Monday, May 9, 2016

Second One Won & Done

By disposing of Detroit on April 21st, the Tampa Bay Lightning became the first team to advance past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And now, having disposed of the NY Islanders yesterday afternoon, they are also the first team to advance past the second round.

They won both series 4-1, which means they are 8-2 so far this post-season. And they have accomplished that despite being depleted by injuries, as Steven Stamkos has missed the entire post-season due to blood clots; and indispensable top-pairing defenseman Anton Stralman has missed it all with a broken fibula; and J.T. Brown, a hard-grinding character guy who makes things happen by doing the dirty work, has missed most of it after sustaining an undisclosed lower body injury  in Game Two against Detroit.

The Bolts are 2-0 in overtime and notched shutouts in both series-clinching games. Although they have played fewer games than all the other other teams that are still alive, Nikita Kucherov has more goals these playoffs (nine) than anyone else in the league while he and Tyler Johnson rank third and second in total points production, with 12 and 13, respectively. And they are both +11, which makes them tied for first in plus/minus followed immediately by Alex Killorn at +10.

In other words, this Lightning squad's playoff performance is starting to seem spookily strong.

However, the playoffs are only halfway over and a sickeningly strong opponent awaits them in the Eastern Conference Final, regardless of whether that opponent is the Pens or Caps.

Before the ECF begins, here are some thoughts about the round that just ended and what lies ahead.

Goaltender Ben Bishop missed the 2014 playoffs because of injuries, so last year's run to the Stanley Cup Final marked his first ever playoff appearance.

Combining that run with this year's, he has won five of the six series in which he has played, and has clinched four of those five with shutouts: 2-0 over Detroit in Game Seven of the first round in 2015; 2-0 over the NY Rangers in Game Seven of the 2015 ECF; 1-0 over Detroit in Game Five of the first round this year; and 4-0 over the Islanders in Game Five of the second round this year.

Plus, he is 5-0 in overtime.

So far this post-season he has racked up a .938 save percentage and 1.89 goals-against average.

In the recently ended series against the Isles, Bishop kept the Bolts alive in Games Three and Four by withstanding Blitzkrieg-style first-period assaults in which they were outshot 17-9 and 15-6. In both instances, they came back to force OT and then won in OT.

That, mes amies, is championship caliber goaltending.

Nikita Kucherov is an elite sniper with one of the quickest releases I've ever seen. But whereas most snipers are streaky, he is every bit as reliable as Old Faithful, that famed Yellowstone geyser that erupts every 35 to 120 minutes, day-in, day-out.

In the Lightning's ten playoff games, Kucherov's goal output has been as follows: two, one, zero, two, zero, one, zero, one, one, and one. In four of those games he scored the team's first goal. In two of them (Games Three and Four versus the Isles) he scored in the third period to force OT in games the team ultimately won.

And heres's the thing: Despite being a sniper who is known almost exclusively for his scoring, and despite being scratched for most of the 2014 playoffs because his defensive play was lacking, Nikita Kucherov has developed into an all-around player who digs pucks out of the corners and battles like a gladiator at the top of the crease.

That, mes amies, is superstar material.

With the first pick of the 2009 NHL draft, the Islanders opted for John Tavares, an uber talented centerman from Mississauga, Ontario.

With the second pick of that same draft, the Lightning opted for Victor Hedman, an uber talented defenseman from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. With a home town like that and visage like this, surely you'll understand why some people call him Thor.

In any event, this year's second round matched Tavares and Thor head to head and Thor vanquished Tavares as though wielding Mjolnir tself.

Tavares dazzled the hockey world in the Isles' first round win over Florida. He accounted for nine points in six games capped by an exquisite, series-clinching, wrap-around goal in overtime in Game Six. His performance caused some to anoint him the present king of New York hockey, above King Henrik Lundqvist Himself.

But against the Lightning, forced to face Thor shift after shift, Tavares was defanged and dethroned and registered neither a goal nor an assist after the 8:59 mark of the second period of Game One. Across the course of five games, he managed to get off only ten shots on net.

Thor, on the the other hand, accounted for eight points in the series (four goals and four assists), including the series-winning goal, despite being a defenseman. I don't think I need to say more.

Signs they can go deep
Bishop. See above.

Also as noted above, they have made it this far, in so few games, despite being plagued by the injury bug.

They have won eight of ten playoff games despite having played only one complete game, and that game happens to have been the most recent, which shows they are going in the right direction.

Resilience and outstanding coaching. No matter how hard against the wall their backs may be, the Bolts keep an even keel and remain cool as a cucumber. They rise to and above the moment, rather than allowing the moment to overwhelm them. In this, they take the lead from Coach Jon Cooper and crash the net with it. There is no one else I would rather have leading my team.

Like I already said back on April 22nd, their penalty kill is to penalty killing what Prince was to music.

Signs they can't go deep
They have played ten playoff games and managed only one, perhaps two, complete games. That ain't gonna cut it if grasping the Holy Grail is your goal.

They always start slow.

They are always in the penalty box multiple times in the first period.

Their passes are seldom crisp until the third period rolls around.

...we are in the ECF for the second year in a row and third in the past six; and while there are many logical reasons that either the Pens or Caps will be favored over us in the ECF, there are a few logical reasons to tab us the favorite.

Bring it on. I am temporarily satisfied.

Go Bolts!

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