Morning After Thoughts: how the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Boston Bruins

WITH KINDNESS. Just kidding.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have only had to play two games over the minimum in order to get to the Conference Finals. They breezed through the Round Robin, fought off a scare from the Columbus Blue Jackets (and a five-overtime game), and now they’ve defeated the Boston Bruins in five games for the second time in as many tries since 2018.

The Bolts now face either the New York Islanders or the Philadelphia Flyers — two daunting targets this postseason. They’ve faced a team like the Islanders in the Columbus Blue Jackets, overcoming frustrating hockey with consistency, simplicity, and relentlessness. They’ve lost to the Flyers once in these playoffs, but they are currently being beaten by a less-skilled, more consistent opponent getting .936 goaltending.

The Bruins were supposed to be a difficult task, and they were in each game that was played, but the Lightning just seemed to be a step ahead at all points in the game. They were solid enough to withstand surges from their opponents, and they executed an offensive strategy to perfection with their top-nine, and especially the top line.

It’s great to put three top players on a line when you can, but often it’s more important to give them a tactic that is high quality and can either score or be dangerous at a reliable rate. That’s what I think the Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov/Anthony Cirelli line accomplished in this series and the Bruins defense couldn’t keep up.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

The Tampa Bay Lightning has often been labelled as a small team that uses talent and shooting skill to beat their opponents. Stereotypes about Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Yanni Gourde, and Tyler Johnson describe them as perimeter players, but it’s completely not true and this game proved it.

In fact, they did exactly what a stereotypically perimeter wouldn’t do: get pucks to the net and muck away at it. Ondrej Palat did it best, but we’ll talk about him later. Yanni Gourde was incredible at creating space and getting in Jaroslav Halak’s way in front of the net, same goes for Cirelli who nearly won the game in overtime with a drive to the net. The Victor Hedman goal that won the series was created because there was a massive fight in front of the net and all the sticks and bodies in front prevented Halak from getting something on the puck to defect it away.

The Bruins aren’t “big and bad” anymore like they were a decade ago, they can absolutely get pushed around and this is especially the case for their depth lines. The other factor that I think played into the Bolts success was them sticking to their game plan and not trying to get too fancy. They got caught doing that against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and I think the series with them really hammered home the point that they don’t need to beat everyone on the ice to score; just the defenseman in front and the goalie.

Speaking of teams that needed to beat everyone on the ice to score: the Boston Bruins. Look at both their goals. It took everyone looking the wrong direction thanks to a perfect pass on the power play or a deflection and a slashed stick in front. They couldn’t beat Vasilevskiy or the Lightning defense cleanly with rebound chances or a tip, those chances were closed off to them.

Ondrej Palat Dominant in Front

The Lightning got their goals from the front of the net and that area exclusively. Ondrej Palat has been the poster-child for this all series long, and particularly in this game. He scored the first goal of the game with a high tip in the slot, he then proceeded to spend the rest of the game battling for chances in front created for him by Point, Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli, and the defense coming down the wings.

Palat was incredibly dangerous last night and the shot metrics tell the whole story. In 30 minutes at 5v5, Point had 15 shot attempts, 12 of those were scoring chances, 10 shots on target (the whole team had 31), for a total of 1.2 individual expected goals. Obviously, he was a product of his line, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Palat got to the front of the net, stayed there, and succeeded that getting the puck on net in dangerous ways. You shouldn’t be surprised with how few forwards can actually do this at a high level.

Here is Palat’s heat map from the game. Some good defensive work, and only one miss out of 12 shots from the high-danger zone right in front of the net where the Bruins would collapse the most. I looked at individual event maps on both teams, no one was in the same stratosphere as Palat.

Final stat on Palat, after his 1.2 ixG game, he is first among all players in the stat in these playoffs. He has four goals on 4.3 expected goals at 5v5 in 13 games, with linemate Brayden Point third on the list (six goals on 3.75 ixG). The fact that Point is so vastly out-scoring his expected goals tells me he’s on a major heater right now (shooting 18%), whereas Palat is earning every goal he’s gotten, he’s only shooting 10% at 5v5, which is quite reasonable for a first line player.

A Norris Defenseman

Victor Hedman was elite in this series, and even scored the series winning goal in overtime to boot. He’s the highest scoring defenseman in the playoffs with five goals, tied for 16th among all players. He also tied the franchise record for most playoff overtime goals by a defenseman: one, tying him with Dan Girardi and Jason Garrison.

His incredible shooting luck has been a major plus to the team in the absence of Steven Stamkos. It’s crazy, as a defenseman, he’s producing as much as you would expect Stamkos to have produced if he was healthy. Five goals on 45 shots, shooting 11%. The biggest disparity here is that based on his shot locations, Hedman has over three goals more than he should in average cases. That said, this doesn’t account for traffic in front (which the Lightning used in abundance this series) and pre-shot movement.

And while I want to give Hedman a lot of (much deserved) credit, he had a defense group around him that kept some of the responsibility off his shoulders, something a lot of other teams don’t have. The Lightning ran 11F/7D for part of the playoffs, and while I’m not sure they used it to great effect, the players they did run played important roles in all areas of the ice meaning Hedman didn’t have to be everywhere all at once.

Mikhail Sergachev and Kevin Shattenkirk played more on the power play than Hedman, letting him rest without taking talent away from the power play by any discernible measure (losing Kucherov was much more painful). Zach Bogosian was as much of a horse at 5v5 and he genuinely played really well. His shot metrics were above water (53%) and his expected goals share was really good (58%). On the penalty kill, Erik Cernak put in major work, taking 13 of the team’s 26 minutes shorthanded in the series. Hedman was up there as well, but so was Ryan McDonagh in the games he played as well as Luke Schenn.

Schenn was a bit of mystery to me, seeing as he played less at 5v5 than Nikita Kucherov despite being available for four more periods, but he played two of the six minutes on the penalty kill in Game 5 and didn’t completely suck at 5v5, but I thought it was really unlucky that he was in over a forward when Kucherov was injured. Only three forwards were under 20 minutes at 5v5 in the final game of the series, Johnson, Cedric Paquette, and Pat Maroon. Johnson and Paquette had pretty awful games, and tanked the team’s shot share when they were on the ice. Maroon did well, but he could only be played in limited situations (he didn’t get any defensive zone starts).

Andrei Vasilevskiy

A .936 save percentage, 12 expected goals against but only 10 allowed, Andrei Vasilevskiy woke up and he was brilliant for the team. When the Lightning had periods of collapsing defensively, they were able to do some to protect Vasilevskiy behind them, but there was always an odd-man rush or an open-net chance that Vasy got across and shut the door on. His lateral movement was integral to keeping the Bruins more and more desperate.

And while he was +2 on his expected goals, Jaroslav Halak was -3 on his end (13.7 expected goals against, 16 goals against), with only a .896 save percentage at the end of the series. If you want to put the series in as simple terms as possible, it was that one stat. One goal had the support and had the puck in their glove, and the other didn’t.

Update on Nikita Kucherov

Kucherov was a non-factor in Game 5 as he had to leave the game midway through the first period after taking a stick hard to the face from the hands of Zdeno Chara. Kucherov missed the rest of the first, returned for the second, left that period early, and wasn’t seen again on the ice. Chara was penalized with a four-minute high sticking penalty, but without Kucherov, the Lightning power play looked quite neutered. Anthony Cirelli moved up to the first line and played really well as the Lightning were reduced to 10 forwards.

The Sportsnet panel discussed what could possibly be ailing Kucherov, particularly the high stick on him from Chara after a great offensive start to the game. He came and left twice, first in the first period and again in the second period. There seems to be a cut of some kind within his beard on the side of his face.

After the game, head coach Jon Cooper was “hopeful” to see Kucherov sooner than later. I, too, am hoping it’s just a weird cut or something and Kucherov’s going to be ready for Game 1 with half his face shaven and the other half fully bearded. If it’s a concussion or something of that type, it’s a little scary.

While convention would have you believe the Lightning have until next Monday to get as many of their players back from injury as they can, the NHL ever in their haste want to start the Eastern Conference Finals early. If the Islanders beat the Flyers tonight, we could see Round 3 beginning in Toronto at the end of the week, giving the Lightning only two or three days of rest rather than the previously scheduled six days.

The NHL wants the playoffs to finish as soon as possible, keeping games on as regularly as they can for TV and getting through rounds quickly in case the bubble bursts at any time. I guess the NHL bought the Toronto bubble until the end of the week and they plan to use it every night they possibly can.

So here’s hoping for some time off to recharge our Bolts, but if it’s sooner, it is what it is. Game 1 will be TBD. Go Flyers?