Defense, aggressive play propel Lightning to Conference Semis
For the entire 2017-18 regular season, the Lightning were defined by a top line that towered above everybody else. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have been the headliners from the opening puck drop. On Saturday, and throughout this series with the Devils, the Lightning showed that they are not at all a top-heavy hockey team. The 3-1 win to eliminate the New Jersey Devils involved contributions from every line, and provided more than enough evidence that the Tampa Bay Lightning can use preparation and game-planning to break a team down.
Now that the playoffs have started, it’s Tampa Bay’s depth from line to like that carried them over the New Jersey Devils. A goal from Mikhail Sergachev paced the Lightning for the first two periods, and relentless pressing hockey from each Tampa Bay line kept the Devils down all afternoon.
Kucherov scored as well, a long goal that turned out to be the game-winner for Tampa Bay, but the performance was a team one. The game, and the series, was an example of everything the Lightning can do to disrupt an opponent. They came in with a game plan designed to take advantage of the Devils’ weaknesses against things like forechecking while forcing New Jersey to play outside of their preferred style of redirects in front of net.
Saturday’s game put a stamp on a formative moment in Nikita Kucherov’s ascendency. It also underlined Mikhail Sergachev’s arrival as an impact defenseman. Andrei Vasilevskiy put on a goaltending show, and a Lightning team that prefers to get into a track meet had to grind out a playoff win against a desparate team with a goalie standing on his head in Cory Schneider.
With the Devils facing elimination, the Lightning knew game 5 would be important even by playoff standards. A win would mean not having to go back to New Jersey. Perhaps, even, the Bruins and Maple Leafs could end up in an extended series and give the Lightning even more time to keep rested.
“Ultimately, you just don’t want to get on the plane again,” said coach Jon Cooper. “There’s still series left, but it’s the wear and tear on the body and mind. The earlier you can close out … we’ll take the rest, take a step back, more time to prepare, and it’s actually good to watch the other teams beat each other up for a little bit.”
When the favorite in a series is ahead and playing at home, the best idea is to simply make the other team earn every inch of the 200-foot rink. Tampa Bay did that on Saturday afternoon, pressing New Jersey on the forecheck and limiting their ability to put people in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning came out with a lot of energy to start the game, pressing the action right away and making the Devils chase them. This process paid off when Mikhail Sergachev fired a wrist shot over the glove of Cory Schneider to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead in the early going.
The second period was a defensive masterwork for a Lightning team that isn’t typically most comfortable in that mode. The Devils managed just four shots in the twenty minutes, never getting much of a good look on Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Devils could not get possession of the puck, and that problem was exacerbated by a dropoff in discipline that hamstrung their chances of a comeback.
Tampa Bay had four power play opportunities in the second period. In their eight power play minutes, they managed to score zero goals. Part of that is a more deliberate setup than the team is used to on offense, seemingly designed to prevent the Devils from explosive plays. The rest of it is a credit to how well Schneider has played this series. Schneider turned away several great Lightning opportunities across those four man advantages, keeping New Jersey in the game and therefore in the series.
Keep in mind Cory Schneider was not the Devils’ starting goalie coming into the series. He had lost that job throughout the season to Keith Kinkaid, but Kinkaid was pulled in game two’s blowout Lightning win and never returned to the ice.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Lightning played a very physical form of hockey in game five. Tampa Bay had never really been known as a team that is particularly happy to drop the gloves and mix things up, but playoff series tend to create bad blood and the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal has been no different. Several run ins with the Devils, including former Lightning fan favorite Brian Boyle, had both teams ready to lay down a big hit in game five.
The Lightning responded to that playoff atmosphere with some tremendous checking. Ryan McDonagh laid a Devils player out in the first with a completely clean check. Ryan Callahan legally hit Mirco Mueller so hard that Mueller went backward like a cartoon character. In a low-scoring game, these big hits gave people something to get loud about and keep the energy flowing through Amalie Arena.
“It was a team tonight. Vasy stood on his head when he had to, they had some surges there as you would expect. We had some guys blocking shots, and…we played well defensively too. And that’s a recipe for success in the playoffs.” Ryan Callahan was everywhere on Saturday afternoon, contributing physically, controlling the puck, and helping set the tone for the Lightning’s victory.
It was more of the same throughout the third period, with the Lightning in firm control of the action and Cory Schneider in full control of the Lightning. Tampa Bay concentrated on their defense, and it paid off in a big way. They blocked shots, challenged every pass, and made New Jersey work for everything.
Eventually, it was Nikita Kucherov extending the lead from the blue line, 12:27 into the third period. The shot found its way past three Devils defenders and Schneider to deliver what certainly looked at the time like the finishing shot.
The Lightning’s next opponent is uncertain at the time of this submission. The Boston Bruins lead the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in the series that will determine the Lightning’s opponent, and puck dropped at 8:00 on Saturday night in game five of that series.
The two opponents provide sharp contrasts. The Lightning played Toronto very well in the regular season, while Boston was largely a thorn in their side and their toughest competition in conference.
Whether the Lightning have a preference, of course they would never let such a thing slip after the game. “Good luck to them” said Cooper when he was asked about any preference in opponent, laughing as he left the press conference.