A night after getting a win in a game they probably should have lost, the Lightning had a chance to redeem themselves against the Panthers once again. Unfortunately, the second attempt did nothing but confirm that the first game wasn’t a complete farce. In fact, the Panthers took it to the Lightning from start to finish to the tune of a 48 shot barrage on Vasilevskiy.
Here are my “5 Things of Note” from last night’s game.
1) Hedman Hiccups
Victor Hedman is one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Not many people will argue with you about this opinion. However, Hedman hasn’t been the pillar of defense that we are used to thus far. What we as fans have come to take for granted is Hedman’s elite skill and play with and without the puck. He hasn’t been bad per say, but he certainly hasn’t been what we are used to on the ice. Sloppy play, poor decisions, and bad positioning have led to Hedman being on the wrong end of the puck being dug out of the net a few times in each game so far this season. Hedman has found himself in the deep end of the negative possession pool these first two games including a staggering 5v5 CF% of 19.35%. That is not a typo. While its highly unlikely this trend continues, Tampa Bay needs their franchise defenseman to step up and solidify what has been a porous defensive unit sooner rather than later.
2) 4th Line Follys
Chris Kunitz was a notable signing this off season for Tampa Bay. While not much was expected from him on the scoreboard other than chipping in some points here and there, he is supposed to be the veteran anchor to an energy fourth line for the Bolts. So far he has underwhelmed; as the 4th line has basically just been a punching bag for the Panthers offense. Last night the trio of Kunitz, J.T. Brown, and Cedric Paquette managed to not get a single 5v5 shot attempt. On top of that, they allowed double digit attempts against. This line had a 5v5 CF% of ZERO. Regardless of who the opponent is, this is something that is completely unacceptable and needs to be addressed. The Lightning need to rely on this line to take some minutes from the top 9 to allow them to rest while simultaneously wearing down the opponents players on the ice with possession along the boards. This is something to keep an eye on for possible roster moves in the form of call ups. There are a few guys who are assuredly chomping at the bit to get a chance with the big club including Adam Erne and Cory Conacher.
3) Diamond in the Rough
If we are being honest with our assessments of the weekend, there are an overwhelming amount of negatives in relation to the positives. One extremely bright positive though has been the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy. He has been peppered for two games straight. You could simply say he allowed 8 goals in 2 games and deem him to have been mediocre at best. If not for the heroics of Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay would undoubtedly be 0-2 and would have been blown out in both games. He has stood tall and done yeoman’s work in the crease to give the Bolts a chance to steal points in both games. If there was any questions about him being able to handle a starter’s workload and succeed, even this early, they have to be answered by now. The Panthers set a franchise record for most shots for in their first two games of the season with 84. With that kind of attack from the Panthers two nights in a row, I’d be curious if Vasilevskiy still has his adorable infatuation with kitty cats.
4) Stone Cold Kucherov
Nearing the end of the game, Nikita Kucherov went in on the forecheck and laid a surprisingly big hit on Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson. It was a well delivered perfectly clean hit that took the big rearguard by surprise and laid him out on the ice. As per the idiotic trend in the NHL these days, a clean hit must be met with retaliation from another member of the opposing team. In this case, Aleksander Barkov came to the rescue and started an altercation with Kucherov. My guess is he immediately regretted it as Kucherov grappled and body slammed Barkov straight to the ice without hesitation. It was an entertaining spurt in an otherwise frustrating game for Lightning fans. It did however lead to Kucherov being off the ice for 2 minutes in a moment where Tampa Bay needed him on the ice. This is something that needs to be addressed with NHL officials as Kucherov’s hit was perfectly clean and he was forced into engaging with another player only to protect himself. The officials gave Kucherov 2 minutes for roughing and Barkov 4 for the same. The problem is, Kucherov wasn’t able to be on the ice for that 2 minute power play late in a game with Tampa Bay down by a goal. A clean hit shouldn’t lead to the player who made the hit being in the box.
The top line of Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Vladislav Namestnikov was again a beacon of hope in an otherwise clunker of a game for Tampa Bay. They all skate, pass, and shoot very well. They all seem to like watching each other score more than themselves at times. I mentioned on Twitter during the game that when it comes to this trio, the difference of them being a good line or a great line, is going to be them knowing and understanding when it’s simply better to shoot the puck rather than make that extra pass for the pretty play. When you have two of the leagues most elite shooters on one line, you would think shooting the puck wouldn’t be an issue. However the mindset of the players becomes the opposite. Players tend to want to set up their teammates to a fault. This was evident a few times last night. Most notably when Kucherov was in on a breakaway and deferred to a trailing Stamkos with a drop pass that was ultimately broken up. Stamkos returned the favor when he was fed a puck in the high slot with time and space and tried to make a pass to the outside where Kucherov was stationed, and again it was broken up. Pretty plays are great, but goals are better. This line will most definitely give us highlight reel goals, but they need to be a little selfish and put pucks on net to cause havoc and get dirty goals as well. After all, they don’t ask how, they ask how many.
Two games into the season and Tampa Bay has yet to put even a full period of consistently good play together. Somehow they have managed to pick up a couple of points despite that fact. The next three opponents the Bolts will encounter are some of the leagues best. More of the same will not only be unacceptable, but will probably become embarrassing on the scoreboard. Jon Cooper has some work to do for sure, but the players have some soul searching to do as well. People will tell you its early. Its only two games. Its a long season. All of those are very true. Another truth is points in October are worth the same as those in March. Last season had the same “it’s early” mantra throughout the first half and ended in a heartbreaking playoff miss by only one point. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice…