What I Liked and Disliked from the Bolts-Blues Game
Squaring off against the reigning Stanley Cup winner is a bellwether for the other 30 teams. It’s one of many reasons why the narrative of the Cup hangover phenomenon carries such potency. (That and the photos of Robby Fabbri chugging Pappy Van Winkle.) Every opponent has the Blues circled on its calendar. St. Louis is a litmus test, a gauge of progress for the wannabes. The worst-to-first narrative makes the Blues one of the most interesting league champions we’ve had in recent memory.
The Lightning played only three games since their last meeting with the Blues, but in that stretch the Lightning had strung together three straight victories. They were averaging five goals a game, and the scoring was coming from everywhere and in every situation. Last night, after a dull first period, we were treated to a very entertaining contest that the Lightning lost 4-3. Here is what I liked and disliked.
Dislike: Andrei Vasilevskiy get outplayed by Jordan Binnington
The first and fourth goals by the Blues were excusable. On the first Blues goal Oskar Sundqvist fired a dart on the breakaway. On the fourth, Brayden Schenn converted after a long five-on-three where the Blues were peppering Vasilevskiy and forcing him to move post-to-post.
But the other two goals were suspect. On the second goal the Sundqvist shot came from above the right circle. On the third tally Zach Sanford scored from the off-slot and Vasilevskiy failed to absorb it because he was a tick too slow. Among the goals that Binnington allowed, the only goal that could be considered soft was the Kucherov shot off the faceoff.
Vasilevskiy gives the Lightning such a large margin for error and has provided unimpeachable goaltending in so many Tampa Bay games it makes him a hard player to criticize. After all, he won the Vezina Trophy last year and nearly carried the Lightning to the Cup in 17-18. But in a game against a Cup contending opponent, he needs to at least be equal to the other goaltender. It was unsettling to watching Binnington outplay him.
Like: The defensemen’s strong play along the boards
If the Lightning are going to become a fearsome forechecking team, they need their defensemen to complement the forwards. Last night, even without Erik Cernak, I thought the defensive group did a really nice job standing up along the boards to force turnovers in the offensive and neutral zone.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. The Lightning defensemen are emboldened to stand up and be assertive because they have forwards who are protecting them underneath. One instance I really liked was on a lost offensive zone faceoff three minutes into the second period, where the Blues exited their own zone, but Conacher hustled back to stanch the Blues transition. The back pressure from Conacher allowed Victor Hedman to step up and swat the puck forward back into the Blues’ defensive zone. Cirelli would end up stealing the puck from Blues forward Robert Thomas (who had claimed possession after Hedman’s volley) and Cirelli nearly beat Jordan Binnington short side. Aside from the Bolts avoiding spending extra time exiting their own zone and trying to defend in transition, a bold presence by the defensemen gives bite to the counterattack.
Another good example was on the first shift of the game for the Point line. The Blues were forced into a breakout opportunity, but Sergachev had a pinch along the right wall that forced a turnover. Ondrej Palat quickly grabbed possession and moved to Kucherov, and Palat had a chance to smack in the rebound but didn’t make good contact on the shot.
One of the most encouraging signs from last night that didn’t warrant a full-blown “Like” section but is worth mentioning is the success of the Point line. Tight-checking adversaries like St. Louis can pose problems for the Lightning’s stars, but last night the Point line’s numbers at 5v5 were exemplary, posting a +10 Corsi Plus-Minus and +7 Scoring Chances Differential.
Dislike: The delayed entry
Every team knows it’s coming as soon as the puck leaves the zone. For a dominant Lightning power play, it’s a weakness. That was one reason why a few games ago the Ducks were so shocked when Hedman feigned the delayed entry to Kucherov and hit Point on the wing.
The delayed entry develops so slowly it’s painful. The penalty kill is happy to spread four across and attempt to confront the puck-carrier. Or they’ll have a penalty killer try to get between Hedman and the recipient of the delayed entry pass. Even with a penalty killer trying to intercept the drop pass Hedman will try to force it anyway. On the first Blues goal, Oskar Sundqvist scored shorthanded after Hedman passed the puck back to Tyler Johnson, and Johnson skated right into the three defenders and was forced to dump the puck deep.
That is why the Point power play goal was so refreshing. Point skated around the first penalty killer to gain the zone, wormed his way to the middle, and then hit Kevin Shattenkirk on the wing. Suddenly the Blues’ penalty kill was disordered, with Kucherov, Point, and Killorn below two of the St. Louis penalty killers. When Shattenkirk moved it to Kucherov, the Hart Trophy winner identified that Point had a one-on-one versus Alex Pietrangelo. Kucherov steered a quick pass to Point that met Point right as he turned toward the middle. Pietrangelo was slow to turn and against Point spells death.
When the Blues get into their defensive posture they can make it tough to enter the zone and generate quality scoring chances. Different looks on the entry or even the decision to forgo the delayed entry and try to attack off the rush at least has the potential to destabilize the opposing penalty kill.
The rest of the week doesn’t get any easier. On Friday, the Lightning play the Capitals, who have looked awesome this season and will surely be a serious contender to win the Cup this season, along with the steadfast Hurricanes, who were in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!