Morning After Thoughts: Clutch performances drive Lightning to series victory over Panthers
Vasilevskiy and Kucherov came up big.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are moving on to the second round! And they did it in style with Andrei Vasilevskiy earning his second career playoff shutout (and sixth shutout of the season) with a 4-0 win in game six. This series was tough. The Lightning didn’t always play their best and the Panthers showed off the skill and grit that they’d accumulated on their roster. Bolts did play their best in game six, and that bodes well going into the second round, whether they face the Carolina Hurricanes or the Nashville Predators.
Clutch Performances by Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov
Coming into the series, we knew what to expect from Andrei Vasilevskiy. With an incredible regular season performance, he’s put himself in position to win his second Vezina trophy and should at least be a finalist for the fourth-straight season in his career. Vasilevskiy and the Lightning had a bit of a shaky start to the series defensively with him giving up four goals against 3.18 xGA in the first game. The Lightning were able to take advantage of even shakier goaltending at the other end, scoring five goals against 2.52 xGF in all situations to take the first game.
With an opportunity to take a 2-0 lead out of the first two games on the road, Vasilevskiy turned in a vintage Vasy performance, only allowing one goal against 3.04 xGA in all situations to win the game 3-1. Game three was a bit of a disaster as the Lightning forgot how to play hockey in the third period and went on to lost 6-5 in overtime.
But Vasilevskiy regained control of the series in game four, only allowed two goals against and 4.41 xGA in all situations. This was a game where the Lightning really struggled to play good hockey. They only generated 1.88 xGF at all situations but managed to score six goals. By all rights, this is a game the Lightning should have lost, but even if the Lightning had just scored around average, they still would have been in it because of Vasilevskiy’s performance.
In game five, we saw one of the future goaltending stars in the league make his debut in Spencer Knight. This kid is the real deal, one of the best goaltending prospects the NHL has seen since Andrei Vasilevskiy. And he put on a show. Ironically, both teams gave up 2.83 xG. The difference was that the Panthers scored three goals, and another into the empty net, while the Lightning only beat Knight once early in the game.
With a chance once again to close out the series, Vasilevskiy shut the door on home ice in game six. The Lightning had their best game of the series. They were up in xGF% in all situations and at 5v5. Vasilevskiy put in the effort with multiple spectacular saves, posting a 29-save shutout to finish off the series.
Kuuuuuuuuch (and the power play)
Now on to Kucherov. Entering the series, I didn’t know what to expect of him. Would we get a Kucherov that needed to shake off the rust and get up to speed? Would we get a Kucherov that had come back too early from his rehab and wasn’t quite 100%? Or would we get a Russian God, sent to slay the Mighty Panthers?
Well... I’d say we got a Russian God (thank you, JBB). Game five was the only game in which he was held without a point. He scored multiple points in three out of six games, including a four-point performance in game four. He finished the series with 11 points, breaking his own record of 10 points in a series which he did twice; in 2018 against the New Jersey Devils and 2020 against the New York Islanders. His eight assists, along with Victor Hedman matching that total in this series, tied a franchise record that Kucherov set in 2020 against the Islanders.
The return of Kucherov, along with Stamkos, also completely changed the dynamic of the power play. With both missing, there was no oomph. Ondrej Palat had shown some juice early in the season when he took Kucherov’s place in the right wing circle and potted some one-timer goals, but that dried up. When Stamkos went down with injury for the last part of the season, the only real threat on the power play was Brayden Point. This allowed teams to key on him and the whole unit looked dismal.
But all of that changed when the Lightning got their two superstars back. Bobrovsky and Driedger didn’t know which way to turn on the power play. The first game in particular was very telling when Kucherov scored two power play goals with his one timer in the second period. And when the Lightning got a power play in the third period, he faked the one-timer and instead slap-passed it to Point in front for the tap in. Bobrovsky, having been beaten twice, way over-committed to trying to stop the one-timer which completely opened it up for Point. That’s what having that magical shot on the power play, on both sides, does for a unit.
Beyond the power play, Kucherov also elevated Point. It was obvious through the year that Point was trying to shoulder the load on the first line. By himself, he’s a very good center. But when you add Kucherov into the mix (a player that thinks the game at a high level, that makes incredible passes, and is always a threat to score), it opened up so much more room and possibilities for Point. Especially since Kucherov proved he was ready to go from the drop of the puck in game one.
Kucherov coming up big in the first round to match the production that Jonathan Huberdeau was creating for the Panthers, was a huge part of the team’s ability to come away with a win in the first round. Vasy and Kucherov’s continued contributions to the team’s success will be especially important in the second round and it only gets more urgent the deeper you go into the playoffs.
- McDonagh and Cernak had the worst CF% of all seven defensemen that played for the Lightning in the first round recording at 39.01% and 39.13% respectively. They also ended up with the worst xGF% with 41.22% and 43%. But one thing that stuck out to me with that pair is that they seemed to not give up many dangerous chances. In fact, they had the 2nd and 3rd lower Shot Danger Against, with only Mikhail Sergachev coming up better. Something that’s interesting as well in the stats is that they had the lowest totals of shots against that were blocked or missed the net. Meaning a higher percentage of shots were on goal when they were on than any other defenseman on the team. But combine that with the lower shot danger, and they were making those saves easier for Vasilevskiy to make.
- The second line looked better at times during the series than they have for most of the season. Anthony Cirelli has been playing through an injury, but he also wasn’t himself during the playoffs bubble last year either. Killorn also saw his numbers come down during the regular season from the highs he set last season. But their line ended up having the highest shot danger of any Lightning line in the series. They were also second behind the Point line in Shot Danger Against. The Lightning need this line to be good and to produce to go deep in the playoffs.
- I’m not sure what to think of the third line at the moment. Ross Colton had a strong stretch of play during the season and spent the first five games with Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman. Colton was able to drive play with Maroon on the fourth line because they played a grinding, low hockey style. Gourde and Coleman finished the series with the worst xGF percentage on the team. So far, they haven’t been the line that was so insanely good during the playoffs last year. Maybe the return of Barclay Goodrow to their line will help them regain that success.
- The Lightning are leaning pretty hard on their top four defensemen so far. Hedman leads the group with 23:13 TOI. McDonagh and Sergachev are both over 21:30 and Cernak is just over 20 minutes at 20:02. Savard has only averaged 15:40 TOI which is not really what you want to see from a guy that cost a first, third, and fourth round pick as a rental at the deadline. Rutta and Schenn have picked up the rest of the time with 13:05 and 5:54 TOI respectively.
- Every forward that played all six games picked up at least one point, with Pat Maroon and Tyler Johnson finally getting on the board to open the scoring in game six. Johnson has been often maligned, and many have argued that Joseph or Smith or Barre-Boulet or any number of other players should be in over him. I get it. He’s not the Johnson he used to be. But he’s also not the scrub that people seem to think he is either. People complained about Johnson not having gotten a point in the series, but he also didn’t play much with just 8:52 TOI. And he played with Pat Maroon, who is no offensive dynamo at this point in his career either. Context is important, and people like to ignore context.
- Speaking of context, when you take a look at Luke Schenn, it looks like he’s playing great hockey. His numbers down the stretch and in the handful of games he played in the playoffs look pretty good. He leads the team in CF% and xGF% which is pretty great. But as I just said, context is important. Schenn has been extremely sheltered and barely utilized. In the series, he had the best Shot Danger For among the defenseman, but also had the worst Shot Danger Against, and by a wide margin. Only Ryan McDonagh had a lower percentage of shots not on goal against among the Lightning defensemen./
So who’d you rather play against next?