The Reasons for the Lightning's Stunning Collapse
As the Lightning lead slowly dwindled and then, suddenly, the home team trailed by a goal, it was hard not to maintain a Pollyanna mindset: Tampa Bay will find a way to win because they always do. Frequent viewers of the Lightning were inculcated with this mentality for 82 games. But that didn’t happen last night. The Lightning blew a three-goal lead and surrendered Game 1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their trusty eraser, Andre Vasilevskiy, could not remove a few costly, glaring errors. So what happened after the first period when Tampa Bay got off to a commanding 3-0 lead?
It was a rough return for Victor Hedman, who missed the end of the regular season with an injury. He had a neutral-zone turnover that led to him getting dangled by David Savard. He was part of the failed entry on the power play that would eventually allow Josh Anderson to skate through the slot and beat Vasilevskiy shorthanded. But a more accurate interpretation of last night places culpability with the forwards who allowed Savard and Anderson to challenge Hedman one-on-one.
On the Savard goal that cut the Bolts’ lead to 3-2, Savard jumped the pass that was intended for Nikita Kucherov. Notwithstanding the fact that the Kucherov line had just spent time cycling in the offensive zone, the Lightning were in the third period protecting a two-goal lead. And yet Kucherov made no effort to disrupt Savard after he intercepted the pass and charged toward the blue line on the entry. The Lightning were consistently inconsistent in their transition defense last night.
The same goes for the Anderson goal. Brayden Point was present, but his effort was absent. Point ultimately decided against expending energy to dispel the puck-carrier, leaving Hedman and Stamkos to defend the two-on-two. This apathy from the Lightning forwards fueled the Columbus comeback that started in the second period and was completed in the third.
The Lightning defensemen spent a lot of time defending because the Lightning forwards, aside from the J.T. Miller-Anthony Cirelli-Alex Killorn line, were ineffective and sluggish on the rush and on the forecheck. This allowed Columbus to hold the Lightning to a lot of one-and-dones and force turnovers at the blue lines or in the neutral zone. In the final two periods, the Blue Jackets finished with 32 Corsi to the Lightning’s 21 at 5v5. The Kucherov line was -3 Corsi Plus-Minus at 5v5. The Stamkos line was a -1. In fact, the Cedric Paquette line generated more Scoring Chances (3) than the Stamkos line (2).
The best scoring chance for the Lightning at even strength in the final two periods may have been the one that occurred with less than two minutes elapsed in the third period. Coach Jon Cooper trotted out Stamkos, Kucherov, and Palat. After a failed forecheck and a lot of chasing, the puck found the stick of Sergachev as the Lightning regrouped in the neutral zone. Sergachev saw a passing lane through the middle of the ice, and zipped a stretch pass to spring a two-on-one for Kucherov and Stamkos. Stamkos snapped a shot from below the dot, forcing a nice save by Sergei Bobrovsky. But the quick-strike chance came and went as the Blue Jackets collected the puck and easily exited the zone. Palat was on the ice and in the offensive zone, yet he did not even attempt to retrieve the puck. Considering Palat can’t score, his retrieval ability is purportedly why he is valuable and worthy of playing in the top six.
It is not like the Lightning lost every retrieval, though. Point did show value in snatching up pucks in the corners and along the boards. But in the second and third period, the Kucherov and Stamkos lines spent most of their time in the offensive zone on the perimeter. There was far too much passing on the edges and not nearly enough pucks heaved on net. And on the rush, the usual alchemy that defines the Lightning forwards was absent. Which is what made McDonagh’s blunder so interesting.
There is an argument to be made that the McDonagh turnover was the inflection point. After Kucherov rang one off the post to begin the second and was stopped by an outstanding pad save by Bobrovskiy, the Blue Jackets’ hopes were hanging by a thread. And yet, there was nothing wrong with Ryan McDonagh’s play for 80 percent of the sequence. The Lightning want to stay aggressive with the lead, but it needs to be channeled correctly, and the puck has to be managed sensibly.
When McDonagh led the entry, he drew the attention of two Blue Jackets skaters. That was good. He had the entire Tyler Johnson-Steven Stamkos-Ondrej Palat line cutting toward the net and ready to hammer a shot from the slot if the pass found them. Possibility abounded.
There were a few choices that could be made. McDonagh could have tried a pocket pass to Johnson, the forward nearest to him, and judging by Josh Anderson’s stick position guarding the lane in front of him and not behind him, I am skeptical Anderson would have been able to disrupt it. Or McDonagh could have thrown the puck on net and let his forwards crash the rebound. What McDonagh chose to do was hold onto the puck and effectively freeze out his forwards; then he attempted a diagonal pass through the middle of the ice to his defensive partner Erik Cernak. It is no wonder Anderson was able to get a stick on the pass and trigger the Nick Foligno breakaway.
If McDonagh had attempted a pass at any point from the top of the circle all the way to the goal line, and it were to fail, Cernak would have been in position to cover over the top. Alexandre Texier and Foligno were trailing the play, so there would have been the danger that Columbus could have head-manned the puck and generated a two-on-one. However, Johnson and Stamkos were in position to U-turn and provide transition defense up until McDonagh stopped and put the puck on his forehand.
The Lightning want their defensemen to join the rush and forecheck. But in this instance, McDonagh’s puck management removed his forwards as an offensive threat—he chose to pass to Cernak, not any of the three Lightning forwards—along with eliminating any possibility they could provide back pressure to cover for his aggressiveness. In fact, his reckless play subverted Cernak, who was put in the difficult situation of having a pass directed to him, and yet, by trying to skate into the passing target, he allowed Foligno to get in position to scoop up the deflected pass and skate in on Vasilevskiy untouched.
Karma can be cruel. All season the Lightning have leaned on their special teams to get them out of jams, but last night the power play and penalty kill precipitated their demise. For the last 20 games, the Lightning have skimmed the details and relied on Vasilevskiy to white-out any mistakes. The NHL playoffs defy the categorical, but I am positive about the following statements. If the Lightning punt on transition defense they will fail to advance deep in the postseason. If they recklessly manage the puck by passing instead of shooting, they will spell their own doom. (Example: Yanni Gourde’s declining to shoot from the slot and instead passing to Alex Killorn drew the fatal high-sticking penalty.) If the Kucherov and Stamkos lines cannot create offense off the forecheck and cycle, this season will end in disappointment.
Even when plagued by injuries, the Lightning kept winning. The regular season was a fantasy-made-reality. The Blue Jackets’ comeback win last night is the first time the Lightning have really experienced any adversity or urgency this season. Their response will mean everything.