Morning After Thoughts: The Lightning need to find their “better”

Tampa Bay heads home in need of a victory

Well this is different. For the first time since the 2019 playoff season the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves down two games to zero in a playoff series. After two deserved losses in New York the Lightning head back to Tampa in search of some consistency and offense. Meanwhile the New York Rangers are riding a four-game winning streak and playing with an enormous amount of confidence.

If there is anything to pull from the Game Two loss is that the Lightning played their best hockey of the series in the second half of the game. They ended the second period with a 7-0 run on shots and outside of the game-deciding goal by Mika Zibanajad controlled play in the third period. After a rough start where he seemed to have trouble tracking pucks, Andrei Vasilevskiy started to look like his old self as the game wore on.

Unfortunately, that’s about all we can pull from the game. After the Lightning jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, compliments of a Nikita Kucherov power play goal, their bad habits (turnovers) reared their head again and kept them pinned in their own zone for long stretches of time. New York’s rapid transition game gave them troubles again.

While they did a decent job of bottling up the top two Rangers’ lines, the third line of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko gave them fits, posting a 66.67% share of shot attempts and a whopping 88.99% share of expected goals at 5v5 when they were on the ice. Lucky for the Lightning they only had 7:07 of ice time in the game.

Their ability to roll three lines against the Lightning has proven to be a headache in the series as it negates advantages Tampa Bay has seen in their previous postseason match-ups. It also makes things a line-matching nightmare for Coach Cooper. His top defensive pair of Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh have done their job for the most part, but they can’t be on the ice for 40 minutes of the game. Jan Rutta and Victor Hedman also had positive puck possession numbers in the game while spending much of the night against the Artemi Panarin line at even strength.

I suppose we can also draw from the fact that the Lightning did a pretty good job of shutting down the cross-seam passes that New York feasted on in Game One. Well, at least at even strength. The power play goal was one of the few times that the Rangers were able to slide one through and it caught the Lightning out of position (and Adam Fox’s fake shot to draw Jan Rutta out of the passing lane was pretty slick).

Offensively, the Lightning have to find a way to sustain pressure on Igor Shesterkin. There are just way too many one-and-done attempts that really threaten the goal. Both of their tallies from last night came as the result of having an extra skater on the ice (Kucherov’s power play goal and Nick Paul’s 6-on-5) and a team can’t rely on that to advance at this stage of the playoffs.

New York has kind of out-Tampa’d Tampa so far. They are blocking shots (27 at 5v5 according to Natural Stat Trick) and preventing the Lightning from getting to rebounds. When the Lightning blueline pinches, they are transitioning quickly through the neutral zone and the lack of foot (Foote?) speed by the Tampa Bay defense is being exposed. Toronto and Carolina had fast forwards as well, but the Lightning were able to negate that by bottling up the neutral zone and keeping the play in front of them. For the vast majority of this series, that hasn’t been the case.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has been, well, normal in the series so far. After stopping virtually everything the Panthers sent his way in the previous round, the Rangers have been able to beat him on shots that we’re used to seeing him stop. It was noticeable in Game One that they were targeting his high-blocker side with their shots and for good reason:

Yeah, if I was a coach instead of a blogger I’d tell my shooters to go high on him as well. If the internets have figured this out, so have the Lightning and I’m sure there will be a focus for him for any practice sessions between games. It did look like he was getting a little more comfortable as the game wore on and the shots he was juggling or awkwardly knocking aside were being dealt with more crisply. Rust was always going to be his biggest enemy during the layoff and hopefully, now that they are back on a regular schedule, we see Playoff Vasy re-emerge.

As the series moves to Tampa and Coach Cooper has last change, we’ll see how the match-up game matters. It’s also possible that he moves to a 12-6 line-up with either Cole Koepke or Riley Nash making their postseason debut. Brandon Hagel is giving his absolute all out there, but after blocking another shot with his foot he is visibly laboring up and down the ice.

As the game advanced Coach Cooper reunited the Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov line and things seemed to improve a bit for them. He may have to concede that, without Brayden Point, he can’t afford to spread out the players that have been effective at scoring. Maybe a more focused role for Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn on the second line will also snap them out of their offensive slump.

This series isn’t over, in 2018 the Lightning lost their first two games before pushing things to seven against the Washington Capitals. They can do that this year as well if they get back to doing the simple things (don’t turn the puck over) in Game Three.