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Lightning's Game 4 Win Raises More Questions Than Answers

April 19, 2018, 12:41 PM ET [1 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Two opposing narratives emerge from last night’s game, and only with the benefit of hindsight will we know which is correct. The history of Game 4 against the Devils if the Lightning are still playing a month from today will be “the Lightning won ugly.” Winning on the road while staving off many Devils power plays and protecting the lead is the hallmark of a Cup contender. Andre Vasilevskiy made multiple game-altering saves to keep the Lightning in the lead, and tight-checking at even strength and hard work on the penalty kill made the difference.

If the Lightning get demolished by the Bruins (or Maple Leafs, but likely the Bruins), this game will be viewed as “the cry for help.” The Devils lost their best defenseman and Tampa Bay’s offense struggled to manufacture offense outside of the Nikita Kucherov line, whose best moments were in the first period before their efficacy was halted. The Lightning’s discipline has been outrageously bad in the playoffs so far, and against a better team they will be scorched if they comport themselves like this. The Bolts are a very good team at 5v5; every stat in the regular season points to that. But the immaturity that is drawing many of the penalties they’ve taken is self-destructive.

At the game’s conclusion, I was left with a few questions. For instance, why did the Lightning refuse to explore the area below the dots until the fourth power play? It was only then that Kucherov and J.T. Miller ran a nice interchange that led to Miller attacking from the off-slot. His shot was blocked, but a threat to attack below the dots is what enables more room to the shooter at the point or on the weak side. The Devils were brazenly chasing the Lightning out high. And bizarrely, the Lightning were content to cycle the puck above the circles.

Brayden Point was his usual brilliant self, generating five Scoring Chances at 5v5, easily the best on the team. This left me wondering: What do the Lightning need to do to get that line scoring again? They have been scoreless in consecutive games despite the fact that Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and basically whichever defensemen are out there with Point, are completely stripped of the heavy legwork.

Point acts as a one-man breakout, an Amazon drone that arrives in the offensive zone and then provides delivery service, tossing passes or retrieval opportunities to his linemates and defensemen. It seems reasonable to expect more impact from the supporting cast, considering they must have a lot of conserved energy since Point has been performing the most taxing duties.

I don’t know if Johnson is still banged up from the Blake Coleman hit in Game 3, or what is going on with Palat, but the work distribution is not even right now. Johnson and Palat need to start pulling their weight, and that means more than blind, wishful crossing passes without an intended recipient. When they have been the most effective, they not only have retrieved the puck well, but also have gotten to the space between the dots. Part of that was enabled by Devils defensive coverage breakdowns that are not occurring now, but the problem seems also that Johnson and Palat are neither cutting to the middle enough nor winning the one-on-one battles when they are in the slot.

The Lightning do deserve credit for their team defense. For how many times I have wailed about the Lightning’s apathetic transition defense and rudderless breakouts, I must admit both were effective in this game. And when the first pass failed on the zone exit, the forwards were attentive in their support. In defensive coverage, the Lightning did a nice job of boxing out and getting into shooting lanes.

The last question I was left with concerns identity. What if the Lightning’s 5-goal outburst in Game 1 and 2 was a welcome surprise, but winning Game 4 at a tight 2-1 is more in line with the identity the Lightning are trying to cultivate? That is, to change their style of play to less frenetic and freewheeling, and instead rely on goaltending and a distinct advantage at forward to carry the trump card in each series. Even though the Lightning finished with robust offensive numbers during the regular season, I do think there is more than a kernel of truth in this.

Sure, the Lightning demand that their defensemen pinch along the boards, and even participate in the forecheck, but the freedom to create and attack seems more restrained. Victor Hedman finished the season with a career best in goals, assists, and points. He was an offensive catalyst for the Lightning down the stretch. He drove the weak side every chance he got. He is a gifted puck-handler and led entries, letting the forwards play off the puck. Yet Hedman has zero points in the playoffs, principally because he really isn’t doing any of those things. Tampa Bay has scored 15 goals this postseason and not one has come from its defensive group. So why has the defensive group gone celibate?

I think, understandably, the Lightning see the postseason as a different animal, and they want their defensemen, like Hedman, prepared for counterattacks, and to focus more intently on breakouts and regroups and less on playmaking. I suppose this makes sense, especially with the uptick in minutes for Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman, but it certainly puts the onus on the forward lines to produce. When Point’s line can’t score, and the Yanni Gourde-Anthony Cirelli-Alex Killorn triumvirate contributes nothing, the margin of error becomes quite small.

Circling back to what last night’s game might portend for the future, Cup contenders close out weaker opponents in elimination games. If the Lightning play the Bruins, fans should buckle up for seven games. Winning this Saturday afternoon’s affair will allow the Lightning squad much needed rest and relaxation before a brutal second-round opponent. Saturday will also hint at what lies ahead.
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