Lightning Midseason Awards
Last night against the Los Angeles Kings, Tampa Bay raced out to a 4-0 advantage less than 21 minutes into the game by virtue of a five-on-three and Jonathan Quick being a below-average goaltender. Coach Jon Cooper told the media at the start of the Lightning’s California road trip that his team’s biggest problem is protecting and extending leads. These are first-place problems. Nevertheless, the Lightning surrendered a measly two High-Danger Scoring Chances at 5v5 for the final two periods of the game, so it is notable that they shored up that issue, at least in this latest contest.
Since the game stopped being interesting so early, I am adopting the Awards trope to present hardware to the most dangerous players and sequences through the first 41 games. Part II will appear tomorrow.
Strongest Relationship Award: The Nikita Kucherov-Steven Stamkos connection on the power play
Both players are great passers, but their telepathy is especially effective because opponents fear their shots. Even from the circles, the two are a threat to pick a corner, and when they wind up, it freezes the defense and opens up a seam. On Kucherov’s five-on-three goal last night, Stamkos wound up for a one-timer, only to steer it toward Kucherov below the dot. Quick was so out of position that Kucherov had the time to stop the puck and shovel it into the open net.
On the Stamkos rocket, Kucherov opened up the passing lane for Stamkos on the left dot by winding up from the top of the right circle. At some point, as the Bolts’ power-play goals accumulate, an opponent’s penalty kill is bound to realize that eliminating the seam pass between Kucherov and Stamkos is their number one goal. This may leave them vulnerable to a Brayden Point shot from the slot, or a jam play from the net-front presence, but those are far better outcomes than the dot-to-dot, east-west connection. Heck, let Victor Hedman walk in and hammer the puck. Even if it means dedicating three bodies to eliminating the shooting lanes of both Kucherov and Stamkos, and the passing lane through the slot, eliminating that option and letting the Lightning’s other three skaters beat you seems like a better strategy than allowing Kucherov and Stamkos to strike the puck from their respective circle game after game.
Best Demonstration of Where the NHL Is in 2019 Award: Kucherov goal against Anaheim
Erik Cernak is not a threat to score. He has been set up innumerable times by Point and Kucherov in his brief NHL lifespan as he jumps in as the trailer and proceeds to bury a shot into the goaltender’s crest. But Cernak doesn’t need to be Hedman to be useful. On a play from December 31st, Cernak acted as a facilitator, and most importantly, added an extra body when he joined the rush.
Against Anaheim, the Lightning ran a beautiful set play where Cedric Paquette took a faceoff in the defensive zone, but he was bookended by Point and Kucherov, who were both lined up on the right hash mark. Paquette won the draw, Cernak bumped it back to Ryan McDonagh, and Point streaked toward the left boards along the blue line. McDonagh hit Point with a pass up the boards, and Point carried the puck through the neutral zone and over the far blue line before he broke toward the middle of the offensive zone, where he found Cernak in space. The pass was received by Cernak, creating a two-on-one in which Kucherov proceeded to deposit the puck far post.
It was a brilliantly designed sequence, as the Lightning bunched their best offensive players as wingers, giving them the racetrack to create space once the outlet pass from McDonagh connected. Point’s speed and talent afforded him the cushion to seize on the loose gap, and slip the pass to Cernak in the middle for the two-on-one. It also forced the Ducks’ forwards to play transition defense, and once Andrew Cogliano tried to seal the lane up the boards on McDoangh’s first pass, it allowed Cernak to release and have a clear path to join the rush.
In the NHL, involving one’s defensemen in the offense is not just desired but required. Defensemen do not need to be offensive dynamos; instead they can be chess pieces that advance the cause. (We saw this on the Tyler Johnson goal against Montreal where Mikhail Sergachev’s acceleration created a mini two-on-one against Shea Weber and Johnson was able to work a give-and-go with Sergachev.) Against Anaheim, Cernak needed to have the speed to break away from Cogliano, receive the pass from Point, and then deliver a backhand dish to Kucherov that caught him in stride.
Biggest Surprise Award: Adam Erne
This may seem like recency bias. After all, Cedric Paquette has eight goals, and Dan Girardi has not been the Achilles’ heel we all expected. Mathieu Joseph was having a stellar rookie year before he was stalled by injuries. But I think Erne deserves this award because he has managed to have more goals and the same amount of points as Ondrej Palat, while only playing two more games and despite starting the season as the putative 13th forward and being a healthy scratch for over ten games.
When Erne has dressed, he has mostly played with the fourth line. Yet, Erne’s natural habitat is clearly the offensive zone. He isn’t out there to protect the leads or shut down an opponent. He intends to score. For a power forward, he is light on his feet with the puck on his stick, and he shields the puck deftly while wriggling into space through tight turns. He demonstrated power and accuracy on his shot with a quick release against the Canadiens for the game-winner on December 29th.
For his first goal against Montreal, it was Erne rolling off pressure from Victor Mete just above the crease and whacking a rebound past Antti Niemi.
Much like the incorporation of all six defensemen into the offensive game plan, even if they are not natural scorers, the weaponization of the fourth line into ballast for the firefight is a byproduct of the modern game. Fourth liners went from being goons to dump-and-chase energy players, to diluted top-six forwards. Erne has the pedigree where it makes sense that he is wreaking havoc against lesser competition – he was a second-round pick and prolific scorer in the QMJHL. With J.T. Miller injured, Erne has found a steady place in the lineup, and now plays on the third line. The Lightning expect their bottom-six forwards to contribute, and Erne has exhibited that he is not just an NHL-level talent, but a player who can influence and swing games.