The emergence of players such as Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde make the Tampa Bay Lightning the sort of varied, versatile team that can be downright intimidating. Still, to some extent, the buck stops with your biggest stars.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, even-strength success hasn’t been there for big names Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman through two shockingly stark losses to the Washington Capitals to open the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. They simply need more from marquee talent if they want to get back into this series.
Now, that’s not to say that these players have accomplished nothing.
Steven struggles at evens
Stamkos’ production looks like business as usual on paper, as he’s already generated two goals and one assist; Hedman has an assist in each contest. Things get more troubling when you dig deeper, however. Consider that all five of their points have come on the power play, a notion that anonymous team officials seem all too aware of.
Now, it would be silly to be excessively worried about where a player’s points are coming from. That’s especially true during the postseason, when it’s so precious and difficult to produce.
Their failings aren’t limited to the simpler box score stats of goals and assists. Take a look at the series possession stats at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see some downright glaring even-strength numbers for Stamkos and Hedman, along with troubling numbers for Tyler Johnson, Anton Stralman, and others.
Those rocky possession stats come even though Hedman and Stamkos have largely avoided matching up with the Capitals’ dangerous combination of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. These struggles stand as testaments to the strong play of Lars Eller and the Matt Niskanen – Dmitry Orlov pairing, but that’s troubling for the Bolts. Watch, for example, Orlov juking Stamkos in a big way before a Jay Beagle goal from Game 1:
It’s to the point that you wonder if Barry Trotz will try to chase similar matchups now that the Capitals get the last change during home contests in Game 3 and 4. There are all sorts of tough questions bubble under the surface for Tampa Bay. Would things only get worse if Nicklas Backstrom manages to play tonight, or at least sometime during this series? Will Andrei Vasilevskiy bounce back from a difficult start that’s clearly not all his fault?
[Lightning face plenty of questions with Game 3 looming]
Aiming for better execution
Reports indicate that the Lightning aren’t making significant personnel changes, whether that means tweaking line combinations or even going with an 11F/7D alignment. As KISS-stupid-simple as it sounds, they realize that they need to perform at a higher level, though it’s promising to see that they’re clearly pouring over tape after two rattling losses.
As Bryan Burns of the Lightning website reports, Stamkos looks at this as a real test after the Lightning breezed through their first two rounds.
“We’re going to prepare for the toughest game that we’ve played all season,” Stamkos said. “It’s gut check time. Let’s see who we really are. We haven’t really had to deal with that so far in the playoffs. Now we are. We’ll see what type of team we have.”
The East’s top team is facing quiet a challenge against a determined, inspired Metropolitan Division winner in Washington. Pulling this off would put the Lightning in select company in recent history:
While dropping these specific games puts Tampa Bay in a situation with every little room for error, these players are likely aware that, as poorly as they played, it still was just two games. They merely need to look at the other end of the ice to see a Capitals team that fought through virtually the same situation. The Caps went down 2-0 to the Blue Jackets, losing two home games in Washington, only to advance with four wins in a row.
As formidable as Washington is, especially after dispatching the Penguins, it’s also difficult to believe that Hedman, Stamkos, and other key Lightning players don’t have more in them. That said, they don’t exactly have a long time to get things back on track.
The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.