For a team that boasts Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, and Erik Cernak, somehow, Tampa Bay had no goals from defensemen. However, Game 2 changed that with Hedman and Jan Rutta’s first of the postseason (Rutta’s first-ever playoff goal).

“There’s a first for everything,” Rutta said. “Really happy that it finally went in. It was a nice setup, kind of low to high. Finally, it didn’t hit any shin pads or sticks. Yeah, really happy with that one.”

Objectively, Rutta’s goal was a beauty. An absolute missile of a slap shot that was earmarked for the top corner.

Asked how he felt about a defenseman with nine goals in the NHL before tonight breaking the dam for his defensemen scoring, Cooper joked, “Jan Rutta rolled off the tongue first as the guy that was going to do it.”

There are still areas for the Lightning to improve though, they’re still allowing too many high danger chances against (eight in Game 2, nine in Game 1), and too many rush attempts against, but Andrei Vasilevskiy has been there time and time again to hold the fort down when the Lightning falter. This is due to New York’s proficiency at counter-attacking and attacking Tampa’s aggressive defense. It’s something to keep an eye on as the series progresses.

As the series shifts to New York, it’ll be interesting to see how Islanders coach Barry Trotz utilizes last change to his advantage. The Islanders did what they wanted to do in the first two games—split them. None of New York’s lines were strong in Game 2, they had two that barely broke even in possession, and there were long stretches of time that saw the Islanders struggle to gain any momentum. Expect that to be fixed as we head to Nassau Coliseum. Now it’s time to see if the Lightning can impose their will on the road as they have so well the past two postseasons.

The nastiness of the first two games will likely see a boiling point in Games 3 and 4. The Lightning better be ready for it.

Extra Thoughts

  • Kucherov has 22 points in 13 games—that’s absurd. He has more power-play points (15) as the next highest scorer (who is still in the playoffs), and that’s Steven Stamkos at 14! We’re witnessing the most gifted player ever to wear a Lightning jersey, folks. Enjoy it.
  • Going into last night’s game, according to Evolving-Hockey.com, Vasilevskiy had saved 8.09 goals above expected in all situations, trailing only Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets and his 8.87. He bumped that up by almost a goal and a half to take the playoffs lead with 9.51 goals saved above expected. That’s in 13 games and just over 786 minutes of ice time. In the regular season, Vasilevskiy saved 12.11 goals above expected in 2532 minutes of ice time. That means Vasilevskiy saved 0.28 goals above expected per 60 minutes during the regular season, a Vezina caliber rate, and raised that to 0.73 goals above expected per 60 in the playoffs. During last year’s playoff run, he saved 0.48 goals above expected per 60. As magical as Nikita Kucherov and his scoring has been, Vasilevskiy has shown up to play and play in a big way during these playoffs.
  • Continuing on scoring. Removing the players who have been eliminated this postseason, the Lightning has the top five scorers in the league (Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Alex Killorn, and Hedman). New York has four of its players in the back half of the top ten (Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, and Anthony Beauvillier).
  • As strong as the Lightning has been offensively, some players have been uncharacteristically quiet from a production standpoint this postseason. Aside from the top five scorers previously mentioned, the scoring plummets from Hedman (13 points) to Anthony Cirelli (6 points). The Lightning will need their depth players to produce more as the postseason continues if they want to repeat. Coleman (6 points), Palat (6 points), Gourde (3 points), Sergachev (2 points), and Tyler Johnson (2 points) need to step up.
  • It’s a drum beaten raw at this point. NHL officiating is arguably the worst it's ever been, with perplexing and infuriating calls (and missed calls) infesting every game. For example, the Islanders were gifted a power-play after Adam Pelech, quite literally, cross-checked Point into Semyon Varlamov. Yet, it was Point who got penalized for goaltender interference because he “cross-checked Varlamov.” Replay proved how ignorant that call was, and it was worsened by New York scoring on the ensuing power-play. Then, they missed a too-many-men call on Tampa Bay on Palat’s goal. Add in the mystifying no-calls on trips, hooks, holds, and interferences committed by both teams, and it's clear NHL officials are just inept at this point. For an officiating body that boasts they don’t want to “affect the game,” they sure do a piss poor job of it.
  • Lastly, I’m seeing a lot of talk about the nastiness of this series and how cheap shots are being taken. Folks, as much as it’s an annoying aspect of the game, it’s playoff hockey. The entire mental aspect on the ice is to destroy your opponent's will to fight. The message sending and constant scrums are a part of that. Until the NHL cracks down on that behavior, it isn’t going to change, and I don’t think the NHL is going to make a push to alter it. They want that—it’s what they feel still sells the game to a large subset of fans (nevermind the fact the NHL has consistently been behind the 8-ball in growing the sport). Best sport in the world ran by arguably the worst ran league in the world.