Friday, April 22, 2016

First One Won & Done

My last two very late nights -- or maybe I should say my last two very early mornings -- have been spent writing a post about my thoughts concerning the Trump terror phenomenon (it's bad) and Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the twenty (it's good). Right now I should probably be finishing it.

But I just got done watching my Tampa Bay Lightning chuck aside the Detroit Red Wings and become the first NHL team to advance past the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. So I am going to write about them instead, even though I won't finish writing this tonight (at least not to my anal retentive standards for hitting the "publish" button).

In any event, while typing away I am going to be listening to some "Little Red Corvette" and "Raspberry Beret." And, of course, "When Doves Cry." How dare Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, die an untimely death this morning? I remember girls singing "Purple Rain" outside the walls of the late, great Riviera Middle School in '84 and '85, and I remember half the bus on the way to our eighth grade field trip to Disney World doing the same. The flesh-and-blood that created a big chunk of the soundtrack of my youth just got ripped away from the world, and I am not ok with that.

But before I get sidetracked, let me get back to hockey...

I've already written why Lightning goalie Ben Bishop deserves the Vezina. Tonight he proved it even more.

One of the things needed for a team to win the Stanley Cup is for its goalie to steal a game or two that it really shouldn't win. Until tonight the Bolts hadn't gotten that this post-season, but now they have.

The Wings dominated each of the first two periods but especially the second, when they notched six breakaways by my count, yet Bishop stopped 'em all. At the end of two, Detroit had 16 scoring chances to the Lightning's six, yet the score was tied at zero all because of Bishop. Not only did he turn shots away, he also played the puck like a forward, situationally stickhandling it away from the net and passing to teammates to keep it away from the Wings.

One round into the playoffs, he has a 1.61 GAA and .950 save percentage... This is only his second trip to the post-season, yet for his career he already has four post-season shutouts and three of them have been series-enders... He has given up two or fewer goals in 10 of his last 11 post-season games... Money. That's what he is.

Nikita Kucherov did not score last night (I told you I wouldn't finish this the same night I started) but so what?

In the five games the Bolts have played these playoffs, he's tallied eight points and had two multi-goal games. Even though his career is still nascent (he's 22 and this is only his third season) he has rung up 31 points (16, 15) in 33 playoff games. And let's not forget that his first NHL goal came on his first shot, in his first shift, against none other than Henrik Lundqvist.

Kucherov has one of the quickest releases I've ever seen. Hell, Phil Esposito says it's one of the quickest he has ever seen. Four of his five goals in Round One came from the right circle on lasers that moved so fast they looked rapid even in slow motion. Being a lefty with a shot like that makes the right circle Kucherov's province, and he was so dominant from there against Detroit that from now on I might stop calling it the right circle and instead call it "The Kucherov."

It's impossible to opine about the Detroit series without opining about the stellar job Jonathan Drouin has done in redeeming himself after the debacle which was the last half of his regular season.

In case you don't know, that debacle involved him demanding to be traded despite his youth and relative lack of production, then being demoted to Syracuse, then failing to report to Syracuse, then being suspended indefinitely until he finally ate crow and reported after a phone call to GM Steve Yzerman.

I'm trying to keep this post from becoming too long, so I will limit my Drouin comments to two things:

First, as impressive as his four-assist production has been -- and three of those four assists were highlight-reel creme de la creme set-ups -- I am most impressed by the way he is hitting people and showing the kind of piss and vinegar that is required for playoff success. He has made mistakes, including a few bad turnovers, but he is also proving he is more than willing to work hard and that he is worthy of people believing he can be a cornerstone.

Second, because the Lightning's skaters were so awful in Game Five, I have to point out that Drouin was not. He was one of only two skaters (the other being fourth-liner Valdislav Namestnikov) who showed jump and oomph throughout the whole game. (Apparently there was some flu going around the locker room that affected several players last night, but still...)

Signs they can go deep
For starters, see the above. Bishop is an elite goaltender and Kucherov is an elite sniper.

Also, Tyler Johnson again proved he is clutch and that his eye-popping performance in last year's playoffs was no fluke. He did that by scoring two third period goals to win Game Two.

The Bolts as a whole, and especially Ryan Callahan, are willing to sacrifice their bodies by blocking shots before they get to Bishop.

Valtteri Filppula is superb at the little things that make all the difference without ever appearing on the stat sheet.

The Bolts' penalty kill is to penalty killing what Prince was to music.

Their deep run last year gave them all the playoff experience they need.

Jon Cooper is one of the best coaches walking Planet Earth. There is literally nobody else I would rather have coaching my team.

Signs they can't go deep
Although they put the Wings away in five, which is good, the Bolts were outplayed in two of the five games.

Their defensive depth is shaky. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are one of the best top-pairing defense combos in the game, but Stralman remains sidelined by the fractured fibula he suffered three weeks ago; and when you get below them on the depth chart, Jason Garrison is the only D'man whose defensive acumen strikes genuine fear in the hearts of opponents.

Ten of their twelve goals against Detroit were scored by guys who play on their top playoff line. You definitely can't win the Cup (and probably can't make a deep run) if you don't get points "down-roster" from lower lines. Stars often cancel each other out, causing a situation in which the unsung guys are the ones who make the difference in a series; and so far, where points are concerned, the Lightning's unsung guys have not shown any reason to remove them from the ranks of the unsung (and the same is true even for their second line).

As good as it felt to eliminate the Wings for the second year in a row, there is a very legit question concerning how big an accomplishment that is. The Wings' roster is talented but aging, and they have now failed to get past the first round in four of the last five seasons.

And, finally, the Bolts are frustratingly inconsistent.

...I am temporarily satisfied.

Advancing in the playoffs is always good and I am going to enjoy this until the next round starts. Go Bolts!

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