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Morning After Thoughts: Safe is death rears its ugly head as Lightning face a Game 7

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Do or die on Friday, folks.

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

One win. That’s all that is standing between the Tampa Bay Lightning and consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final. Last night’s 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders marked just the second time, all-season, the Lightning lost a game after leading entering the third period—both losses have occurred in the playoffs. It also dropped Tampa Bay’s overtime record this postseason to 0-3.

If last year’s championship run was marked by dominance and an ability to squeeze the life out of opponents, this year’s playoff run is substantially different. Tampa Bay’s dominance at 5v5 is far below what was expected of the team coming into the postseason. Still, through strong goaltending and a killer instinct, the Lightning eliminated the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes without facing elimination.

Now, for the first time since the 2019 playoffs, Tampa Bay faces elimination. They will do it against a team that refuses to die and takes every liberty afforded to them to gain an advantage. Wednesday night’s Game 6 was Tampa Bay’s to lose. They weathered New York’s early attack and capitalized on their opportunities to take a two-goal lead. However, the Lightning faltered in the third period, reverting to a defensive shell that the Islanders feasted on as they pushed for the tying goal.

That tying goal came off the stick of a player who injured the Lightning’s best player, but that isn’t the reason why Tampa Bay lost. Of course, the loss of Nikita Kucherov hurts the Lightning, but they played an entire season without him—they know how to win when he isn’t in the lineup. Tampa Bay lost Game 6 because they failed to adapt in-game. The killer instinct that helped eliminate Florida and Carolina was absent Wednesday night. When New York pushed with every ounce of desperation they had in the third period, the Lightning couldn’t muster a counter-attack. They iced pucks, turned the puck over, lost puck battles, and didn’t adjust to give themselves the best chance to win and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

New York slightly altered their offensive forecheck for this game. They’ve always been more of a dump and chase team, but the Lightning did themselves no favors in countering it.

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This is what I’m referring to when I say Tampa Bay went into a defensive shell. Their normal aggressive, neutral zone forecheck helps alleviate pressure on the defense. Once Tampa Bay went up 2-0 after Anthony Cirelli’s goal, the Lightning sagged. No play summarizes it better than Anthony Beauvillier’s overtime winner. Tampa Bay allows New York to approach the red line freely and collapses too late, thus leaving themselves exposed to be outnumbered or outraced on the walls. Watch how New York’s forecheck attacks here; the dump in rims around the boards to Jan Rutta, who looks over his shoulder and sees Beauvillier pressuring him. Rutta passes it behind the net to Victor Hedman, who Brock Nelson immediately pressures; Hedman senses Nelson and makes a soft play on the puck which then rolls toward the right half wall. Josh Bailey already has inside position on Blake Coleman since he and every other forward misplayed the neutral zone dump by Nick Leddy. Luckily, Coleman wins the puck battle but makes a crucial mistake. He doesn’t see or feel Beauvillier reaching in with his stick as he tries to feed a pass to Rutta. Beauvillier intercepts the puck and beats Andrei Vasilevskiy to keep the Islanders' hopes alive.

This kind of 1-2-2 forecheck was utilized throughout Game 6 and the Lightning never properly adapted to it. They struggled effectively breaking out of the defensive zone, and it finally bit them at the worst possible time.

Regardless, the Lightning is still alive and can erase all of the frustration from Game 6 on Friday night. It’ll be Tampa Bay’s first Game 7 since the 2018 Eastern Conference Final (where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals). Obviously, a large sect of Lightning fans will remember that Game 7 or the 2016 Eastern Conference Final Game 7 that saw Tampa Bay fall short, but a caveat must be broached here; this isn’t the same Lightning team as then. This team has reached the summit; they know how to close out a series (they’ve literally done it for six consecutive series). That accounts for something; however, at the same time, those memories and feelings still creep into our minds and cause us to worry.

Game 7. Friday night. Amalie Arena.

Be the Thunder.

Extra Thoughts

  • Losing Nikita Kucherov was a huge blow to the Lightning (we still have no official update on his status for Game 7). The broadcast openly and repeatedly heaped praise on the Islanders for actively hurting an opposing player. There’s a reason NBCSports is hated among the hockey community; they’re fundamentally bad at what they do. They, and the NHL, fail to market the game properly, they cheer on actively injuring other players, they misanalyze the game consistently and pretend we’re still in the 1970s, where “big boy” hockey was the name of the game. The fact that a national commentator like Eddie Olczyk can openly say, “He’s [Scott Mayfield] gotten the right guys [with his illegal and dangerous cross-checks], and gotten his money’s worth,” is farcical. It is indecent, embarrassing, devoid of critical thought, and shows a complete lack of awareness that someone in his position should know better. Additionally, during the first intermission, Keith Jones championing the Islanders approach (and Mayfield’s dirty play) brings up a philosophical question that no one in the upper echelon of hockey wants to answer (either because they’re too ignorant or scared to asked)

This isn’t solely on the shoulders of Olczyk or Jones. They’re dinosaurs in today’s world and won’t change. This is the NHL’s fault for advocating for this kind of play which directly correlates with the downright atrocious officiating that has been on display this postseason. This isn’t even a “the refs don’t like Tampa” thing—the officiating is categorically abysmal from any team’s perspective.

It has gotten so bad that it’s being discussed on national broadcasts as something the league needs to address. Officials decry that they don’t want to affect the game's outcome but pick and choose when they’ll make calls (or makeup calls), which does exactly what they say they’re trying to avoid. It takes a special level of stupid to have this kind of logic and brazenly champion it as if it’s something to be proud of.

This is the NHL, though, the league that still employs Colin Campbell, who tried to pressure the head of officiating because his son was getting called for penalties over a decade ago. The league that tried to smear and connive its way out of a concussion lawsuit. The league that wants to “grow the game” but can’t take more than one step without tripping over itself. The league that is so notoriously bad at admitting it has a problem that it will go to absurd lengths to keep the status quo intact. The league that takes the best sport in the world and shoves it into a quagmire of stupidity, nonsense, and incompetence. It’s a cronyistic old man’s club that does not give a single damn about the product on the ice.