Four Thoughts after Lightning Declaw Panthers
When both teams are on the second game of a back-to-back, the viewer has license to cherry-pick what information they find valuable. The Lightning soared in the first period and capsized in the second, but ultimately they prevailed in a 5-2 victory over the Panthers. I came away with four thoughts from the contest.
Who will be the sixth forward: J.T. Miller or Yanni Gourde?
We know the top five forwards: Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat. But with Palat out of the lineup last night, Miller was bumped into the top six. As has been his wont recently, Gourde proceeded to miss an open net and failed to convert on a handful of other opportunities, which raises the question of which forward come playoff time should play the in the top six.
The case for Gourde: He is faster than Miller, he is a better forechecker, and he provides good back pressure in transition defense. He seems almost entirely incapable of generating scoring on his own, but if he ever finds his scoring touch around the net again, it stands to reason he could start registering goals at a nice clip considering who his linemates in the top six would be. With Gourde, at least you know he will consistently bring energy and speed, and he is more than happy to play off the puck.
The case for Miller: He is probably more talented than Gourde. Miller is more dangerous on the rush. The problem is that he is wildly inconsistent. But like the Lightning front office, you get suckered into his talent. Last night, the two assists he collected were in very different situations, but both times he played it perfectly.
On the Steven Stamkos give-and-go with Anton Stralman, the Lightning lost the faceoff, which led to consecutive shot attempts by Aaron Ekblad. But Miller tied up Ekblad’s stick and won the puck when it skittered toward the right circle. Ekblad pulled back after Miller wrested possession along the boards, but Panthers forward Derick Brassard was breathing down Miller’s neck. Nevertheless, Miller, with his back toward Brassard, calmly assessed where his linemates were while protecting the puck, and moved it up the boards to Stamkos to lead the breakout. Without that breakout pass, there is no Stamkos goal. Miller is hardly infallible on zone exits, but his intuition in terms of protecting the puck and making a very skilled play to open up a impactful scoring sequence makes him tantalizing when teamed with better players.
On the Point power play goal that put the game out of reach, Miller’s moves to buy time and create a passing lane were exquisite. It had been a tumultuous power play up until that moment, but Miller’s first touch demonstrated impeccable footwork to catch Mark Pysyk wrong-footed, and his sharp turn toward the net enabled him to saucer a pretty backhand pass right onto Point’s stick. Point started the play as the screener, but Miller’s slick hands and the time he bought opened up a shooting lane for Point as he retreated just below the dot for the catch-and-release turnaround wrester.
Victor Hedman’s one-man dance before he fed Kucherov was ridiculous.
Hedman’s primary assist to set up Kucherov was a sight to behold. With Point and Gourde leaving the ice for a line change, and all five Florida skaters in their own end, Hedman challenges Ian McCoshen, pivots, U-turns, Salsa dances, and then tosses a pass right onto Kucherov’s stick, which the NHL’s leading scorer buries. By going right at McCoshen, Hedman turned a defensive zone that is overcrowded with defenders into a one-on-one assignment because the Florida skaters pulled back once McCoshen globbed onto him. It was a genius move by Hedman to fracture the defensive coverage, and demonstrated his adroit puck-handling and passing to find the lane to Kucherov.
That wasn’t the only bit of brilliant playmaking from a Lightning defenseman. In the first period on the four-on-four, Mikhail Sergachev badly crossed over Pysyk and was able to create a clear path to the net where he almost tucked the puck in near- side on James Riemer. Rarely do you see a defenseman demonstrate the offensive aptitude to beat another defenseman badly one-on-one, but with Sergachev, this has become routine. Every few articles, I plea for Coach Jon Cooper to increase Sergachev’s minutes because his offensive potential is so high. Over the next 26 games it would be nice to see Sergachev receive over 20 minutes a game. The math is pretty simple: If Hedman and Sergachev can play close to 45 minutes a game combined, then the Lightning will have a dynamic playmaker on the back end for 75 percent of the game and, in turn, that will make the Lightning offense that much more potent.
Having depth is nice
Yes, it would be terrifying if something were to happen to Andre Vasilevskiy that would force Louis Domingue to have to play goal in the postseason. But for a backup, Domginue has played well, winning ten straight games and denying plenty of grade-A scoring chances in the process, which make his poor save percentage slightly misleading. Last night, especially in the second period, Domingue was forced to keep the Lightning afloat when they lost focus. (The Panthers manufactured 13 Scoring Chances to the Lightning’s 3 in the middle frame, and 5 of those were High-Danger Scoring Chances.) Tampa Bay wants Vasilevskiy well-rested for the playoffs, and it is reassuring that the Lightning win so consistently with their backup in net.
Yes, Ryan Callahan is grossly overpaid, but for a 13th forward, he is a delight! That was a great individual effort on his breakaway goal, and while he is too slow to be in the starting lineup come playoff time, if the Lightning were to suffer an injury in their top 12, it would be a sharp drop off if they had to rely on Danick Martel instead of Callahan. That said, if a team agrees to take his contract off their hands at the trade deadline, the Lightning should pull the trigger in a heartbeat. There are too many great players on this team who are going to get paid big dollars on their next contract.
File the divorce papers
It isn’t you, it’s them. Despite a first period where they jelled well, Point and Kucherov were on the ice for both goals against and could not get in synch. And the crazy thing is that they might have surrendered more goals were it not for Domingue! The numbers from the game are revealing: at 5v5, the Gourde-Point-Kucherov line had 9 Scoring Chances Against and 3 Scoring Chances for. Yuck!
On 5v5, whatever bond they had is broken. Pair Kucherov with Stamkos and put Point with Gourde and Johnson, please.