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Lightning Squeak By Panthers in Opener

October 7, 2018, 4:15 PM ET [5 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Panthers looked every bit the Lightning’s equal in speed, skill, and depth on Saturday night. A Lightning victory was salvaged due to goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s sparkling play, as he fended off scoring opportunities of every variety. Tampa Bay was badly outshot, scoring only one goal, which came shorthanded. The Lightning came away with two points, but there are several reasons to feel squeamish in spite of the shootout victory.

Offense composed off the rush was virtually nonexistent for Tampa Bay as the Panthers’ forwards and defensemen swallowed up Lightning puck-carriers in the neutral zone. This forced a lot of forechecking and dump-and-chase plays, which is more conducive to the Brayden Point line than it is to the Nikita Kucherov trio. The stats support this. Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and J.T. Miller finished with a -5 Corsi Plus-Minus, while Point, Yanni Gourde, and Ondrej Palat were a +4. At 5v5, the Point line had 5 Scoring Chances for and 5 Scoring Chances against while the Kucherov line finished a -3 in that department.

Especially in the first period, the Lightning struggled to connect on their passes. One of the best opportunities for the Kucherov line came off a failed pass by Kucherov in the offensive zone. When the puck caromed back to Kucherov, he dropped it back to Victor Hedman, who quickly hammered it toward the net. It was a nice way to employ Hedman, who should be used as a cudgel for forwards whenever they are struggling to penetrate a defensive bulwark below the circles or in the middle zone.

Most discomfiting for the Lightning was the fact that the Panthers were quicker in transition with the puck and without the puck. Florida’s forwards were able to transport the puck across multiple zones and not get disrupted by a Lightning forward backchecking or the defensemen in retreat. While the first period will be pointed to as the Lightning’s worst period with the Panthers having twice as many shot attempts, transition defense afflicted Tampa Bay the entire game.

Take this example on the power play with 17 minutes and 48 seconds left in the third period. Stamkos fails to seal the puck along the boards, and then Point, who is the second layer of support behind Stamkos, loses a battle for the puck along the boards against Vincent Trocheck. Suddenly, the guardrails are removed as the Panthers, down a man, become the aggressor. Trocheck snatches possession, pulling away from Point as he accelerates out of the zone, and Point surrenders after a final attempt to seize the puck back fails. Once Point gives up, the play turns into a 2-on-2, with the off-the-puck race between Aleksander Barkov and Miller. Trocheck threads a pass past Hedman and finds Barkov alone dashing in on Vasilevskiy. Miller hooks Barkov on the hands, ending the power play by committing a penalty. The Lightning have the numbers advantage 5 versus 4. Then it becomes a three-on-two in the upper half of the offensive zone and neutral zone, and then it turns into a two-on-two where the Lightning get torched.

Later in the third period, with four minutes and nine seconds left, Trocheck scoops up the puck below the Panthers’ goal line, and carries it out of their own zone, despite pressure from Kucherov all the way from below the circles to the far blue line, where Kucherov’s pursuit ends due to exhaustion. By now, Trocheck is gaining speed as he enters the offensive zone, and the gap by nearside defenseman Dan Girardi is significant. This is intentional – due to lack of foot speed, Girardi doesn’t challenge Trocheck since Trocheck would then simply walk around him. This allows a surrender of the entire top half of the offensive zone, and Trocheck crosses over toward Hedman, who pushes Trocheck slightly toward the dot, but not enough to deter Trocheck from attempting to roof a shot on his backhand by the near post. All the while, Miller has stood by the blue line, watching passively as one puck-carrier almost beats three players.

Kucherov was not at his best in this game, but his effort here was admirable as he offered pressure for nearly 100-plus feet. It was for naught, as his defensemen ceded any defensive challenge to the opposing puck-carrier until Trocheck was at their doorstep. That is inexcusable negligence from the Lightning’s defensive pairing, and better communication between forwards and defensemen will be needed going forward. Juxtapose this with the Panthers, whose defensemen were stepping up and keeping a tight gap on attacking Lightning forwards while their own forwards were sprinting back in an effort to choke off entries by providing backpressure. The more cohesive relationship between forwards and defensemen on the Panthers reveals why they were able to dominate stretches of the game.

The silver lining last night is that the Lightning may well have this season’s Vezina Trophy winner. His anticipation and positioning are so sophisticated that he makes very difficult saves look routine. I also really liked what I saw from Mathieu Joseph, who looks like a much-needed injection of quickness and creativity in the bottom-six group.

The Panthers should be a playoff team, and it was abundantly clear that they are replete with skill, especially at forward. But the effort from the Lightning last night was weak. There were too many one-and-done’s in the offensive zone, and Tampa Bay gave an uninspired effort in their own zone. Tampa Bay’s performance was sloppy, and there was a conspicuous lack of urgency to halt the Panthers’ offensive zone pressure. If the Lightning’s opponents are forcing them to play ugly, they need to be comfortable mucking it up in the corners, and instead of trying to find the seams on their passes, it would be better to simplify and attempt to generate chances from rebounds and deflections. More pointedly, if the Kucherov trio as presently constructed is incapable of doing this, then talent in the top six needs to be redistributed so players who do not mind getting their noses dirty are present on both the first and second lines.
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