Washington Capitals v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four

The Sore Thumb: Tampa Bay Lightning

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With the conference finals primed to kick off on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET on Versus, to be exact), we have a little more time to explore the two matchups. The NHL’s final four teams have plenty of strengths, but even these squads have a weakness or two. With that notion in mind, we asked: what flaw sticks out like a sore thumb?

To best answer that question, we provided our own hypothesis and also polled a blogger from each team.

Let’s take a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Click here for the Boston Bruins’ version.)

Our choice: Tampa Bay’s defense.

Much credit should be given to Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap. It bottles up offensive attacks and allows the Lightning to camouflage a pedestrian group of defensemen.

I’m sorry, but when Eric Brewer is most indispensable blueliner, you might not have the most talented D corps. That’s not to say that Brewer is outright awful, but the Lightning allowed 35.5 shots per game in the playoffs so far. Only the Buffalo Sabres (35.6) and Los Angeles Kings (38.9) gave up more shots per game in the postseason. You cannot say that the Lightning are just engaging in shot-happy games that throw off the numbers, either. They’re averaging just 26.7 shots per game, the lowest rate in the 2011 playoffs.

Then again, the Boston Bruins allowed 34.4 shots per game in their two series*, so perhaps both sides should worry about their defenses a bit (and thank their goalies Dwayne Roloson and Tim Thomas). It seems like Roloson saved their defense and bolstered Boucher’s system, but we’ll see if the 41-year-old goalie can do it again.

Speaking of Roloson, Cassie McClellan of the SBN blog Raw Charge imagines a Lightning world without the veteran goalie in her own “sore thumb” piece.

Who is Tampa Bay’s sore thumb? Two words: Mike Smith.

While no one was thrilled with the 10-day layoff between series for the Lightning, it did give 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson some time to rest. And that one fact put a lot of fans’ minds at ease. The chances of Roloson getting injured are about the same as any goaltender left in the playoffs, so that’s not really the issue. However, the harrowing couple of minutes when Roloson went down during the Washington Capitals series after Alex Ovechkin grazed his windpipe with the blade of his stick was a wakeup call. It made everyone realize that, well, what would happen if Dwayne had to sit for a while? And the answer to that question horrified a lot of people.

Roloson is everything Lightning fans could’ve asked for in a starting goaltender. But at this point, if the worst-case scenario were to happen and he were to go down, I think fans would rather take their chances with fourth-stringer Dustin Tokarski (third-stringer Cedrick Desjardins is out with a shoulder injury) than with backup Mike Smith. That’s how little faith the fanbase puts in him – despite becoming a lot more consistent this past regular season.

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So it looks like Cassie and I are worried about the Lightning in their own end. The biggest difference, obviously, is that she worries about Roloson going down with an injury while I worry more about his defense exposing him to another heavy barrage of shots. I’m unsure if Roloson can bail that shaky defense out for another playoff round, but Cassie is most concerned about any other goalie attempting to do the same.

*- The Bruins didn’t deal with the same glaring shot disparity, though, since they also fired 33.8 shots per game through 11 contests.

Predators smash Sharks to get back in series

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After a dispiriting 1-0 goal allowed by Pekka Rinne, things were looking bleak for the Nashville Predators for a moment there.

Nashville’s developed into a resilient group, however, and they stormed back for a commanding 4-1 win to shrink San Jose’s series advantage to 2-1.

The Predators saw some of their big names come up huge as the series shifted from San Jose to Nashville.

Pekka Rinne looked sharp following that first goal (and didn’t allow another). Their goals came from James Neal, Colin Wilson, Filip Forsberg and captain Shea Weber.

Weber’s tally was the game-winner, and it was downright thunderous:

Another promising sign: after a struggling to a 2-for-31 clip in previous playoff games, the Predators’ power play went 2-for-5 in Game 3.

Overall, the Predators really couldn’t ask for much more from this win, especially if Colton Sissons is indeed OK after a scary crash into the Sharks’ net.

Things could get really interesting if Nashville manages to “hold serve” with another home win on Thursday.

Stars’ goalie carousel goes around again: Lehtonen replaces Niemi

Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi (31) subs in for goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Dallas. The Stars won 6-5. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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It’s pretty tough not to make jokes about the Dallas Stars spending $10.4 million on their goalies at times like these, even if Dallas’ defense should shoulder plenty of blame.

After Kari Lehtonen was pulled from a Game 2 loss, the St. Louis Blues chased Antti Niemi early in the second period of Game 3 after Niemi allowed three goals on 12 shots.

Troy Brouwer‘s 3-1 goal was enough for Lindy Ruff to give Niemi the hook:

Unfortunately for the Stars, Lehtonen got off to a slow start as well, allowing an immediate Vladimir Tarasenko goal.

The Blues are now 4-1 and the Stars are searching for answers … and probably wishing Tyler Seguin was around to help them out-score their problems.

Islanders believe Boyle should be suspended for hit before OT goal

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Thomas Hickey is involved in a controversial hit, yet the greater debate may revolve around the one he received rather than the one he delivered.

In the second period, the New York Islanders defenseman connected for a thunderous hit on Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin, which sidelined Drouin for a chunk of Game 3.

Many believe that hit was legal:

The Islanders are upset about the Brian Boyle hit on Hickey in overtime, which came moments before Boyle scored the game-winning goal. You can see the full sequence here, with the hit happening around the 50-second mark:

Islanders head coach Jack Capuano believes that it was a suspension-worthy hit.

You’re not going to believe this, but the Lightning disagree.

Boyle clearly didn’t receive a penalty on that sequence, yet one would imagine that the league will at least take a look at that hit.

Lightning take dramatic OT win vs. Islanders, go up 2-1 in series

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Brian Boyle was part of the fight before Game 3 even started … and then he ended it in overtime.

In a Tampa Bay Lightning win in which they just kept rolling with the New York Islanders’ punches, it only seems fitting that Boyle battled to land a big hit and then score the clinching goal for a 5-4 overtime victory.

This gives the Lightning a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4.

Also fitting? Boyle landed a big hit on Thomas Hickey, the guy who sidelined Jonathan Drouin for a chunk of this contest.

That sequence prompted a brief goal review, but it ultimately stood:

(Was that Boyle hit on Hickey dirty, by the way?)

Drama was in the air from the beginning, yet Drouin really stole the show when he came back from what some believe was a concussion to assist on Nikita Kucherov‘s last-minute goal, which sent the game to overtime.

In some ways, this win feels like a microcosm of the Lightning’s season. They keep getting hit in the mouth with injuries and near-injuries, yet they just won’t stay down.

The Islanders saw three leads disappear in this contest, but one would think that they won’t roll over, either.