Lightning Beat Bruins in Best Performance of Season
There may be no problem in hockey more intractable than lack of effort. If the players aren’t listening to the coach, it is probably time to find a new voice. While the Lightning registered several strong efforts in their first 29 games of the season, any good vibes have been short-lived. For the average Lightning fan, joy has had the ephemeral quality of a Pixy Stix. For the players, waves of apathy and lethargy have been hard to shake. Then Thursday night happened. Possibly motivated by their loathing for Boston, the Lightning played like their lives were at stake. In a 3-2 victory, they mostly dominated play. Below are three reasons they won.
The Bolts’ power play was all-world last season, but this year it has had a different way of succeeding. In 2018-19, it was scoring from the shooters spread across the middle. With Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos at the circles and Brayden Point as the trigger man, those three could pick corners and the success rate soared. But this season, the Lightning are more adaptable on the man advantage, and the Stamkos goal is a great example.
Patrice Bergeron won the faceoff, but instead of leading to a clear by Boston, Kucherov swooped in and wrestled the puck away from Zdeno Chara. Kucherov passed the puck to Stamkos in the slot, and he deposited it through the five-hole of Tuukka Rask.
The goal was emblematic of the Lightning’s identity change. The Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup final last season marrying their speed with toughness in the dirty areas. Tampa Bay is trying to ape that model, and last night, on the power play and at 5v5, the Bolts consistently won the races and battles below the goal line.
On the Point goal, the Lightning had three key retrievals (off a Stamkos one-timer, a Kucherov one-timer that led to Rask’s jaw-dropping save, and off Victor Hedman’s drive from the point). The Lightning were also slinging the puck around, with every player other than Killorn touching the puck on the eventual goal sequence and five passes completed before Kucherov’s pass to Point for the tally.
The design of the set play was elegant as Hedman purposefully shot the puck wide, creating the carom for Kucherov to scoop up the rebound and push the puck toward the slot and Point’s blade. It was a creative act that occurred rapidly, and a quick Boston penalty kill, ranked just outside the top ten, was helpless to respond.
The top six showed up
While the kid line is adorable and the Cedric Paquette line is gutsy, the tenor is set by the first two lines. The Lightning can’t beat the Bruins in a playoff series if they don’t get production from their stars. The top six combined for a +13 Corsi Plus-Minus and manufactured five high-danger chances while conceding three. Killorn led the way with six shot attempts and also drew two penalties.
Most importantly, both Lightning lines were fast, physical, and adaptable. The Stamkos goal at even strength unfolded because the Lightning’s forecheck shattered the Bruins’ breakout. And against the Bruins’ top scoring line no less!
After Killorn came rumbling in on the forecheck to retrieve his dump-in, Cirelli created a turnover off Bergeron’s breakout pass, and then Killorn squished poor Boston defenseman John Moore – who he victimized all night – to foil yet another attempt to exit the zone.
The Bruins hoped to leave the zone by using the boards, but since Tampa Bay was sealing that off, Bergeron tried to whack a puck toward David Pastrnak, who was in the middle of the ice. Stamkos interrupted the Bruins’ attempt to leave the zone and powered his way toward the middle for the eventual game-winner.
The craziest part of this play was Stamkos accomplishing quantum superposition, where he somehow managed to take away Bergeron’s lane for the indirect pass out of the zone, and then wheeled around to take away Bergeron’s direct pass to Pastrnak. It was a freaky display of athleticism as Stamkos, like in the physics phenomenon, seemed to occupy two separate locations at once. And it was all the more thrilling that he drilled the shot past Rask.
Matched with the Lightning’s two best retrieving forwards, the new Stamkos line has been a delight. The line is white-hot as Cirelli and Killorn are so adept at causing disruption and forcing turnovers that Stamkos continues to get the puck in the slot against the opponent’s scrambling defense.
But it hasn’t just been the forecheck. On the rush, those two are so pragmatic that they consistently make the “smart” play, and by setting picks and shooting to trigger rebounds, they are putting a heavy strain on the transition defense, freeing up Stamkos off the puck. In the most concise way, putting the Lightning’s two best possession players with Stamkos gives the captain much more opportunity in the offensive zone.
Also, to Stamkos’s credit, he is hardly just an idle shooter waiting for his linemates to feed him the puck. He is proficient at producing takeaways and supporting the puck. The chemistry is palpable, and when Tyler Johnson returns, Jon Cooper should remember that it is foolish to bury Cirellli and Killorn with an energy player like Mathieu Joseph.
Last night was the best forechecking effort I’ve seen from the Point-Kucherov duo, full-stop. It might also be the most effort I’ve seen from these two so far this season. While the line can still struggle to get pucks through, it was encouraging to see them stealing pucks and providing support to each other. They’ve also been more eager to shoot of late, posting 32 combined shot attempts in their last two games.
One of the funny things about the Point-Kucherov pair right now is how Kucherov, who has one of the best shots in the NHL, has really embraced the role of playmaker. Last night, he contributed three shot attempts and three shots on goal. For one of the game’s great shooters, that is meager. As a result of Kucherov’s reluctance to pull the trigger, Point, who has a far weaker shot and is a far better passer than sniper, is being forced to shoot more. On paper, one would rather have Point feeding Kucherov for a surfeit of shot attempts, but such is hockey. The human element transforms the best-laid plans.
Vasilevskiy didn’t need to bail the Lightning out for a win, but there was a stretch starting from the four-on-four to the 10-minute mark of the second period where the Bruins were shelling him with shots. Pastrnak had several shots that could have slipped through, and Vasilevskiy made a dazzling save on Jake DeBrusk.
It has been a rocky season for Vasilevskiy, but this game showcased the Vasy Tampa Bay needs for a long postseason. He was excellent when called upon. While one could point a finger at Vasilevskiy for the first goal, the Lightning skaters were equally culpable because four of them were sharing the same square foot as Bergeron, yet none of them could stop him from shoveling in the puck.
The Lightning play the Capitals on Saturday to finish out this week. Again, they will be facing an Eastern Conference contender, but unlike last night, the Capitals won’t be coming off the second game of a back-to-back, but rather a two-day rest. Nevertheless, the template for future postseason success was nailed to the door of Amalie Arena. It all starts with effort.