There was a time in the National Hockey League where offense ruled the roost. However, the high scoring days of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s will likely never be seen again. The goals will never be big enough, the goaltender’s equipment will never be small enough, and despite hockey stick manufacturer’s best marketing efforts, the sticks will never be made of quite the right material. In all reality, the success of the trap of the mid-1990s (made famous by 1994-95 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils), although not invented by the Devils, effectively changed the way the NHL game was played in a matter of a season. Since around that time, there has been an increasing emphasis placed on defense in the NHL and teams are often built from the goal forward. As the Tampa Bay Lightning prepare for its third round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a look at the team’s makeup reflects that the Lightning is not only scoring goals to win games, but also playing defensively sound hockey needed to continue this playoff run.
Defense Dominant through Two Rounds
Through the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, the Lightning have shown an innate ability to maintain composure when falling behind in games (which could be attributable, in part, to such a deep run in last year’s playoffs) and have played a strong defensive game on most nights. In fact, the Lightning has only given up more than two goals in just two games this playoff season. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning will be playing a Penguins team that is certainly going to give the Lightning its greatest test so far. The Penguins are a deeper team than the Detroit Red Wings or New York Islanders, and the Penguins are coming off beating the Washington Capitals; a team that many believed had all the pieces to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. However, when you look at the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs for the Lightning, it reveals some important statistics.
In Stralman’s Absence, Hedman Emerges as Leader
The absence of Anton Stralman has given Victor Hedman the chance to shine during the first two rounds and continue his growth as a future Norris Trophy candidate. While Stralman is irreplaceable, the play of Hedman and company has had to rise to a new level and has met the challenge thus far. While Hedman had a modest offensive showing against the Red Wings (one assist), he broke out in the Islanders series where he had points in four of five games and 4 goals and 4 assists in the series. Throughout the playoffs, Hedman has consistently logged big minutes and played a major role in limiting John Tavares to just two points (in the Islanders’ Game 1 victory) and a -5 rating for the series. Tavares had entered the series against the Lightning after being nearly unstoppable in the Islanders’ first round against the Florida Panthers. Kyle Okposo was limited to two points as well and largely missing in the second round altogether. Even with Ben Bishop’s strong play, Hedman is being mentioned as a potential Conn Smythe candidate. Hedman’s ability to limit the effectiveness of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, will be crucial to whether the Lightning are able to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
More than Hedman: Defensive Unit Emerging as Force
The strength of the Lightning’s defensive core is much deeper than simply Hedman. Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn have brought solid veteran experience to the blue line and Garrison has been utilizing an underrated shot on the power play and in even strength situations. Andrej Sustr has grown by leaps and bounds and looks much improved when compared to this time last year. Matt Carle and Nikita Nesterov, who had limited roles in the regular season, have performed well when called upon and have improved their play when compared to the regular season. This defensive unit also held Henrik Zetterberg, Dylan Larkin, and Pavel Datsyuk to a combined two points in the first round, and the Red Wings to just eight goals in five games. All of this without Stralman! While Stralman has begun to participate in practice, his return has not been determined, although I would expect that he returns sometime in this series.
Ben Bishop Continues Impressive Play
While Ben Bishop has been dominant during the regular season, his play has risen to a new level in the playoffs (save for Game 1 and Game 3 of the Islanders series). Bishop carries an 8-2 record with a 1.89 GAA and a .938 save percentage into Game 1 against the Penguins and is coming off an impressive (team) performance in Game 5 to eliminate the Islanders. In that game, Bishop turned away all 28 shots he faced for a shutout. Ben Bishop’s matchup with 21-year old Penguins goalie Matt Murray will be a talking point throughout the third round.
Penalty Kill Unit Standing Out
While the Lightning’s power play has struggled throughout this season (and into the playoffs), its penalty kill is currently the highest of all remaining playoff teams, at 88.4%. Players like Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, and Jason Garrison, have stood out as major contributors on the penalty kill. With a power play that includes Sydney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel (and operating at a 28.1% success rate in the playoffs) the Lightning should limit the amount of time spent on the penalty kill, but have confidence in the unit when called upon.
Lightning Momentum Must Carry into Game One
Although much has been made about the Penguins team speed, there is likely not another team in the league that plays as fast as the Lightning when firing on all cylinders. The Lightning are coming off a dominant Game 5 victory over the Islanders, playing all sixty minutes and looking like the team it was this time last year. However, the inconsistency that has plagued the team at certain points through the regular season and the playoffs cannot continue in order to beat the Penguins. With the prospect of J.T. Brown (a solid, defensive-minded, role player with good speed) and Stralman returning during this series, this will add support to an already impressive defensive unit, but the Lightning cannot afford to dig themselves into holes early in games. As the puck drops on tonight’s Eastern Conference Final, Victor Hedman and Co. will be faced with shutting down the Penguins offensive superstars, while the Lightning offense must figure out how to make Matt Murray look human. If the first two series are any indication, the Lightning certainly can rise to the task.