clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Morning After Thoughts: Tampa Bay evens the series, but they can be better

Plenty of positives to take from Game Two, but Tampa Bay still has work to do

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Two Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

After getting dominated in Game One of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Tampa Bay Lightning pushed back and tied the series with a good Game Two performance. “Good” being operative word as the Lightning is better than what they’ve shown through two games. Game One was an anomaly, but Game Two still showed warts they usually don’t reveal. It didn’t bite them on Wednesday night, but if the Lightning wants to take advantage of their home ice, they still need to improve the needless turnovers that led directly to goals against.

Monday night was embarrassing, and they were determined to show Toronto who they were. The most remarkable thing I saw was the cold, calculated looks on the Lightning players’ faces. Something that was drastically missing from their effort in Game One.

I posited after the second period of Game One this benign tweet.

The Lightning turned that inner anger into a deadly exhibition of efficient execution on the power-play—they went three-for-seven with the man advantage. Jon Cooper summed it up quite well.

“We made it personal.”

Spearheaded by a dominant performance by Victor Hedman (a four-point night), Tampa Bay righted the ship. However, for most of the opening period, it was Andrei Vasilevskiy who was the dominant performer. Toronto came out with much of the same speed and tenacity that overwhelmed the Lightning in Game One; the difference was Vasilevskiy reminding everyone why he’s become one of the best playoff goaltenders in recent memory—highlighted by this absurd save early in the second period to keep Tampa Bay’s lead secured.

Mind you, Vasilevskiy did this while practically on his butt.

“Vasy is the man,” said Cooper. “There’s no one else I’d rather have.”

The stats have been absurd for The Big Cat after a loss since the 2020 postseason - 15-0 record, a 1.31 goals-against average, a .948 save percentage, and five shutouts. He also became the 22nd NHL goaltender in league history to win 50 playoff games and the seventh fastest to reach that milestone. He completed this in 83 postseason games (.602 winning percentage), which is one more than Patrick Roy and one less than Martin Brodeur. That’s some Hall-of-Fame company he’s in.

He’s the anchor of this Lightning franchise, so Tampa Bay goes as Vasilevskiy goes.

On the other side of the ice, Hedman got Tampa Bay’s scoring juices going at the conclusion of the first period, and Tampa Bay never looked back.

Toronto broke Game One open with a fantastic five-minute penalty kill. Tampa Bay opened their chance with execution on the power-play in Game Two. They accomplished this by simplifying their reads and quickly moving the puck, negating Toronto’s aggressively talented penalty kill.

More than that, the crisp passing that is a hallmark of Tampa Bay’s power-play revived itself at 5v5, highlighted by this laser pass by Hedman to spring Corey Perry on a breakaway.

That momentum carried the Lightning to a 5-3 win to even the series, but the goals Tampa Bay gave up provided some worrying trends that continue to crop up.

As good as Ryan McDonagh has been for the Lightning since they acquired him at the 2018 trade deadline, he can’t make a mistake like this. Toronto is similar to Tampa Bay, a fast and aggressive forechecking team that creates something out of nothing. Auston Matthews wasn’t even that aggressive on this play; he glided toward McDonagh. The veteran defenseman had enough time to either chip the puck off the boards or throw a backhand pass below the goal line where Mikhail Sergachev (who had a good bounce-back after an atrocious Game One) was waiting as an outlet. Instead, he hesitates for half a second, and Matthews does a good job getting his stick on the puck, forcing it to trickle out to Marner, who threads a pass just past Sergachev’s stick for Michael Bunting to score his first playoff goal.

Sergachev does a good job getting into position after McDonagh’s turnover, but there’s only so much he can do in this situation. A veteran like McDonagh can’t make these kinds of mistakes against a team like Toronto (or any playoff team). Even if the errors were limited, overall, these are entirely avoidable in Game Two.

Yes, Marner’s shot is deflected and takes an awkward trajectory to the net, but the more significant issue is the inability to clear out the front of the net for Vasilevskiy to see the play. He’s trying to anticipate Marner’s movements but can’t get a full read due to Matthews firmly planting himself in front of the net. Steven Stamkos (6’1” 193 lbs) attempts to move the 6’3’’ 205-lb center, but it does little as Vasilevskiy overcompensates to get a read on Marner’s shot before it’s redirected immediately.

However, Toronto’s third goal might be the most infuriating one of the night.

It’s clear what Hedman’s intention is in this play. He wants to take advantage of Toronto’s over-aggressiveness, and it bites him—badly. However, the mistake comes from how he tries to execute this play rather than its idea. Hedman can see T.J. Brodie extending his stick to cut off the dump chance but tries to force the play instead. Hedman is prone to do that because....well...he’s Victor Hedman—he succeeds far more than he fails. However, given his spot as the lone man back, he has to play this sequence smarter.

It’s a bang-bang sequence, but Hedman is more than capable of tucking the puck and shielding it here, given how aggressive Brodie’s approach is. Does that also negate their offensive zone pressure? Yes. Does it spring this dangerous shorthanded chance? No. Does it give his teammates time to get back up the ice? Yes.

It’s the nitpickiest of nitpicks, but small decisions like this, or McDonagh’s hesitation, have been the Lightning’s biggest problem this season. For the most part, they limited them in Game Two, but they still reared their ugly head. It’s why I feel this game was a step in the right direction, but it’s not the step that will win them this series. They can and have to be better.

Additionally, the Lightning has to figure out how to score consistently at 5v5 to survive this series. They’ve managed two 5v5 goals thus far (Toronto has five) and have been too reliant on their power-play to generate momentum. That won’t be enough to get past a Maple Leafs team that has scored in every situation, including shorthanded goals in back-to-back games. Those, especially, need to be negated because they’re nothing but gifts to the opposition.

Nonetheless, Tampa Bay accomplished what they needed to do. Split the first two games and come home feeling positive about themselves. They succeeded in that endeavor, but they need to be better to win this series.