clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Morning After Thoughts: Little details have the Lightning on the cusp of another Eastern Conference Final

Details, details, details...

Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

I freely admit my adamant skepticism entering this postseason. This season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a maddening cacophony of poor decision-making, inconsistent play, and uncharacteristic performances. The first four games of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs simply reinforced my perspective of this team. Then a change occurred in Game Five, and while they didn't secure a victory that day, it laid the groundwork for what was to come—a steadying presence and an insatiable dedication to the details of the game. A kind of stoicism in the face of adversity that anchored back-to-back championship runs.

That was the Tampa Bay Lightning we expected to see, and it's carried them to the verge of yet another Eastern Conference Final.

Given how the regular season played out, it's easy to see why the Florida Panthers were favorites, and by a healthy margin, for the second consecutive Battle of Florida. The Panthers' trademark offensive aggression has been on full display, but the Lightning haven't blinked—they haven't faltered, they haven't caved to the pressure. Instead, they've made the President's Trophy winners look powerless in the first three games of this second-round series.

Limiting any team to one goal in every game is an accomplishment, especially in the NHL, but neutering one of the most prolific offenses the league has ever seen is something no one could have expected. Was Andrei Vasilevskiy's bounce back something that could have been foreseen? Absolutely, he's earned his status as the best playoff goaltender of his generation, and until proven otherwise, he will keep that title. However, what's even more impressive is how methodical and precise the Lightning have become throughout this postseason. Since Game Six against Toronto, they've sacrificed their bodies to block an inordinate amount of shots, they've suffocated dynamic and explosive offenses (especially in the third period), they've capitalized on their opportunities in dramatic fashion, and most of all, they've rekindled a killer instinct that was thought to have waned this season.

Game Three against the Panthers never felt like a game the Lightning would lose. Florida had their pockets of pressure, especially during a second-period power-play, but Tampa Bay never faltered—highlighted by Ryan McDonagh's block of Jonathan Huberdeau's shot after the Panthers deftly moved the puck around the zone to force Vasilevskiy out of position.

McDonagh isn't what he used to be when the Lightning traded for him at the 2018 trade deadline, but his savviness and willingness to commit to the small intricacies have made him, and most of the Lightning roster, stand out this postseason. This isn't the only dramatic shot block he's made this postseason.

Watch McDonagh on this entire sequence—he knows exactly where the puck is going and exactly where to position himself to neutralize Auston Matthews' one-timer. He follows this up by blocking not only the shot but also out-positioning John Tavares to recover the rebound and reset the play. Those small details propelled Tampa Bay past Toronto and currently have Florida on the brink of collapse.

Another aspect that has stumped the Panthers is Tampa Bay's ability to outnumber the opposition in front of the net.

Things I want you to take note of on this goal:

  • Pay attention to how the Lightning manipulated Florida's zone defense. They forced four Panthers to the high part of the zone with Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, and Erik Cernak shuffling the puck to each other.
  • Steven Stamkos reads the play and beelines it to the front of the net adjacent to Corey Perry—putting Ben Chiarot in a difficult position trying to cover two skaters.
  • Aaron Ekblad is in no-mans land and fails to recognize the situation correctly; look at how hesitant he is to leave the right faceoff circle.
  • The behind-the-net camera provides a more damning look at Florida's failing defensive structure and lack of attention to detail. Sergei Bobrovsky has no help on this goal, Chiarot can't negate both Lightning skaters in front of the net, and he remains static instead of trying to disrupt one of Stamkos or Perry. His indecision is the final domino to fall in a string of mistakes that shouldn't happen at this stage of the playoffs.

Pay attention to the following:

  • Puck management, specifically when down low. Alex Killorn does a masterful job making Gustav Forsling look lost on this goal. Forsling immediately loses the body position battle and pins Killorn along the boards, but the savvy veteran knows he's going to do this. What does he do? He slides the puck to an area only he and Ondrej Palat can reach.
  • Florida's passive zone defense is caught standing still, making them susceptible to quick passes and moving skaters. Ross Colton whiffs on Palat's pass, but Erik Cernak can take advantage of Claude Giroux being in no-mans land and everyone on Florida's defense panicking to cover Colton.
  • Look at who is near Florida's net as Cernak fires this shot—Killorn and Colton. They don't screen Bobrovsky on the goal, but they appear in his peripheral vision. He has to account for them and be wary of a deflection or pass. That half-second of gauging his surroundings is all that is needed for Cernak to catch Bobrovsky off guard to give the Lightning their game-winning goal.

These small details are what wins hockey games this time of year, and the Lightning has made the Panthers look woefully unprepared throughout this second-round series. If Tampa Bay keeps this kind of attention-to-detail and selfless play going, they're the team no one wants to play against.