Low-effort start by Lightning hurts in 2-1 loss to Maple Leafs

At least it’s not April.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had what you could call a “slow start” last night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It took them more than half of the first period before they got their first shot attempt. Not even shot on goal, just a shot. Any. Blocked, missed, or saved. That’s embarrassing and Jon Cooper said as much in his post game comments. They didn’t have any effort going until the last five minutes or so in the first period. It got better after that, but it wasn’t enough. But there are a few things to take out of this game. Let’s dive into it.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Was a Rock

Vasilevskiy has had some shaky outings since the Lightning’s impressive run of wins ended. During his 21 game personal point streak, Vasilevskiy allowed just 1.57 goals per game. He had a couple of four game goals sprinkled in there, but had two shutouts and seven games where he allowed only one goal. He followed that up by giving up 5, 7, and 4 goals in his next three games, all loses. Over the last five games he’s played, he’s allowed two goals per game, which is really good, but only has a 3-2-0 record to show from it. In the two losses, he only allowed two goals each including last night against the Maple Leafs.

The two goals he allowed last night were both high quality, high danger plays. The first came on the power play when a shot was redirected in the slot on Vasilevskiy. William Nylander was right there to jump on the rebound and bang it in before Vasilevskiy could even react to it. The second goal also came on the power play. Erik Cernak went for a hit on John Tavares that got him out of position. The three remaining defenders collapsed in on the net, but all three got caught watching the puck and no one noticed Auston Matthews setting up on the far side. He was left completely unmarked and wide open allowing Mitch Marner to zip a pass across the front of the crease for Matthews to one-time an easy goal behind Vasilevskiy.

I can hardly fault Vasy on either of those goals. They were high skilled, high danger plays with the man advantage. When he was asked to make saves at even strength, he delivered, including on multiple breakaways when Toronto got in behind the Lightning’s defense. Unfortunately last night, Frederik Andersen was even better and the Lightning weren’t able to solve him on the power play like the Maple Leafs did to Vasilevskiy.

Big Divide between Top Six and Bottom Six

Nikita Kucherov started out the night playing alongside Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli. But Jon Cooper decided to jumble things up when the Lightning’s lack of effort to start the game was out of control. Kucherov found himself back alongside Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point. When that trio was together, they controlled 78.95% of shot attempts and a whopping 92.83% of the Expected Goals.

The Maple Leafs did not have an answer for the Lightning’s top players. They couldn’t slow them down (once they got going). They were dangerous with Ondrej Palat in particular having at least three great chances right around the net and he hit the post a couple times. That line got the only even strength goal of the game. Even more striking is looking at the forwards that were playing the most against them; Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, William Nylander, and John Tavares. That’s a list of the Maple Leafs’ best forwards. They got the most ice time against the Lightning’s top forwards, and were all under water in shot share and expected goal share.

The second line with Killorn, Cirelli, and Blake Coleman, who switched spots with Kucherov, were also solid, though not as dominating as the Lightning’s top line. They controlled 58.82% of the shot attempts and 53.27% of the expected goal share.

The bottom six is where it gets uglier though. The line of Carter Verhaeghe, Tyler Johnson, and Barclay Goodrow seems like a pretty good fit on paper. And they did well enough in shot share at 57.14%. But they failed to get as dangerous shots as the top two lines and allowed a good bit of danger themselves finishing with a 42% expected goal share.

The bottom line of Pat Maroon, Cedric Paquette, and Yanni Gourde got plastered. 27.27% of the shot share and 32.31% of the expected goal share. They saw a pretty good amount of Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, Auston Matthews, Zach Hyman, and William Nylander and got dominated by them. That is the risk though when you’re the away team that your fourth line is going to get matched up against the opponent’s best. This line needs to figure out how to play better and get back to the north-south grinding game that made them successful earlier in the season.

Moving On

The Lightning got three points out of a three game road trip. Would you have liked more? Sure. I take it as a good sign that they got the two points against the hardest of the three opponents. The Detroit game was the definition of a trap. The Maple Leafs have been a two-faced team with their fans never knowing which team is going to show up. Last night, their good team mostly showed up. This was also the third game in four nights which is always a tough game to go into on the road.

The Lightning return tomorrow night to Amalie Arena to take on the red hot Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers will be another big test for where the Lightning stand in their preparations down the stretch for the playoffs that are just over a month away.

Hopefully Victor Hedman will return after taking the morning skate yesterday, but ultimately not playing against the Maple Leafs. Hopefully Jan Rutta will return soon so he can knock the rust off. Hopefully Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow will start to settle in and get back to their style of play and production that they were brought in to provide.

The team is doing a lot of things right. Better than they did last year. With how well they played in January and February, it was no surprise to see them come back down to earth a bit. I’d much rather have them face this slump now, than waiting another month to face it and have no time to overcome it. They’ve got 12 games left to get into shape for the playoffs. There are always some details to clean up, some things to iron out. It’ll be up to the coaching staff, as well as the leaders in the locker room, to keep driving the message of playing defense, playing with a consistent effort, and playing a complete game.