Thursday, April 21, 2016

One, Two, Three, FOUR - Now Go Win One More

Somewhere in the three or four posts that I’ve written about this series I’m sure I mentioned that it would be in the Lightning’s best interest to keep the game five-on-five as much as possible.  So what do they do?  Score all of their goals with the man advantage in a 3-2 victory that puts the Red Wings on the brink of elimination in the first round series.  As usual my prognostication skills are spot on!

Moving young Jonathan Drouin to the point on the first power play unit seems to have sparked the struggling unit as they converted on three of their five opportunities. Drouin picked up assists on all three goal. The Prodigal Son had his breakout game as he tied a post-season Lightning record with his 3 helpers and was dancing with the puck all night long.

Drouin was skating circles around red uniforms all night.  Photo by Greg Shamus Getty

Detroit’s Luke Glendening and his linemates did another stellar job of shutting down the Lightning’s top playmakers as Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn were shut out at even strength during both games at Joe Louis Arena. I’m sure Johnson (who did manage one assist in the game) will be glad to match up against someone other than Glendening when the series returns to Tampa and the Lightning get to change lines last.

Even though they might not have scored at even strength, the Lightning played much, much better than they did in Game 3.  They drove most of the action in the first period as they fired 14 shots on net in the first 20 minutes of the game.  Since they only managed 16 shots in total in the previous game, things were looking pretty positive - especially since they also had a 1-0 lead.

They added another 11 shots in the second (and another goal), mostly in the first half of the period.  Then, the wheels kind of came off for a bit.  Drouin stumbled on a check and allowed Luke Glendening to slip around him and set up Darren Helm for a goal that sliced the Lightning lead in half.  Detroit pressed the advantage for the rest of the period and you could feel the momentum swinging.

As the period started winding down, Gustav Nyquist made contact with Ben Bishop.  Bishop, who is a large individual went down like he got hit with a steel chair.  I’m not saying that he embellished, but somewhere in Montreal Carey Price applauded quietly as the refs called Nyquist for interference.  As ironclad proof that karma exists in sports, Nyquist bounded from the penalty box after his two minutes of reflection and scored the game tying goal with 10 seconds left in the period.

Joe Louis was rocking and all of the hard work that the Lightning had put forward in the first periods looked like it was coming undone.  It was probably for the best that the period ended at that point as Tampa Bay was on their heels.  Seventeen minutes in the locker room helped get them back on their feet and they came out battling in the third.

It was a tight period with both teams getting chances.  At the 7:29 point the game turned.  It’s possible that the series turned as well.  Dylan Larkin, the precocious young Detroit forward, made a great move in front of the net and lifted a backhand over Bishop’s shoulder and under the crossbar.  The announcer claimed it was a goal, all of the people in the stands thought it went in, the players on the ice thought it went in.  Basically everyone but the refs thought it went on and play continued for several disjointed moments.

So close young Mr. Larkin?  Photo by Dave Reginek/ NHLI Getty

Upon review the puck went off the underside of the bar, behind Bishop, out of the crease and just past Larkin. It clearly never went in and the game remained tied.  If Larkin scores, the lid blows off the joint, the Wings have ALL of the momentum and the Lightning have to start chasing a goal.  Instead it’s tied and seven minutes later Tampa Bay finds themselves with one last power play.

In a tied playoff game, the last five minutes of the third period might as well be the first five minutes of sudden death.  It certainly felt that way Tuesday night.  When Jonathan Ericsson slammed his stick into the back of Ondrej Palat and drew a crosscheck, there was the feeling that they really, really needed to score.  And they did.

With time winding down, Drouin found himself at the right hash mark with the puck and a semi-clear shot at the net. He drew back as if to shoot, but instead slid a pass to a surprisingly wide open Palat in front of the net.  All the Czech had to do was redirect into the net - he did.  And then there was joy on the Tampa bench.  The Lightning had the lead and they held on to it. Now they get to go back to Amalie with a chance to end the series.

Drouin’s play in this series makes his situation extremely unique.  He has answered the challenge presented by the coaching staff. He has stepped his game offensively and been the strongest player on the puck in the offensive zone.  Kucherov and Johnson might have all of the goals, but Drouin has been on the puck a lot during the first four games.

At the worst he’s increasing his trade value. At best he’s proving that he could fill the hole voided if Steven Stamkos does decide to bolt from the team.  Of course, he could have done this three months ago if he had accepted his punishment and just played his ass off in Syracuse.

It will be interesting to see how his play continues as the playoffs continue.  He has shown his elite talent in stretches before, but then seems to taper off and disappear.  Will he continue to play with the confidence and aggression that he has played with so far or will he relax and start coasting again?

If I was wrong about special teams, at least I got the Victor Hedman thing right. Despite only picking up 1 point in the first four games, The Big Swede has been logging a ton of ice time.  He has been over 26 minutes in every game except Game Two (where he did spend an inordinate amount of time in the penalty box) and logged a Duncan Keith-like 30 minutes in Game 4 despite Coach Cooper dressing 7 defensemen.

Matt Tamorina got the call as the extra blue liner, but was barely a footnote in the game as he played less than three minutes.  According to the CBC broadcasters one of the reasons he was dressed was because there was questions about Jason Garrison’s health after he took a slash at the end of Game 3.

Garrison played almost 17 minutes and picked up an assist, but looked slower than normal.  Several times some of the faster Detroit forwards were working him pretty hard, especially when he was killing penalties. Both Garrison and Braydon Coburn struggled at times with the speed Larkin, Tomas Totar and Andreas Athanasius (who I thought was one of Detroit’s best forwards) brought to the game. Anton Stralman’s absence was very noticeable during that stretch of 15 minutes or so when Detroit was pushing for the lead.

The Lightning survived and have a chance to move on.  With the Islanders and Panthers looking like they might be engaged in a pretty intense series, having a few extra days of rest would be most beneficial for Tampa Bay.

The Hopeful Chase 3 Stars:

3. Petr Mrazek - Without his play in the first period, the Wings are probably down by two or three goals.  He wasn’t the problem for the Wings as he made several great saves throughout the game.

2. Jonathan Drouin - Three assists and several close chances for the young guy.  It is fun watching him with the puck in tight spaces. His hands are incredible, but he has to make sure he doesn’t get too pass-happy.  Defenders are giving him space because they think he might shoot, if he takes that out of his arsenal, he might find a little less space to work with.

1. Nikita Kucherov - Two more goals and an assist for the Russian dynamo. Not only that, but he also fired 7 shots at the net.  Somehow he keeps finding himself open at the right circle and he hasn’t been missing from there.  The first goal was a one-timer on a pass that was in his skates. It was a remarkable job of adjusting his body in position to get a shot off.

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

Nope.  Drouin took all of the assists!  He was second on the defense with 19:39 of ice time including a whopping 4 minutes of short handed time.  That’s almost too much for my heart to take, but he was up to the task as he helped the team kill off four more Detroit power plays. He has quietly been the second best defenseman in this series.

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