Friday night was a reckoning. The Lightning lost their second consecutive game to the Columbus Blue Jackets, this time in ugly fashion, 5-1. While this scribe thought the Lightning would coast through this series and face perilous waters in the second and third rounds, any close observer of Tampa Bay should not be surprised about how the Lightning are being exposed: lack of discipline, struggles on the forecheck when the rush is eliminated, poor puck management that is camouflaged as selflessness, and lack of rest. These warts were visible, but the blizzard of wins distracted attention from them.
The Lightning finished the regular season first in the NHL in minor penalties with 301. To put in perspective how many that was, only the Anaheim Ducks finished with over 290. Sure, the Lightning also finished the regular season tied for the best penalty kill in the league, but it was foolish to believe that their lack of discipline could be accommodated in the postseason, especially when their opponent has subsequent games to make adjustments. To wit, the addition of Nick Foligno as the bumper has destabilized the Lightning, stifling their aggression and yielding unwavering offensive pressure and two power play goals from Columbus.
It is baffling that Alex Killorn, after committing a fatal high-sticking penalty in Game 1, could lose his focus and take an Interference penalty thirty seconds into the second period of Game 2 with the Lightning already trailing 2-0. Then there is Nikita Kucherov, who committed a dirty penalty on a defenseless Markus Nutivaara in the last five minutes of a blowout and will now potentially be suspended. Such foolish and unruly behavior is never sustainable.
The offensive woes are especially galling. It is far from shocking that an enterprising postseason opponent would clog up the neutral zone, take away the Lightning rush, and force Tampa Bay to win by the forecheck. Personally, I know I’ve stressed in innumerable articles that this strategy would be used because opponents had success with this blueprint during the regular season (the Coyotes, the Hurricanes, and the Blues to name three). And yet the Lightning seem completely flustered that they cannot pass and skate through the middle of the ice and are being forced to surrender the puck before the blue line.
The Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-J.T. Miller line has been the most consistent at hemming the Blue Jackets in their own zone because of their ability to chip and chase. What is troublesome is that the first and second lines have been rendered ineffective on the forecheck and sometimes made a liability because the Blue Jackets have been able to exit the zone quickly and gain speed in transition off the failed dump-ins. The sluggishness of the F2 and F3 has been especially alarming.
Worse yet, when the Lightning have had chances on the rush, they have made poor decisions, like failing to shoot from the middle slot. It is bewildering how Brayden Point, a 40-goal scorer, refuses to shoot. His reluctance to pull the trigger hurts the Lightning. It is worthwhile examining how the Cam Atkinson-Matt Duchene-Ryan Dzingel line got the opportunity for an offensive zone faceoff that Atkinson would score on in the first.
Twenty seconds before the first Blue Jackets goal, Nikita Kucherov had a clean entry for the Lightning and dished it to Point on his left. But instead of shooting from the top of the left circle, Point chose to direct the puck to Yanni Gourde, who was a few feet above the top of the right circle. David Savard was attempting to slide into the shooting lane, but if Point had caught and released the puck, he likely would have been able to shoot it past Savard. As one of the team’s leading scorers, Point under no circumstances should be ceding a shooting opportunity from the middle slot to a linemate who has less offensive ability and is in a worse position to score.
And make no mistake, Gourde was in a worse position to score. Alexandre Texier was step for step with Gourde, so it was unclear if Gourde would be able to receive the pass and release a shot that wasn’t blocked, and he was on the outskirts of the slot when the pass was made.
What unfolded was unsurprising. Gourde fumbled the pass, and then was knocked off the puck by Foligno, and Columbus pounced on the loose puck to start their transition. The Blue Jackets counterattacked with a four-on-two that Josh Anderson buried in Andre Vasilevskiy’s crest. The defensive-zone faceoff proved costly for Tampa Bay, as the Blue Jackets forced a turnover on the Bolts’ breakout and Atkinson was able to find room in the low slot to propel the puck past Vasilevskiy.
This was a textbook example of the puck-management mistakes that cannot be afforded, and the transition defense was nowhere to be found. The Lightning specialize in gratuitous unselfishness that leads to turnovers and counterattack chances for the opposition.
Finally, the Lightning look tired. The Blue Jackets have been the faster team in every facet, from their breakouts, to retrievals, to transitions. It is inexcusable that the Lightning did not take more drastic measures to rest their players down the stretch of the regular season, especially when they clinched The Presidents’ Trophy so early. After an 82-game season where he notched 128 points, Kucherov looks gassed. The same goes for Steven Stamkos, who at 29 years old could have used a few games’ rest instead of playing the full 82. Also, Victor Hedman is clearly laboring from the injury he suffered against Washington in a meaningless game on March 30th.
The Lightning didn’t need to sit their stars for 20 games like is seen in the NBA. But the NHL postseason is a grind. This isn’t the Lightning looking worn out against the Capitals in the conference finals. The playoffs just started! The next shift for the Duchene line after the Atkinson goal, Duchene went coast-to-coast and through four Lightning skaters. Duchene received the puck in his own end, bounced off Stamkos right before he reached the neutral zone, skated past Tyler Johnson (who lazily waved his stick at him), and juked out Palat and Mikhail Sergachev, completely opening up the middle, which allowed him to walk in on Vasilevskiy. If ever a play signified a team succumbing to weariness, this was it. This was six minutes into the game! If Tampa Bay loses this season, Jon Cooper absolutely should be held accountable for his pigheadedness toward the science of rest.
How to move forward? The Lightning need to be more disciplined and avoid the penalty box. They need to shoot more from the off-slot (which Point seems able to access at will with his speed) and have a quicker release when they shoot because Columbus is doing a nice job eliminating shooting lanes. Instead, the Lightning are foregoing shooting opportunities from the off-slot and have been moving the puck back to their defensemen. Little good has come of that. Either the pass backward has gotten intercepted, the shot from the defenseman has been blocked, or the puck has been easily stopped because of a failure to create traffic in front of Sergei Bobrovsky. They also need to put away sentimentality and adjust their lineup accordingly. Ondrej Palat has one goal in his last 35 games! Why is he playing with Point or Stamkos? Palat should be permanently banished from the top six and should not be allowed within 100 feet of the first power-play unit.
Mathieu Joseph has been one of the best Lightning forwards in this series, so Cooper should not bury him on the fourth line. Sprinkle him in with Stamkos or Cirelli’s lines, but give him more talent to work with than Cedric Paquette and Adam Erne.
Lastly, Dan Girardi is too slow for this series. Move Mikhail Sergachev to the off side and use Braydon Coburn as the Bolts’ sixth defenseman. Those would be three quick fixes. But at the same time, if Kucherov and the rest of the forwards are too drained to forecheck well and provide transition defense, a couple of lineup adjustments won’t save the Lightning.