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Morning After Thoughts: Even when they’re not at their best, Lightning find a way.

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Tampa Bay didn’t deserve to win Game 2, but deserving means little in the playoffs

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Two Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Detractors will bemoan how poor the Tampa Bay Lightning played Wednesday night and how the Montreal Canadiens deserved to win. They will stomp their feet, scrunch their faces, and stew in “what ifs” after the Lightning stole Game 2 3-1 against the Montreal Canadiens. The irony from the previous three rounds appears lost on those naysayers.

Here’s the issue; deserving means nothing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. More than anything else, results are the driving force in the postseason. Every coaching staff preaches process, and during the regular season a team’s process (if it’s a good one) will win out more times than not. However, a process takes time to get going, and teams have mini resets every series where they start at ground zero and build from there. If your process takes too long, or you fall into a hole too early, you’re doomed to fail.

There is little doubt Tampa Bay should have lost Game 2 with how poorly they executed their game plan, but as experienced teams do, they found a way to win. Now they’re heading to Montreal up two games to none with a chance to put a stranglehold on the Canadiens.

“Montreal had a vote in why we didn’t play great, so it wasn’t just on us,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “They had a plan, and they stuck to it. That’s part of what goes on here. It’s two really good hockey teams out there. You’re just fighting for who can win four first.

The biggest reason the Lightning lead this series is thanks to Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Big Cat has been a wall through the first two games. He’s allowed two goals that were both of the fluke variety and has neutralized what real shooting talent Montreal boasts. Tampa Bay’s defense deserves credit for bending and not breaking in Game 2, but the team as a whole failed to execute for the majority of the game. However, the positive spin is this was likely the best that Montreal can play, and the Lightning still pulled it out.

Opportunistic defined the Lightning in Game 2. All three goals came off Montreal misplays, and each one came at a critical moment. Anthony Cirelli’s opening goal came right after Montreal dictated play for several shifts. Blake Coleman’s highlight reel diving game-winning goal came with tenths of a second left to put Tampa Bay back in the lead after an abysmal showing in the second period. Ondrej Palat’s insurance goal was a gift from Joel Edmundson that became the dagger—there was no way Montreal was coming back with two goals against Vasilevskiy in one period.

There have been many highlight moments for the Lightning during this postseason run; Coleman’s might be the most jaw-dropping of them all.

The play started with Canadiens captain Shea Weber trying to connect on a zone exit pass to Philip Danault. Danault was disrupted by Coleman, which allowed Ryan McDonagh to move the puck into the middle of the neutral zone, where Barclay Goodrow raced to beat Ben Chiarot to the loose puck. Goodrow won the race with a deft poke check before getting around Chiarot and springing a pseudo-two-on-one. Coleman read the situation and drove the net hard, with Danault desperately trying to keep up. Goodrow fed a pass across the royal road where Danault managed to get his stick on the puck first, but Coleman had the better reach as he redirected the puck a second time to force the puck past Carey Price to score a backbreaking goal against the team that is used to scoring the back-breakers themselves.

“I knew the clock was winding down, but I saw Goodie make that heads-up play in the neutral zone, a little poke past their D,” Coleman said. “ I just tried to do everything I could to give him an option. Incredible pass from him. Fortunately, we beat the clock.”

Amalie Arena erupted into a euphoric chorus of cheers.

“Literally in my head, I’m like ‘Did he just do that again?’,” Cooper said, reminiscing about Coleman’s diving goal against the Boston Bruins in last year’s postseason. “I know a little bit different scenarios, but it was remarkably similar. The timing was epic.”

That was all the Lightning needed as Vasilevskiy refused to allow anything past him, and Tampa Bay’s defense held strong in the third period.

Now, the series shifts to Montreal, with a golden opportunity to go up 3-0 in the series. Montreal played exceptionally well in Game 2 while the Lightning struggled to find a consistent groove. This was Montreal’s best chance to even the series because it’s unlikely the Lightning will play that poorly again. Situations like these cannot be wasted, and the Lightning has done a good job over the past two playoffs of not wasting these chances.

However, there are still games left to be played, and Montreal will undoubtedly be even more desperate. The hardest games of the series are coming. The Lightning better be ready.

Extra Thoughts

  • Andrei Vasilevskiy not winning the Vezina trophy was surprising, but Marc-Andre Fleury is a deserving winner this season. I have no quarrel with who won the award. However, I have an issue with three GMs not putting Vasilevskiy in the top three of the award. That isn’t just comical, but downright ignorant and absurd for supposed “experts” in the hockey world. Whoever those three GMs are, your player evaluation skills are severely suspect.
  • Last night was the first game with a full house in Amalie Arena, and y’all rocked the house. Words can’t describe how explosive the emotion was after Coleman’s goal. Moments like that make sports special, and that goal would not have had that kind of impact without y'all in the building.
  • This series was played up as a goaltending duel between two of the best goaltenders in the league. So far, only one has stepped up to the plate. This isn’t to say Carey Price has been bad for Montreal, he’s been fine, but fine isn’t good enough when Vasilevskiy continues to remind everyone that he is the best goaltender in the league.
  • Here’s some stats to add more context to how well Vasilevskiy is playing. According to Evolving-Hockey.com, he has the highest Goals Saved Above Expected of any goaltender in any single playoff season going back to the 2008 playoffs, the start of the data required for Expected Goals. Vasilevskiy’s 2020 campaign ranks 4th on that list.
  • Vasilevskiy’s .939 save percentage ranks 12th all time among goaltenders with at least 12 games played in the postseason. It’s the highest in that group since Braden Holtby posted a .942% in 12 games in 2016. Among players with at least 20 games played, he ranks 6th, behind the following players.
  1. Jonathan Quick’s legendary 2012 run for Los Angeles winning the Cup and a Conn Smythe.
  2. Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s legendary 2003 run for Anaheim that won him a Conn Smythe and the last player to win the Conn Smythe and not win the Stanley Cup.
  3. Ollie Kolzig for Washington in 1998 when they lost to the Detroit Red Wings who won their second Cup in a row.
  4. Tim Thomas’ legendary 2011 run to the Cup and a Conn Smythe for Boston.
  5. Tuukka Rask for Boston in 2013 when they lost to Chicago in the Finals.