Lightning go Koekkoek on the defending champs, defeat Penguins 5-4
Slater Koekkoek comes out of ice-time hell to become the hero Tampa needed
The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 in a game that was part thrilling and part aggravating. Taking on a Penguins team that was on the backside of a back-to-back, and that started their back-up goalie who’d had two days of rest, should’ve been easier for the Lightning to handle.
Putting the defensive issues aside for a moment, Tampa Bay came out firing in this game. From an offensive standpoint you couldn’t ask for much more. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman all scored this evening, and Slater Koekkoek (who only had three minutes of ice-time against Washington) scored his first and second NHL goals of his career while also getting near 10 minutes of ice-time.
Koekkoek opened up the scoring and scored the game-winner immediately after serving a questionable interference penalty. The excitement that Koekkoek displayed after both of his goals really showed how much pressure he was putting on himself to perform at the NHL level. He did more than deliver this evening.
Tampa Bay never trailed in this game, but aside from the offense doing its job of shelling Penguins back-up Antti Niemi, this game was a defensive mess. The Lightning had a rough time clearing the defensive zone and closing off passing lanes, and the team turned the puck over at inopportune times.
As a counterpoint, this team was the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that wouldn’t just back down and let teams walk over them like Chicago did a week ago. This Penguins team attacked relentlessly and made a lot of their opportunities themselves, but Tampa didn’t do themselves any favors in the defensive zone.
Yes, Koekkoek only got three minutes against Washington, but if the Lightning were going to run seven defensemen, then the coaching staff was going to have to up Koekkoek’s minutes to reliably shuffle their defenders.
It was apparent early in the first period that Cooper was going to play Koekkoek more; he was the third shift on the ice and was given Hedman as a partner on more than one occasion (he was also paired with Stralman a fair bit), but Koekkoek made the most of his increased ice-time.
He opened the scoring six minutes in when his point shot deflected off a Penguins player and past Antti Niemi to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. His excitement after scoring was a joy to watch. He’s had a rough time making the Lightning roster the past few seasons due to injuries, and one can only imagine the feeling of relief he had once that puck went it.
Things got a little worrisome after Koekkoek took an interference penalty that was questionable to say the least. Luckily, the Lightning killed off the penalty, and right as Koekkoek left the box, Alex Killorn poke-checked a puck away from a Pittsburgh defender who was then leveled by Koekkoek.
The play moved into the offensive zone when Tyler Johnson fed a pass back to Killorn, who then passed it to Koekkoek on the right side of Niemi. Koekkoek settled the puck down and backhanded it through Niemi’s five-hole to give the Lightning a 5-3 lead at the end of the second period.
Just go look at Koekkoek’s celebration. That is a man who has worked his rear off to make this team, and for him to finally get some kind of reward for his work is amazing. Hopefully, this will be a good springboard for Koekkoek to cement a spot in the Lightning’s top six defensive rotation.
Killorn was a punching bag for a lot of fans (including myself) last season for his streaky play and his apparent lackadaisical attitude on ice. That Killorn has not been present through the first four games of the season, and this game pretty much represents his playing style so far.
Killorn had four assists, the first time he has ever scored four points in a game, 19:32 minutes of ice-time, powerplay time, penalty kill time, and he also pushed play towards the offensive zone. Alex Killorn looks like the player we expected him to be when he signed his seven year contract. He’s done everything, and if Killorn continues this level of play it’s only a matter of time before his linemates (Johnson and Callahan) start heating up as well. That will bring three potent lines that will attack an opponent relentlessly.
The Lightning went 2-for-6 on the man advantage this evening and were a threat on every power-play except for their first one. Stamkos’s wheelhouse was open and he had a few one-timers that would’ve gone in if it hadn’t been for some insane saves from Niemi.
Stamkos’s first goal of the season (which tied a franchise powerplay goal record at 112) was the result of tic-tac-toe passing by the Lightning. Namestnikov cycled the puck from behind the net up the right wing boards to Kucherov who pulled a defender towards him as he passed the puck to Killorn who sat just above the right face-off dot. Killorn immediately fed a pass to Namestnikov who then had a wide-open Stamkos waiting below the left circle. One simple pass later and Stamkos one-timed it off Niemi and in to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead.
Later in the second Nikita Kucherov received a pass from Braydon Coburn near the blueline with plenty of space to either shoot or pass. Kucherov glided towards the top of the left circle and used Coburn and the Penguins defender as a screen before sniping one past Niemi to give the Lightning a 4-2 lead at the midway point of the second.
I discussed Koekkoek’s second goal above, and Hedman’s goal was a buzzbeater that Niemi never really saw all the way; but the Lightning’s offense was in full gear this game.
The team eased off the gas in the third and it almost bit them, but it was a nice change of pace to see the Lightning control the pace of play for the majority of the game. What we’ve seen so far out of these first four games has been a mini-evolution; the first two games were sloppy and over-reliant on transition, whereas the latter two have been more dominantly offensive performances by the team both on the scoreboard and in possession.
Defense where art thou?
It’s Pittsburgh, I get that, but the Lightning have not been good defensively this season thus far. As a unit, it’s been a tug-a-war between ugly defense and competent defense. They’ve consistently had trouble clearing the puck out of the defensive zone and have an odd penchant for turning the puck over at odd times. This doesn’t even touch on some of the positioning they’ve had. It hasn’t been atrocious, but it has also not been good enough to zone opposing players away from Vasilevskiy’s crease, and that’s been a bit of a problem over these four games.
Conversely, some of the goals Tampa has allowed have not been the fault of the defense. Poor turnovers by the offense at extremely bad times—Kunitz’s turnover at the blueline which gave Jake Guentzel a breakaway is the most prominent one that comes to mind—has really left Vasilevskiy out to dry, although he stopped this breakaway.
The worst defensive gaffe I can recall would have to be Conor Sheary’s breakway goal. Namestnikov was stopped by Niemi on a partial breakaway which produced a rebound that went towards Chad Ruhwedel. Ruhwedel picked his head up and saw Sheary in the neutral zone by himself. Ruhwedel made a great pass to Sheary who went in on Vasilevskiy and scored.
The defenders for Tampa on that play? Dan Girardi and Mikhail Sergachev. It’s unclear if those two were fresh on the ice after a line change, but they both were miles behind Sheary. It must’ve been at that point that the coaching staff sat Sergachev for the game because the young blueliner only tallied 5:22 of ice-time this evening. I only recall one shift after that goal where I saw Sergachev on the ice, but he’s a rookie and mistakes are going to happen. He needs to learn from those and hopefully the small benching will light a fire under him.
I should state that Sergachev has been great so far for Tampa Bay and one game shouldn’t draw a ton of ire, but he’s still a rookie and they’re going to make mistakes. As for Girardi? Well, he’s played well thus far and this is probably his second big mistake in four games.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has been ok in these first four games. He has made some spectacular saves thus far and hasn’t really been in bad position for any of the goals against him, but if there is one thing that is bothering me about him recently it’s his rebound control.
The puck seems to come off him in a lively manner, and it’s been the culprit for a few hair-raising moments for the defense. Luckily, most have been cleared away, but a few have gone to an opposing forward who has sunk a goal. I’m unsure if it’s because of the way Vasilevskiy is approaching the shot, or if he is just having small problems that he will work out.
Nonetheless, it’s something I’ve noticed all four games, and it has kind of just been there. Maybe I’m over-analyzing it, but it’s something I plan to keep an eye on as the season progresses.