Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Game Whatever: The One With All of the Awards

The official morning period has passed.  How do I know that?  Because people who know that I’m a Tampa Bay Lightning fan no longer start off conversations by saying, “Man, sorry about the Lightning.  Are you OK?” I also feel like I can write about the season with a little bit of objectivity. Let’s face it, it was a tough season for the team and their fans. The injuries, the suspensions, the contract negotiations (or lack thereof), the Matt Carle being Matt Carle made for one long slog of a season. Yet there they were back in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Imagine jumping back to September and someone telling you that the Lightning would have portions of the season where Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palet, Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos would miss significant time.  They also told you that there was legitimate debate if Jonathan Marchessault should be playing or not. If you heard that, would you think they were one win away from making the Stanley Cup Finals?  I surely wouldn’t.  I would be hoping they would be battling Toronto for the rights to Auston Matthews.

But the Lightning survived the regular season.  They survived the first two rounds of the playoffs and they almost survived the Penguins.  After the big Game 5 win against the Penguins I tweeted this out:

There was so much talent on this squad that it was inconceivable that scoring would be the thing that they struggled with.  Yet there we were watching them struggle to 2-1 losses to Colorado in October and Detroit in November.  Or, hey how about that 1-0 OT loss to Chicago during that stretch as well?  Who would have thought that defense would have kept the team in the hunt over the first half of the season?

Yet, somehow they made it to the playoffs and pretty much breezed through the first two rounds thanks to timely goaltending, the individual greatness of Nikita Kucherov and favorable match-ups.  Despite having to rely on a 21-year-old backup goalie against the best team in the Eastern Conference they held their own against Penguins.  So for me the season was a success.  A struggling success, but a success the whole time.

I felt, especially after watching Game 3 live, that they were a team that just ran out of gas at the end of the season. While they managed to scrap out wins in Games 4 and 5 with their backs against the wall, the sluggishness and sloppy play returned with a vengeance in Game 6 and in Game 7 they were just outplayed by a better team.

To wrap up the playoffs in true Hopeful Chase fashion lets hand out some poorly thought out postseason awards:

Post Season MVP:  Nikita Kucherov

Eleven goals in 17 games is going to get him paid. While none of them were game winners, several were game-tying goals which were just as important.  There were times in the Islanders series where it seemed like he couldn’t not score when the puck was on his stick. He displayed some of the selfishness that all good scorers need as he led the team with 51 shots and the chemistry he had enjoyed with Tyler Johnson last season returned.  While the Pens did a decent job of slowing him down, he still had his moments against them.

Post Season LVP: Nikita Nesterov

I know, I know.  How did Matt Carle lose this award?  Let’s not let his regression against the Penguins detract from how well he played in the first two rounds.  He wasn’t just “not bad” he was good.  So that leaves Mr. Nesterov.  At some point you have to wonder if a player is going to be able to cut it at the NHL level.  Nesterov shows flashes of ability, but when the pressure is on he just isn’t reliable.  With the emergence of Slater Koekkoek and Anthony DeAngelo waiting in the wings, Nesterov’s tenure as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning might be drawing to a close.

The “How do you like dem apples” award: Jonathan Drouin

In the most surprising showing of the postseason , the Prodigal Son showed everyone, including his GM, why he was a top draft pick. Even in the Game 6 loss he scored the prettiest goal of the game, cutting across the front of the net, shooting against the flow of play and picking the top corner of the net.  From his feistiness in  Round One to being one of the few Lightning players that could match the Penguins speed in the Conference finals, Drouin showed his entire range of skills.

The “Why didn’t he play more” award:  Vlad Namestnikov

The Russian Bieber played all 17 games in the playoffs, but often found himself on the bench during the later stages of the games.  He picked up 3 points playing mostly on one of the least used lines (things were so jumbled that the concept of first and second lines were lost).  To me, it would have made more sense to see him playing in Val Filppula’s role against the Lightning.  Despite the Finn’s depth hand at face-offs, his lack of speed against the Penguins was quite telling. I’m hoping this turns into another one of Coach Cooper’s long cons, where mysterious line usage in the present pays off in the future.

The “Congratulations on making next year’s team” award:  Slater Koekkoek

Maybe it was the fact that he had fresh legs on a team that was physically worn out by the end of the playoffs, but in Games 6 and 7, he was Tampa’s most noticeable player on the ice when he had the puck. Sure, he had a few turnovers in toward the end of Game 7, but those are bound to happen when you’re pushing for a goal.  His play led to the benching of Matt Carle in Game 7 and most likely will lead to him being penciled in as one of the starting 6 blue liners for the 2016-17 season.

The “You played really, really well, but man I wonder what would have happened if Ben Bishop was healthy” award:  Andrei Vasilevskiy

I don't think we could have expected more from the 21-year-old Russian. He stopped 92.5% of the shots that came his way.  Which is good, but look at the number of shots he faced.  Bishop played 148 more minutes (roughly 2 and ½ games) than Vasy, but only faced 30 more shots.That's phenomenal! The Penguins peppered him all series long and for the most part he was up to the task.  Yet I couldn’t shake the thought that if Bishop was healthy for Game 7 the outcome might have been different.

My favorite save of the postseason.  

The “Hey, he had a pretty good post season too” award: Tyler Johnson

In what was a tough season for the diminutive center, Johnson finished second on the team in post-season scoring as he finished with 17 points and 3 game-winning goals (including one of his back).  That was roughly half of the amount of points that he put up in the regular season. Hopefully he gets to rest this offseason and won’t require any medical work so that he can start off next season with a fresh slate.

The “I don’t want to say anything, but maybe he should have sat a little longer” award: Anton Stralman

I get it, I really do. When you’re patching your defense together with duct tape and Matt Carle, having your second best defenseman back in the lineup makes sense. He just wasn’t the same when he came back from the broken leg.  Whether it was because his hockey instincts were a little rusty or he just wasn’t up to playoff game speed, Stralman just looked out of sorts.  Getting caught in between making a play and defending on the Sidney Crosby overtime goal was indicative of how his series went.

The “Thanks for trying to give us one more great memory” award: Steven Stamkos

Even as we sit one month away from the free agent frenzy, I don’t know if Stamkos is coming back to the team.  In my hopeful mind, the fact that he played shows that he does indeed want to be a Bolt for life. After all if he was planning on taking the first money train to Toronto would he have risked playing in Game 7? No one would have thought less of him if he didn’t play.

And while in the end he didn’t have much of a factor in the game, there was that brief moment in the third period where he found the puck on his stick and a step on the defense.  He wound back, unleashed a howitzer that seemed to actually go through Matt Murray but then, as was the case with every puck it seemed, it trickled wide of the net.  If he scores there, man would that have given the team and their fans a boost of adrenaline.

But wait, didn't I just argue that playing Stralman hurt the team? How was playing Stamkos different? Because it's my column, that's why.  Look, if Coach Cooper had sat Steven Stamkos, one of the premier goal scorers of this generation, in Game 7 after the the doctor's cleared him, he would have regretted it every day of his coaching life. You'd don't go into that game without loading that bullet in the gun.

I think that time will also dull some of the pain of this season and we’ll look back fondly on the emergence of Kucherov as an upper tier talent and Victor Hedman building his legacy as future Norris Trophy winner. The Lightning proved that they weren’t a one-season fluke and that they will be a contender in the East for the next few years.  Hopefully Mr. Yzerman can navigate the difficult waters that lie ahead this offseason and keep that Cup window open for a few more seasons.

Combine their ages and they still aren't as old as Jagr

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