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Tampa Bay's Season Ends with a Whimper

April 17, 2019, 9:24 AM ET [62 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The adjustments finally came in Game 4. Coach Jon Cooper made a super line of Anthony Cirelli-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov. The forwards attacked with the puck instead of immediately passing to a defenseman after gaining entry to the offensive zone. The Lightning accrued more shot attempts and Scoring Chances at 5v5 than during any other game of the series. But the Lightning still lost 7-3 and were the inferior team, even last night when they finally began to muster offense.

The reasons are manifold: Their sloppy puck management and poor line changes were exploited to create numerous scoring chances for the Blue Jackets; they still struggled mightily in their breakouts and defensive coverage; and their propensity to be penalized more often than Columbus once again proved costly.

The contest was a one-goal game for most of the third period, so the four-goal spread is deceptive. But during the second period, when the Lightning were trailing 2-1, the amount of odd-man rushes generated by the Blue Jackets could have easily produced a blowout before reaching the final period. Before the first TV timeout in the second, David Savard completed a stretch pass to Josh Anderson that allowed Anderson to get a step on Mikhail Sergachev and almost convert on a quasi-breakaway. It only failed because Andre Vasilevskiy used his stick to disrupt Anderson’s attempt to move the puck from forehand-to-backhand. A Steven Stamkos turnover led to a rush opportunity that allowed Zach Werenski to walk into the right circle and whip the puck at Vasilevskiy. Tyler Johnson’s turnover at the blue line resulted in a two-on-one that Riley Nash failed to slip to Savard on the backdoor, and Cam Atkinson generated a breakout that he whistled wide on Vasilevskiy.

The Atkinson attempt proved a nice way to initiate the cycle as Ryan Dzingel retrieved the missed shot, and the puck was moved from Matt Duchene down low to Seth Jones up high. Jones unleashed a hard shot from just above the right circle that beat Vasilevskiy glove-side.

The Jones goal was emblematic of how the Lightning’s errors metastasized. Atkinson was sprung for the breakaway due to a horrendous line change by Braydon Coburn for Sergachev as the Blue Jackets were conducting a neutral zone regroup. Since it was the second period and the time of the long change, it was a blunder by Coburn to leave the left side of the ice open by changing when the Lightning were without the puck and vulnerable. (Of course, one of the reason’s Coburn was tired was because he had just defended the aforementioned two-on-one with Nash and Savard.)

While it is easy to pin the blame on the Lightning defensemen for their many errors, it would be a mistake to let the Tampa Bay forwards off the hook, and the Jones goal was a great example. After Dzingel won the race to the puck on the retrieval, he swung the puck down low to Duchene. The Lightning were in position to squelch the play below the goal line, as they had an opportunity to overload on the puck. Jan Rutta was exhausted, having been on the ice for over a minute, but he had Cirelli over the top and in support. But Cirelli gave a weak effort, attempting to prod the puck toward Johnson, but ultimately not separating Duchene from the puck at all. Duchene managed to keep possession despite having two Lightning skaters trying to thwart him, and he managed to find a release valve up high in Atkinson, who moved the puck to Jones. Stamkos was in position to intercept the pass from Duchene’s backhand to Atkinson, but was slow to react. The pervasive lack of defensive accountability was a large reason the Lightning got swept.

If the second period felt like the Blue Jackets asserting their will in transition, in the first period the narrative was the relentless forecheck and the Lightning’s inability to respond. Victor Hedman’s injury had a tremendous impact on the Lightning defensive group, and Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak were incapable of exerting the same level of influence as they had in the regular season. On the sequence that led to the penalty on McDonagh, both Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point had the puck but were unable to find a passing lane or the space to transport the puck out of the zone, and their turnovers would keep the Lightning hemmed in. When McDonagh used his stick like a scythe on Oliver Bjorkstrand, it gave the Blue Jackets an early power-play opportunity that would quickly put the Lightning in the familiar position of trailing.

On the second goal, the original sin was a missed pass from McDonagh to Cernak below the goal line after the won faceoff. Artemi Panarin would retrieve the loose puck, and the rickety Lightning defensive coverage was put in the position of stalling the Blue Jackets’ most explosive scoring line. The seam pass that was available from Adam Clendening to Bjorkstrand was unacceptable, and it was a result of Cernak and Mathieu Joseph switching and Joseph losing his position. Not good. Then there was McDonagh allowing Pierre-Luc Dubois to get inside position on the rebound.

McDonagh is purportedly the Lightning’s best defenseman after Hedman, and he is viewed as a player who can impede opponents’ best forward lines. Letting Dubois get beneath him was egregious.

Pivoting forward, the Lightning can choose to make this failure a blip in an extended Cup window. The Lightning front office needs to recalibrate the roster so that their young core is under contract for the long term. The Lightning salary cap situation is distressing, and it is a reminder of the perils of a win-now-and-worry-later strategy. The small silver lining is that the Lightning should come away from this series, and this season, knowing who their indispensable players are and who is dispensable. The indispensable players are Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Cirelli, Hedman, McDonagh, and Vasilevskiy.

Miraculously, in a young man’s league, the three youngest players with the brightest futures—besides Kucherov—are not signed long term. The amount of squandered money in Tampa Bay’s books is concerning. Shedding salaries and extending Point, Vasilevskiy, and Cirelli should be the first, second, and third priorities this offseason.

Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Miller and Yanni Gourde account for $25.16M AAV. Compounding the significant collective cap hit, Miller and Gourde are the only players who do not have Full No-Trade Clauses and the first contract that would expire is Palat’s in 2022. That is a lot of money and security designated for role players. The Lightning front office should be seeking consent from Johnson, Killorn, and Palat to trade them. I would also consider trading Miller and Gourde if they can’t dump the NTC players. If the Lightning need to sweeten the deal by adding a high draft pick because they have no leverage, they should be prepared to do that.

The Lightning were too tired and banged up heading into the postseason, and when faced with adversity, they folded. They weren’t versatile enough to succeed against an opponent who could take away their speed and passing and force them to win in the corners and on the forecheck. The Blue Jackets exposed the Lightning, and now Tampa Bay has the summer to reorient. The time to reflect starts now.
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