The Tampa Bay Lightning looked like they were in serious trouble two-and-a-half games into the Eastern Conference Final.
They trailed the series by two games, were still winless against the New York Rangers all season (0-5), were down by two goals on the scoreboard in that game, and were unable to solve Igor Shesterkin.
But as we have seen time and time again over the past three years, you simply can not let this team get up off the mat when you have them down. They roared back for three consecutive goals in Game 3, took an early lead in Game 4, and have comeback to tie the series heading into a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The big change: Not only have Tampa Bay’s top offensive stars (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Ondrej Palat) started to get hot, they were reunited on the Lightning’s top line by head coach Jon Cooper.
So far, the Rangers have not had an answer for it and it is shifting the series back in the Lightning’s favor.
That trio has spent the bulk of its 5-on-5 ice-time together over the past two games, and the numbers have been downright dominant.
[The Wraparound: Will Rangers regret missed opportunity in Game 3?]
In 25 minutes together since the start of Game 3 the Lightning own a 3-0 goals advantage with that trio on the ice, while also controlling more than 65% of the total shot attempts, 77% of the expected goals, 70% of the scoring chances, and 71% of the high-danger chances. Those two games have also been Tampa Bay’s best games in the series as a team in terms of controlling the pace of play.
Over the first two games of the series the Lightning struggled to generate offense, getting outscored by an 8-2 margin at even-strength.
It was in Game 3 when the Kucherov-Stamkos-Palat line was consistently reunited.
It is not a line that the Lightning typically use. They played just 60 minutes together during the entire regular season, and after being used periodically in the First Round against Toronto, they spent almost no time together in the Second Round against Florida and the first two games against the Rangers. But with Brayden Point still sidelined and the none of the other line combinations consistently scoring, Cooper decided to load up his top three remaining offensive players and let them run wild. They are doing exactly that.
What is perhaps most impressive about the line’s success is that they have been doing all of this primarily against the Rangers’ top players. All three of that lines 5-on-5 goals the past two games have come with top Rangers defenseman Adam Fox and at least one of their top-two forward lines on the ice. That includes the late game-winning goal in Game 3 of the series. They are just not feasting on mismatches, or taking advantage of the last change at home ice. They have gone head-to-head with the Rangers’ best players and completely dominated them.
Through the first four games of the series the Lightning have mostly controlled play in terms of shots and scoring chances, and that gap has only widened over the past two games. The big problem in the first two games was the simple fact they could not solve Shesterkin or find ways to beat him. He has still been able to shut down the Lightning’s depth lines, but when that top trio is on the ice together — whether it be power play or penalty kill — it is all Tampa Bay.
At least two of Kucherov, Stamkos, and Palat has been on the ice for nine of the Lightning’s 11 goals in the series as a whole, and when all three are on the ice together it has been completely lopsided in Tampa Bay’s favor.
Not even Shesterkin has been able to slow it down.
If the Rangers do not find a way to change that and consistently generate more chances against Andrei Vasilevskiy this series could very easily start to slip away.