The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t looked like the Tampa Bay Lightning yet this season, but they’re starting to get there. For the first time all season, they didn’t rely on their power play as they notched five even strength goals in a 5-3 win over the New York Islanders. Brayden Point, Brandon Hagel, Corey Perry, Nick Paul, and Alex Killorn all scored while Brian Elliott posted 32 saves to pick up his first win of the season.
It was an entertaining, but sloppy, win for the Bolts as they evened their record on the season and continued their winning ways in the second half of back-to-back games over the last two seasons.
Here are some thoughts, in no particular order, on Saturday night’s game.
The public flogging of Brandon Hagel has been delayed
There is always one player on a team that receives an undue amount of negative pressure from a fan base. Since being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks, Brandon Hagel has worn that title with a quiet stoicism. Whether it was the price the Lightning paid to acquire him, or the fact that he hasn’t put up goals at the rate he did with Chicago, Hagel has had garnered more than an honest share of criticism from some Lightning fans.
For at least one night, he quieted that blusterous mob. Coach Cooper has stuck with him on the top line despite the fact that they entered the game without an even strength goal between them. His confidence paid off as the line produced the first two goals of the night for the Lightning with Hagel playing a key role on both of them.
On the first goal he dumped the puck in and charged after it. Behind the net he caused a turnover and got the puck to NIkita Kucherov whose shot bounced to Brayden Point. Point beat Ilya Sorokin from the doorstep.
Brayden Point (Nikita Kucherov, Brandon Hagel) 1-0 Lightning
On the second goal, which came after a sustained period of pressure from the Islanders, speed was the difference. Point seems to be at a different level this year (yay being healthy). He backed off the defense and his deflected shot crossed up Sorokin. It hit the crossbar but, Hagel, who never stopped skating, was first to the puck and put it home.
Brandon Hagel (Brayden Point, Victor Hedman) 2-1 Lightning
It wasn’t just the goals, though. Early in the game, very early in the game, the Lightning were shorthanded and Hagel was on the penalty kill. Twice in short succession he denied entries in the neutral zone. That’s one of those subtle little things that he has been doing since joining the team that often goes unnoticed.
It was a good day overall for the Lightning penalty kill as they shut out the Islanders on all three of their power plays. That’s two games in a row where they’ve done that. Baby steps.
Forecheck, Backcheck, Pay Check
Point’s goal was the result of a strong forecheck by Hagel. A key goal in the first period by the School Bus Line also came from a good forecheck. Corey Perry fought for the puck behind the net and then Patrick Maroon knocked down Adam Pelech (could it have been boarding, maybe, you never know). Pierre-Edouard Bellemare then found Perry with a cross-crease pass that Perry swatted home.
Perry (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Pat Maroon) 3-1 Lightning
That’s how you create offense with pressure. However, the Lightning also denied some offense with a couple of key backchecks. Alex Killorn and Mikhail Sergachev tied up sticks of Islanders’ players that if they hadn’t may have led to tap in goals. Point, on multiple occasions, raced back from the offensive zone to close off possible odd-man rushes. Those plays don’t lead to goals, but they do help keep them off of the board.
The life of a back-up goaltender
Brian Elliott has made two starts this season. Both have been under less than ideal conditions (back ends of back-to-backs). Tonight he also had the joy of playing in front of a defensive unit that was completely swizzled around thanks to an injury that kept Erik Cernak out of the line-up. To say he’s played well under the circumstances is an understatement.
It’s unusual to say that a goaltender played well in a 6-2 loss, but he was exceptional against the Pittsburgh Penguins in his first start last weekend as he made 39 saves on 44 shots and kept it a one-goal game through two periods despite his teammates getting outplayed. Even though he allowed five goals it literally could have been worse as Evolving Hockey had him with a 6.44 expected goals against.
It was more of the same on Saturday as he was tested early and often in the first period as the Lightning were outplayed at 5v5 (15 -7 in unblocked shot attempts, 14 -7 in scoring chances). He kept his team in the game though, allowing just the Matt Martin goal in the opening frame. Despite allowing three goals, Natural Stat Trick had him at a 3.32 expected goals against. All you want from your back-up is a chance to win the game. He’s done that twice now.
The Islanders goal in the second he would probably want back as he thought he had it squeezed off, but hey, no one is perfect.
Anthony Beauvillier (Brock Nelson) 3-2 Lightning
Rage against the dying of the light (or period)
You don’t stop playing until the end of the period and it was a rookie that proved the idiom. With time winding down in the second period Cole Koepke threw a hit on Nikita Soshnikov in the neutral zone. It led to a turnover. Ross Colton fed the puck to Nick Paul, who took it to the net and scored with 0.1 seconds left on the clock.
Nick Paul (Ross Colton) 4-2 Lightning
Not only did it excite the crowd, it deflated the Islanders a bit as they had been pinning the Lightning in their own zone quite well following the Beauviller goal. Koepke didn’t get an official assist on the play, but you know he got a bunch of “atta boys” from his teammates and coaches.
Better, but not good enough
Getting the puck out of their own zone has been one of the biggest issues for the Lightning this season. It seems that for most of the night Tampa Bay was better. Not great, barely even good, but better. A lot of flip outs, but they were at least getting the puck out. Mostly. Two of the Islanders goals came directly off of bad passes. In the first it was Corey Perry that tried a blind, backhand pass to the center of the ice that missed Philippe Myers, but not Matt Martin, that tied the game at one goal a piece.
Matt Martin (unassisted) 1-1
With the Lightning looking to protect a two-goal lead in the final period, Brandon Hagel tried a long-distance pass (that, to be fair, would have sprung a two-on-one). It didn’t clear and Ryan Pulock picked it off and snapped it past Elliott.
Ryan Pulock (unassisted) 4-2 Lightning
It wasn’t a pretty game for the Lightning. They were outplayed at 5v5 again as they lost the unblocked shot attempt battle (41-23), scoring chances (30-19), and high-danger chances (9-7). Thanks to some solid goaltending and some breaks on their shooting, they pulled out the win. Despite the victory, there is still some work to do.
You get a goal! You get a goal! You get a goal!
The top line scored twice. The fourth line scored. The third line scored. Even the second line, well kind of, scored (technically it wasn’t the full second line as Hagel was on the ice). The Islanders held the Lightning power play to a big ol’ zero, but late in the third, chaos ruled the day following an unsuccessful man-advantage for the Bolts. For the first time all night the teams raced up and and down the ice. Elliott made a key kick save Casey Cizikas that led to a Lightning rush.
Alex Killorn then snapped a forever goalless streak (33 games including playoffs) by going bar down.
Alex Killorn (Nick Paul, Mikhail Sergachev) 5-3 Lightning
Needless to say, five even strength goals for the Lightning was a welcome sight for the coaching staff, but the fact that it was spread out among the different lines was even more welcome. Relying on Steven Stamkos to bang home one-timers on the power play is not a sustainable way to win games. Having three players (Hagel, Paul, and Killorn) pick up their first goals of the season is exactly what the offense needed.
By picking up two wins in two nights, the Lightning changed the early narrative of their season. A record of 3-3 is a lot better than 2-4 or 1-5. They aren’t where they need to be right now, but they are starting to get back to that Find-A-Way mentality that was their identity last year. Now it’s time to see if they can keep it rolling during the West Coast trip next week.