After the Tampa Bay Lightning chose to play it safe with a lead in Game 1 and ended up getting burned in doing so, it was obvious that something would have to change in their approach for Saturday’s Game 2.
For the Lightning, Game 1 was a huge learning experience. A sort of cruel welcome to the big stage, if you will, from the team that is most familiar with the ways of said big stage.
But the approach wasn’t the only thing that changed for the Lightning last night. Throughout this postseason run, they have primarily relied upon the line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov to carry them to victory with huge contributions coming from Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn. But even though Johnson and Kucherov scored last night, it didn’t feel like it was “The Triplets” who were driving the Tampa Bay bus, did it?
A lot has been made recently about how the Tampa Bay Lightning are a top-heavy team. Depth scoring has been a rarity for them throughout the playoffs, and many worried that this would be their undoing against the mighty Blackhawks. This was not the case last night. In fact, it was depth center Cedric Paquette’s tally in the first period that drew first blood in this contest. Paquette’s goal was just his second of the playoffs, and his first was an empty-netter against Detroit Young phenom Jonathan Drouin was inserted into the lineup for the first time since May 7th, and the presence of his offensive creativity was readily apparent to anyone who was paying close attention to his play.
Defenseman Jason Garrison wound up with the game-winning goal for the Lightning, and he had the primary assist on Kucherov’s game-tying goal in the second. Ryan Callahan had two assists. So did Victor Hedman. Drouin had two shots on net in just over seven minutes of ice time. J.T. Brown had three of his own in his 12 minutes. Kucherov was the only one of the Lightning’s top five forwards to record a multi-point game. Johnson was the only other one who had a point. Palat, Stamkos, and Killorn were held off the scoresheet entirely, but Tampa Bay scored four goals and won anyway. Who would have predicted that heading in?
If the Lightning were going to beat the Blackhawks in this series, this was the kind of team effort that it was going to take to do so, and now that we all know that they’re fully capable of it, where does that leave the Blackhawks?
First Line Futility
The Lightning have surprised everybody by completely bottling up Chicago’s tremendous first line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane. It was bad enough that Joel Quenneville felt compelled to split up Toews and Kane in hopes of sparking one or both of the two stars.
Toews recorded an assist on Brent Seabrook’s quasi-controversial goal that tied the game at 3-3, but Toews’ play on the goal wasn’t really anything to write home about. The Chicago captain also did manage three shots on goal, but Kane couldn’t get a single one.
That’s not to say that there isn’t confidence in Toews and Kane to improve their play very quickly. Obviously they have been to this point and faced this kind of pressure before, and it almost feels like it’s just a matter of time before they turn it on and start winning Chicago games by themselves. It’s just that the amount of time in that “matter of time” may very well be the deciding factor in this series.
But while Chicago may be able to take solace in the fact that they have a ticking time bomb on their side in the form of Toews and Kane waiting to explode, their opponents can find the exact same peace of mind in the fact that Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn are yet to contribute. This series is tied 1-1 heading back to Chicago, and Stamkos, Toews, and Kane have combined for just one point that had no impact on the outcome of the game in which it occurred. If Stamkos finds his groove before Toews or Kane does, that puts the Blackhawks at a huge disadvantage with regards to the near future.
A Strange Correlation?
Having covered the improvement in the performance of Tampa Bay’s depth and the struggles of Chicago’s top guns we saw last night, it’s worth examining to see if these two things may be related.
Between watching last night’s game twice now and delving further into the statistics, the answer to this question seems to be a definitive “yes”. I’ll explain.
In somewhat of a surprise move, Jon Cooper has been perfectly content to match his third line of Paquette, Brown, and Callahan against Chicago’s top line of Toews, Kane, and Saad. The collective defensive acumen of those three Tampa Bay forwards is very high, and Joel Quenneville choosing to load up his first line has given Tampa Bay the ability to focus all of their defensive efforts on one line.
It’s a lot of trust for Cooper to put in a line centered by a 21-year-old pivot like Paquette. Paquette doesn’t seem to mind, though. “I like the challenge,” Paquette told the media when asked about facing Toews. “Any time you put me in those situations, I’m ready.”
While Paquette was beaten by Toews head-to-head in terms of on-ice shot attempts last night, the data out of last night’s game suggests that the Lightning as a whole were doing an excellent job keeping the Blackhawks out of the high-danger scoring areas.
Here are the even strength shot location charts for each team from last night’s game, courtesy of war-on-ice.com:
Note the higher concentration of Tampa Bay’s shot attempts toward the middle of the ice and the area near the front of the net against Chicago. Chicago got close to Bishop’s right side a few times, but failed to get good looks with his glove hand as the near side.
What this suggests is that while Toews may have come out ahead of Paquette in possession when they matched up (Toews was 50% against both Hedman and Stralman), Paquette and his unit were able to keep Toews and Co. away from the goalies and the high danger scoring areas. War-On-Ice’s scoring chance count at even strength reflects this. Shot attempts at even strength were 38-37 in favor of the Blackhawks, but their scoring chance count tells an entirely different story. The Lightning came out ahead 24-15 in even strength scoring chances. If that ability from the Lightning to convert shot attempts into legitimate scoring chances can persist as the series goes on, the Blackhawks are going to have a very tough time winning this series.
What makes this series so exciting is the sheer amount of X-factors that may present themselves on either side of the ice. Who would have guessed that Andrei Vasilevskiy would be the goalie of record in Tampa Bay’s first win of this series? Jonathan Drouin is now a huge candidate for a breakout game. Teuvo Teravainen has been nothing short of fantastic, as he tallied yet again last night. Then beyond that there are those Toews, Kane, and Stamkos guys that I mentioned earlier still looking to break through.
Last night’s game fully lived up to the sky-high standards of play that fans expected given the hype this series received. It’s now even heading up to Chicago, where the only thing fans can know for certain is that more exciting playoff hockey awaits.