Tampa Bay Lightning: Positives And Negatives Of Game 7


What might be the last game of the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s season is upon us. Tomorrow night, the Bolts will fly into the most famous arena in the world, Madison Square Garden, to play the New York Rangers.

The situation?  Do or die.  Win or go home.  One of these teams is headed to the Stanley Cup Finals.  One of these teams is headed for heartbreak.

Don’t you just love sports?

Although the entire season has boiled down to one game, the Lightning were brought to this point by way of a very long and winding road (a road that one might argue more/less began in 2011, with the acquisitions of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov, but I digress).  But here we are.

As we look ahead to game seven, and behind at the 101 games that brought the Bolts here, we find there are several things working in the Lightning’s favor.  And several reasons to have doubts.  Positives and negatives.

Positive: Experience

The Tampa Bay Lightning have grown up a lot in these playoffs.  A lot.  The fresh faced youths we’ve known and loved can now be depended on to bounce back after a bad game, exercise both discipline and patience in tough moments, and, if need be, (just throwing it out there) they can hook and hold with the best of them.

These were not necessarily parts of the Lightning game prior to these playoffs.  But the playoffs teach you to adapt.  If you don’t, you’re dead in the water.  The Lightning adapted.  Over and over, they adapted.  And they survived.

Last year, the team learned its lessons at the feet of the Montreal Canadiens, Playoffs 101, introductory education about the speed and intensity of playoff hockey in the NHL.

This year, the Detroit Red Wings put them through graduate school.  The Wings slowed the game down and gave the Bolts a crash course in Dead Puck Era tactics.

In the return meeting against Montreal, taking place in Round Two, the Lightning showed they could steal games that they probably didn’t deserve.

And now against the New York Rangers, the Lightning are learning that they can go toe to toe with one of the NHL’s best, even if the series has been a little topsy-turvy.

Negative: Inexperience.

For as much as they’ve learned in this year’s post-season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are still a team of early twenty-somethings who are at least a year ahead of schedule.  The fact remains that this is as deep as many of them have ever been in the playoffs, and those who’ve been this deep before have never been here in such prominent roles.  Game Seven, in the Eastern Conference Finals, is a big deal.

And never has the Lightning’s lack of experience been so prominently on display as it was in the third period of Game Six.  Despite being dominant in the offensive zone in the first two periods, the Bolts hadn’t exactly been the most disciplined group in terms of their own defensive coverage.  And then in the third the wheels came off.  As soon as the Rangers applied pressure, the Lightning gave up goal after goal after goal, few if any of which can be laid at the doorstep of Ben Bishop

To put it simply: the Lightning looked frustrated.  They’d spent two periods throwing everything they had at Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers, kitchen sinks included, and all they had to show for it was a 2-1 deficit.  In the third, they looked desperate to tie the game, but unfortunately they forgot all about defending their own zone.

Perhaps the biggest test for the Lightning, heading into Game Seven, will be putting Game Six behind them.  Make no mistake—it was a disaster.  The odds, unfortunately, are not on their side.  Teams who tend to most easily forget about last game are teams who’ve been there, done that, a million times before.  The Lightning haven’t.

Positive: Steven Stamkos Has Found His Game

It was amusing to watch hear the baffled CBC commentary about Steven Stamkos during Round One.  They had no explanation for why Stamkos was playing so poorly, and would often go searching through his game to find any positives at all.  There weren’t many.

What was so amusing about this?  It was nothing new for Lightning fans.  We had just watched Stamkos struggle mightily all year long.  To the outside world, 43 goals in a season where star players weren’t scoring seems just fine.  But the goals, in a lot of ways, did nothing but mask the problem.  Stamkos was a constant source of defensive blunders, had more than his share of lackadaisical stretches, and, if I’m being completely honest, looked downright confused at times about defensive coverage.

The problems weren’t physical—that much was obvious.  Stamkos looked as fast as ever… when he turned on the jets.  His shot looked as lethal as ever… when he chose to use it.  But too many times he seemed to be trying to be a player who wasn’t Steven Stamkos.  How many times did we see him pass off a Grade A opportunity to a lesser shooter?  Let’s not even get into how rarely those passes actually connected with their target.

I don’t think you could decisively say Stamkos was any better than the fifth best Lightning player in this year’s regular season.  And, in the first round of the playoffs, if he was anything better than fifth best it was only because of the lackluster performances all around him.

But that all seems like ancient history now, doesn’t it?  What a difference a couple of weeks make.

Early in the Montreal series, Jon Cooper finally decided to break up the catastrophe on ice he was calling his third line (Cedric Paquette, Valtteri Filppula, Vladislav Namestnikov), and moved Filppula back into the top-six.  But the key was that Cooper left him at center and moved Stamkos to the wing.  After that, it was all magic.

What’s interesting/surprising about this is that Filppula and Stamkos had been paired together several times this year, and the pairing mixed like oil and water.  Stamkos, who’s a very high octane player, struggled with the way Filppula likes to slow the game down once he crosses the blue line.  But now that Stamkos is on the wing and Filppula is controlling the center of the ice, it somehow works.

It also doesn’t hurt that Stamkos is relieved of the defensive duties that come with being a center.  When he can stick to the basics like covering his point man and getting into passing lanes, he suddenly becomes a valuable defender.

Another thing that doesn’t hurt: He’s upped his intensity.  Stamkos is leading the Lightning’s physical charge with regularity these days, and it often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

Play well and the points usually follow.  And for Stamkos, they have.

Negative: We Still Don’t Know Who Ben Bishop Is

Ben Bishop can look like Dominik Hasek one game and Anders Lindback the next (and not the good, Buffalo version of Lindback).  Or vice versa.  Just when it seems he might not be the guy who can lead a team to the promised land, he shows up with a huge effort and puts the team on his back, carrying them to victory.  And then, just when you think he’s exactly the guy who’s going to lead you there— You get the picture.

It’s been an odd post-season for Bishop to say the least.  There have been plenty of losses that have in no way been his fault, and yet he’s looked shaky in wins.  Remember the freakish goal off his glove to force overtime early in the Montreal series?  Or the one he batted into his own net against Detroit?  But then there was the Game Seven shutout versus Detroit… and there’s a good argument to be made that he outdueled Cary Price in the Montreal series, and might have been the team’s MVP in Round Two.

So here we go again.  Another Game Seven, this the biggest one yet.  And Bishop finds himself just a few days from being pulled from the net in Game Six.

Which Bishop is going to show up for Game Seven?

I really wish I could classify this as a positive–considering the Bishop that showed up in the last Game Seven the Lightning played–and also considering how often Bishop follows up shaky performances with stellar ones.  And yet, somehow, I can’t.

Positive: The Top Six

The Triplets (or TKO to the diehards) have been one of the major stories this playoff year.  Despite how they terrorized the NHL through the regular season, they somehow managed to stay one of the league’s best kept secret.  Well, the secret is out now.

The big story, of course, is Tyler Johnson.  Not just that he’s good, but that he’s very good.  He’s actually pretty incredible.  Coming into these playoffs, Johnson was the Lightning’s #1 center, which left a slew of Canadian broadcasters everything from frustrated to confused.  (In case you’re wondering, that’s why those “Steven Stamkos must be injured” rumors came from.)

Little did they know that Johnson had been the Lightning’s MVP wire to wire this season.  They know now.  Jim Hughson, of CBC, regularly refers to the Triplets as Tampa Bay’s “top line” now, as if making a point to show he’s knowledgeable about Florida hockey (something his partners, most notably Glenn Healy, would do well to take notes on.)

But throughout the Detroit series and into the Montreal series, the Lightning were essentially a one line team.  The second line (Alex Killorn, Ryan Callahan, and Stamkos) had seemingly lost any chemistry they’d ever had, which wasn’t much, and were carried only by the stellar efforts of Killorn, usually thought to be the weak link on that line.

That changed when Stamkos was moved to the wing, Callahan was moved to the bottom six, and Valterri Filppula took over as the line’s center.  Killorn, Filppula, and Stamkos have been excellent at times, with Stamkos looking much like his pre-broken leg self and Filppula looking comfortable in his role.  And Killorn looks like a playoff beast.

Negative: The Bottom Six

Let me say right from the get-go: Brian Boyle has been awesome in these playoffs.  Unfortunately though, that, along with some decent play by J.T. Brown, has been the extent of benefits the bottom two lines have brought to the table for the Lightning.

It started in the Detroit series with the line of Cedric Paquette, Valtteri Filppula, and Vladislav Namestnikov, otherwise known as The Nightmare Jon Cooper Refused By Choice To Wake Up From.  Game after game, we would see these three assembled and destroyed, only to be assembled again.  Cooper would break them up for a game and then put them back together the next.  It never got any better.

After Filppula left the line for better things, and Namestnikov found himself in the pressbox for looking anything but playoff ready, the new third line became Paquette, Ryan Callahan, and a slew of different wingers.  Unfortunately, Paquette has looked only slightly better than Namestnikov (separating himself by way of decent PK skills), and Callahan disappeared for the entirety of the Montreal series and most of the New York series.

Don’t even get me started on Brenden Morrow.  (…Except to say, maybe he wouldn’t have to do so many good luck turnarounds in the penalty box if he could, oh I don’t know, just maybe, stay out of the penalty box.)

Positive/Negative: Ryan Callahan Has Found His Game… Maybe.

Despite putting up just three assists in seven games against the Red Wings, Ryan Callahan had a pretty decent opening series.  He was leading the physical charge, playing well defensively, and winning board battles.  He was one of the few bright spots in that round.

It got worse from there.  A lot worse.  Callahan looked lost against Montreal, and then, after being demoted to the third line, he looked stranded at sea.  He floundered through the series, coughing up pucks, creating nothing, and spending most of the games invisible.

Then there came an emergency appendectomy.   We all saw what happened from there.

It got even worse.  Callahan was a borderline liability in some games against the Rangers, leaving fans to question whether or not he should even be playing.  He was not contributing.

Which brings us to Game Six against the Rangers, a game where not a lot of Bolts looked good.  But, what do you know, Callahan looked pretty good.  He scored his first goal of the playoffs—a breakaway beauty—and created three or four other chances out of nothing.  On the other side of the puck, he was hitting again—and not just minor, rub-a-guy-out along the boards kind of hits.  Callahan was crashing around, making his presence known, and forcing himself to be a factor.  That was Ryan Callahan at his best.

Unfortunately, many of his teammates were at their worst.

It’s tough to say which Callahan will show up in Game Seven.  We fear the former and hope for the latter.  It was, after all, only one game.  The preceding ten or twelve were borderline horrendous.

Positive: Win Or Lose, This Season Is A Smashing Success

Everybody wants to win the Stanley Cup.  But the fact remains, the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t in Cup-or-bust mode just yet.   What they showed this year, however, is they’re a lot closer to that point than anyone would have believed.

Some incredible things happened for the franchise this year.  First and foremost, the emergence of three new star players: Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov.  Lightning fans have been glowing about these kids for a while, but in these playoffs the rest of the league got a good glimpse of what they’re going to be up against for years to come.

Johnson, in particular, has emerged not only as a star, but as one of the better players in the entire NHL.  Make no mistake: Tyler Johnson was Tampa Bay’s best player this year, beginning to end, bar none.  And then in the playoffs he got even better.  His performance against the Detroit Red Wings was as close to a one man show as it gets.   The Lightning won that series on the back of one man’s will.

Beyond that, the Lightning found their core defense this season.  It began with the trade for Jason Garrison who, defying most expectations, wound up the Bolts’ undisputed #3 by year’s end.  And the defense was solidified with a painful trade in the wee hours of deadline day morning, which saw beloved (former) Bolt Radko Gudas shipped off to the Philidelphia Flyers for Braydon Coburn.  As much as we all (and I, in particular) loved Gudas, Coburn turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

But the pleasant surprises went beyond that.  Anton Stralman, who was brought in to be primarily a stay at home defenseman, turned himself into an absolute bargain by providing excellent offense throughout the year.  And then, come playoff time, he showed the stellar defensive play for which he was signed.  Victor Hedman, despite having a wishy-washy regular season, has upped his game dramatically in these playoffs, and looks every bit like one of the best handful of defenders in the league.

To put it mildly, the future looks bright.  And that doesn’t change if the Lightning lose tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden.

So, if that is the way things go down (and we’re all hoping it won’t), don’t be too disgruntled.  The Lighting’s window for contention is just now opening.  And this is at least a year before it was expected to open.  The beauty is it looks like it’s going to be open for a long, long time.

At this point, there’s no foreseeable end to this post-season that won’t make the Lightning an even better team in the future.  It’s a good time to be a fan.

Next: Tampa Bay Lightning: What Went Wrong In Game 6?

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