Bruins ‘choking’ talk obscures superior play from the Lightning

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Over the years, I’ve noticed that many sports fans truly delight in calling teams and/or players “chokers” even though that label is rarely accurate or fair. Beyond the armchair psychology one can implement in studying how “normal people” critique millionaire athletes, there are at least two fundamental problems with making these claims.

1. The premise ignores the accomplishments and talents of the opposing team.

2. Calling someone a “choker” hinges on the assumption that they truly have control over their successes and failures.

Both of those issues factored into the analysis of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s come-from-behind victory against the Boston Bruins in Saturday’s Game 4 match. While the Bruins should be deeply disappointed with how they played in the final two periods after building a 3-0 lead, that score was misleading in the first place. All three goals were the result of baffling blunders by the Lightning, but there was also more than a little bit of good fortune involved in each Boston goal. Michael Ryder’s 2-0 goal might symbolize those lucky bounces the best.

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Yes, there were moments in the first period when the Lightning looked rattled – especially after Dwayne Roloson allowed Patrice Bergeron’s 3-0 shorthanded goal to squeak through his five-hole – but they actually came out with a lot of energy in the opening frame. A lot of teams might have given up a little bit in that situation, but the plucky Bolts kept at it and their steady pressure was rewarded in the form of a three-goal outburst in the second period (and eventually the win).

Tampa Bay’s effort has been more consistent through the first four games.

In the big picture view of this series, the Lightning are consistently out-playing the Bruins. Both teams had one clunker of a game (Boston’s Game 1 was worse than Tampa Bay’s Game 3, but they were both contests the teams would like back) while the Bruins won a toss-up in Game 2 and the Lightning outlasted Boston in Game 4. Shot totals can be a bit misleading at times, but it’s still telling that the Lightning have out-shot the Bruins in all four games, with an overall 143-123 advantage.*

Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said “We knew they wouldn’t quit” and there’s good reason to believe that he wasn’t just providing lip service. My feeling was that the Lightning were getting some lucky breaks while being occasionally outplayed through much of the first two playoff rounds, but Tampa Bay is flipping that situation on its head in the Eastern Conference finals. Now the Bruins are the ones who are staying in the series thanks to some timely goals and sporadically brilliant goaltending from Tim Thomas.

The Bruins have been a bit schizophrenic in this series. They laid a total egg in Game 1, won a wide-open Game 2, played “Bruins hockey” in Game 3 and then went from high to low in Game 4. Meanwhile, the Lightning seem like they are getting the most out of their team more often than not, even if Dwayne Roloson is starting to look human again.

A lot of Bruins fans probably feel like their team choked this afternoon, yet the truth might be more unsettling for them. More often than not in the first four games, the Lightning have just been better.

* – If you want the game-by-game shot totals, here they are:

Game 1: 34-33
Game 2: 41-35
Game 3: 31-25
Game 4: 37-30

Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

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As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. Johnny Gaudreau generated his 200th point (and 201st) in Calgary’s win, while Alex Steen generated four assists. (Vladimir Tarasenko also enjoyed a three-point night.)

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Brian Gionta scored in his 1,000th game as Buffalo won, by the way.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?