After winning six straight playoff games, the New York Rangers took advantage of sloppy play by the Tampa Bay Lightning and took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning looked like a team that had not played a meaningful game in eight days as they allowed the Rangers to take advantage of their turnovers and defensive lapses. They ended up allowing more goals in Game 1 than they did the entire series against the Florida Panthers in Round 2.
If the Lightning are going to continue their streak of 18 consecutive wins after a playoff loss, they will need to respond to the wake-up call the Rangers gave them when they capitalized on many Lightning miscues, especially those made in their own defensive end.
Lightning Have a Chytil Problem
Filip Chytil, the Rangers’ first-round draft pick in 2017 has been outstanding in the playoffs. His rise started when head coach Gerard Gallant reunited the “Kid Line” of Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko, and they gelled nicely in the playoffs. In this game, the Lightning’s inability to play assignment defense allowed Chytil to score twice. The timing has been great for the Rangers, maybe not so much for the Lightning. The 22-year-old scored just eight goals in the regular season but is now up to seven in 15 playoff games. He anchors a line that tallied five points on the night, yet didn’t even register 14 minutes of ice time.
Chytil should now be a player that is firmly on the Lightning’s radar, leading a line that has combined for 10 goals this postseason despite limited ice time. On the first goal, they lost track of him when they overpursued forward Kaapo Kakko behind the net, and Kakko found Chytil wide open in front. The second goal happened on a cross-ice pass from K’Andre Miller, a play that the Lightning are usually able to defend well. Rangers coach Gerard Gallant after the game said of his “Kid Line”, “That’s why we’re still here. We’re getting scoring from that line.” They will be in the Stanley Cup Final if the Lightning cannot find a way to contain this trio.
Lightning Need to Play Better Defense in Front of Vasilevskiy
There is no question that the Lightning were slow and sloppy in the defensive zone in Game 1. “This isn’t on him at all,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the game. “We could have put both goalies (in net). The pucks are still going in.” In Game 1, they allowed six goals in one game after allowing seven combined during a six-game winning streak going back to Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was not just one issue that plagued the team. Poor handling of the puck and not being on the right side of the puck were just a couple of problems that led to the defensive breakdowns. After spending the previous six games showing off their defensive prowess, they were unable to come close to duplicating those previous efforts on Wednesday night.
A great deal of credit does have to go to the Rangers. They took advantage of the Lightning’s miscues and peppered 34 shots at the Russian netminder. It was not that Vasilevskiy was great either. The Artemi Panarin and Frank Vatrano goals were shots that he usually stops. It was also Vatrano that made a key defensive play that represented the Rangers’ gritty effort that the Lightning lacked. Early in the second period, defenseman Jacob Trouba had just fallen to the ice and the Lightning were charging down with a two-on-zero break. It was Vatrano who hustled back to disrupt the play. On Wednesday night, the Rangers got in the shooting lanes and back-checked hard through the middle of the ice. This is something the Lightning did not do but will have to do in order to keep the high-powered Rangers from repeating Wednesday’s result in Game 2.
Can the Lightning Rebound?
The Lightning have an impressive 18-game win streak following a playoff loss. Now the question is can the Lightning rebound and keep that streak going? Victor Hedman thinks so, saying after the game “We’ll look at it and be better next game.” Steven Stamkos echoed that sentiment “We’ve been in this position before. And I’m confident our group is going to have a much better effort next game.” They did come back quite strong after two poor performances in their opening series win against the Maple Leafs, but this is a different series against a different team.
If this is truly a matter of being rusty after a long layoff, the Lightning can certainly deal with that. Poor execution and play are also something that they have been able to correct on a regular basis. The rust factor is something that many teams have faced before. In the past seven games, a rested team coming off a playoff sweep meeting a team coming off a seven-game series has lost all seven games. We sometimes forget that being successful in the NHL requires a great deal of precision and execution, something that is, at times, taken for granted. The other issue is will they be able to truly deal with such a young and talented team that is getting excellent production from its top three lines? That might be the biggest obstacle they need to overcome in this series.
With their resounding victory, the Rangers just gave the Lightning a very strong wake-up call. The Lightning will have until Friday’s Game 2 to figure out how to answer that call and give themselves a chance to even up the series.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)