The first two games of the Stanly Cup Playoffs have gone about as well for the Tampa Bay Lightning as they could have hoped, with the team leaving their home ice in Tampa with a 2-0 lead in the series, creating a difficult hill for the New Jersey Devils to overcome.
When a team wins the first two games of a series at home, they win the series 88.8% of the time. In case anyone was wondering.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 15, 2018
No, the Lightning haven’t been perfect in their first games of the playoffs, but they should feel some pride in knowing they’ve beaten a hot New Jersey team twice after losing to them three times in the regular season. The one thing they can not do is relax, however, because the Devils are far from done in this series.
Lightning Have Been Their Own Worst Enemies
So far, the biggest complaint throughout the playoffs for the Lightning has been their tendency to beat themselves with stupid mistakes. In Game 1, it was an errant pass by Ondrej Palat that set up Taylor Hall in front of the net, giving the Devils an easy goal and a second life in the game. In Game 2, it was penalties and a poor play at the end of the second period that kept New Jersey in the game despite the Lightning being up by as many as four.
If the Lightning are wanting to close out the series against the Devils sooner rather than later, they will have to start playing complete games and not just dominating one or two periods and coasting throughout the third with the lead. This sort of play in Game 2 gave New Jersey momentum and the feeling that they could have won that game with a little bit of puck-luck. If Tampa Bay can’t play a complete 60 minutes in Game 3, they could easily lose the game and give new life to New Jersey.
Injuries Starting Early & Often for Lightning
While Game 2 ended with a 5-3 victory for the Lightning, they also lost two key players throughout the course of the game. Both Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi suffered undisclosed injuries, causing them to miss the entirety of the third period while forcing the Lightning to play with 11 forwards and five defenders throughout the period.
On the surface, this may not seem like the biggest of losses for the Lightning, who have a deep roster capable of absorbing some injuries. However, both Callahan and Girardi play vital roles on the penalty kill, acting as key shot-blockers for the unit. They also bring with them a wealth of playoff experience while adding some needed grit to their nightly line-up, making them difficult to replace for any length of time.
Throughout his career, Girardi has rarely missed time due to injury, so it is likely that he could find his way back to the ice by Game 3. On the other hand, though, Callahan has struggled with injuries, and it seems likely that he re-injured his shoulder that caused him to miss five games in March. If this is indeed the case, he could be out of the line-up for the Bolts throughout the rest of the series against New Jersey. Either way, potentially having to replace two players in the first week of the playoffs is not a good start for Lightning.
Desperate Schneider Fighting for Career
Throughout the 2017-18 season, Keith Kinkaid took the starting goaltender role from Cory Schneider, who saw his stranglehold as the number one goaltender in New Jersey slip away from him. After giving up four goals in the second period of Game 2, however, Kinkaid was pulled in favor of Schneider, who would go on to keep the Lightning from scoring the rest of the game. With this performance, it seems likely that Schneider will be receiving the starting call in Game 3. While he has failed to win a game since December 27th due to injuries and weak play, his presence in net should still be concerning for the Lightning.
See, Schneider would be in desperation mode if he were starting Game 3. His play wouldn’t just be deciding who starts in Game 4 and beyond in this playoff series, either. Strong games against the Lightning could help him wrestle the starting role back from Kinkaid for next season or give him a leg to stand on if the Devils are looking to move on from him the offseason.
The Lightning have to be aware that if they are facing Schneider, they will be playing against a goaltender who will be fighting like his career depends on the outcome of the game because it very well might. Sometimes a desperate goalie can change the outcome of a series, so if they want to continue their success from the start of the series, they will have to be ready to play with that same level of desperation. If they aren’t prepared, Schneider could shut them down like he did in Game 2, and bring the young Devils squad their first win of the playoffs.
Lightning Have Positives to Build On
Ultimately, the Lightning are entering Game 3 with a series lead and plenty of solid play to build upon despite their multitude of mistakes in the first two games. If they can play a clean, complete game, they should be able to take a 3-0 lead on Monday night and push the Devils to the brink of elimination.
However, if they rest on their laurels and play sloppy in Game 3, Schneider and the rest of a desperate Devils squad could win the game and start building a comeback bid. With how wildly momentum swings in the playoffs, even one bad game can create a downhill slide, allowing a once winnable series to slip through your fingers. While history and statistics may be on their side, the Lightning still have a lot of work to do between now and a potential victory in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.