Penguins, Lightning exits show playoff hockey differences

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Scotty Bowman had already coached six teams to the Stanley Cup championship when his high-powered Detroit Red Wings that won 12 of their first 14 playoff games couldn’t get the puck away from the New Jersey Devils and got swept in the 1995 final.

”They just shut us right down,” Bowman said. ”We were shocked, but it happens.”

The coach with the most Stanley Cup rings in NHL history wasn’t as shocked to see the Tampa Bay Lightning get swept out of the first round this postseason after tying the single-season wins record set by his 1995-95 Red Wings and finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league. He wasn’t surprised, either, when the same thing happened the same night to the Pittsburgh Penguins after they won two of the past three championships.

If the Calgary Flames can’t come back from a 3-1 series deficit against Colorado, it will mark the first time each conference’s top seed is eliminated in the first round.

More than any other sport, playoff hockey is a much different animal than the regular season because of increased emphasis on scouting and preparation, fewer penalties and even-strength goals, and more all-out shot-blocking and sacrificing. The way games are coached, played and officiated changes enough that the Lightning can go from being the best team for seven months to gone in seven days.

”The ice shrinks and you have less time, less space, the hits are harder, guys are not preserving energy over the course of a game,” said NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp, who won the Cup in 2003 with New Jersey. ”You’re exhausting it every shift.”

Tampa Bay looked so exhausted after winning 62 of 82 regular-season games that it lost four in a row to eighth-seeded Columbus, which didn’t even clinch a playoff spot until game 81. The Blue Jackets were by far the better team, and Bowman – who lives in Florida and frequents the Lightning’s press box – saw a totally different Tampa Bay team without top defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman because it couldn’t move the puck up ice without a strain on the top forwards.

Bowman compared it to what Detroit would’ve been like without Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, who hardly ever made a mistake with the puck and made everything happen. The Lightning ran into a tough John Tortorella-coached forecheck, struggled to control the game against the disciplined Blue Jackets and all their star power couldn’t dig them out of a deep hole.

”During the season, Tampa would have the puck so much, the other team would get four, five or six penalties and, boom, their power play was at 28 percent and had the most goals in the league,” Bowman said. ”They were so hard to play against all year because they forced the other teams to take penalties. (Hedman and Stralman) are bringing the puck up, they’re in the (offensive) zone. The game changes.”

Star players also get much more attention in the playoffs. Tampa Bay’s top scorers, presumptive MVP Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, combined for five points against Columbus after averaging 1.3 a game during the regular season.

That problem isn’t limited to the Lightning. Two-time playoff MVP Sidney Crosby was limited to one point in the Penguins’ sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has one point through four games against Colorado.

Tampa Bay, Calgary and Pittsburgh all ranked in the top six in the league in scoring during the regular season. When Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens does an autopsy on the Lightning and Penguins’ quick playoff exits, he sees fundamental problems in other areas.

”I saw two teams that don’t defend very well, really don’t have a lot of structure in their D-zone and they didn’t have anything to fall back on,” said Stevens, who won the Stanley Cup three times with the Devils and now is an NHL Network analyst. ”They weren’t able to score goals, and they weren’t able to defend and therefore they’re not playing anymore.”

Belying a common misperception, scoring isn’t down much in the postseason so far: an average of 5.8 goals over the first 31 playoff games compared to 6.0 in the regular season. But after 77.8 percent of regular-season goals came at even strength, that number is 59.4 percent so far in the playoffs, which means each power-play goal is all the more important.

”You want to stay out of the penalty box,” Stevens said. ”There’s teams that their power play might’ve been average during the year but they find a way to get a few in the playoffs and make a difference and that can win a series for you.”

Or lose a series. Pittsburgh went 1 for 11 on the power play, and Tampa Bay went 1 for 6.

Of course, there are fewer penalties called this time of year. The NHL has said it wants officials to call games the same way in the playoffs, but referees don’t want to overreach when games are so tight.

”I was always told that penalties are like money and it’s like other people’s money in that you should be frugal with them unless the action demands a call,” said retired referee Paul Stewart, who worked 49 NHL playoff games during his career.

Stewart likens the first two rounds of the playoffs to a guy being so excited for a date that he gets a speeding ticket on the way, and because of that officials need to take extra care to rein in players. It’s easy for him to understand why players feel like there’s less room on the 200-by-85-foot ice surface than during the regular season because he has seen it up close.

”Players tend to cover a lot more ice because their speed level and their intensity level is up and where they might’ve dogged it a step or two here or there, they seem to put a little more churn in the butter,” Stewart said. ”They’re getting from point A to point B a lot faster and then they’re going to point C and point D where during the regular season they might only get to point C and now they’re hitting D, E and F because they’re all jacked up and they want to make sure that every 45-second shift is momentous for them.”

Stevens said a great regular-season team’s confidence can evaporate quickly and lead to a long summer of reflection.

”The teams that are undisciplined, the teams that get away from their game quickly and can’t stay with their game tend to get in trouble because you become a little reckless, you don’t manage the puck and then they feed the other team’s offense and then they tend to find themselves chasing,” Stevens said. ”They just have no answer and it’s frustrating for that team that can’t find their game, has no answers, the adjustments don’t work and you’re still working hard, you’re trying hard but you can’t find a way to win.”

Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Lightning GM BriseBois not overreacting to playoff loss

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois said Thursday he is not going to overreact to the Lightning’s historically quick postseason exit and he still has confidence in coach Jon Cooper.

After tying the NHL record for wins during the regular season, the perennial Stanley Cup contender became the first team in the expansion era to be swept in the first round of the playoffs after leading the league in points. Three of the four games against Columbus were decided by at least two goals.

”What really compounds the disappointment is that we didn’t play anywhere near our best hockey during the series. And now, the question is why? Why didn’t we play our best when it mattered the most,” BriseBois said.

”The reality is it’s not something that I’m going to be able to pinpoint to any one thing,” BriseBois added. ”I know it would make it a lot easier for all of us if we could have a clear narrative. We lost because of, fill-in the blank. The reality is it’s a lot more complex than that.”

The Lightning won 62 games, matching the league mark set by the 1995-96. While the players said they believe they are a team built for success in the playoffs, an inability to get back to the Stanley Cup Final the past four years suggests otherwise.

”Now is not the time to make excuses, it’s a time to show some humility,” BriseBois said. ”It’s the time for us to lick our wounds. Roll up our sleeves, get to work and focus on doing what we need to do so that next year we’re more successful.”

Cooper, in the final year of his contract, was given a multiyear extension on March 26.

”My faith in Coop has not waivered at all,” BriseBois said.

Tampa Bay had three players – Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point – score 40-plus goals. Kucherov had a league-leading 128 points, the most by any player since 1995-96 when Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux had 161 and teammate Jaromir Jagr had 149.

All three were mostly non-factors against the Blue Jackets.

Stamkos had one goal and one assist, and finished minus-8. Kucherov, suspended for Game 3 for a boarding penalty the previous game, picked up two assists and was minus-4. Point scored one goal and was minus-5.

”It’s just another opportunity wasted,” Stamkos said. ”We have all the players in place but at the end of the day you’re judged on winning championships. There’s no real words. We say a lot of things, but you have to go out on the ice and do it, and we didn’t do it.”

Tampa Bay scored 325 goals in the regular season – most by any team in 23 years – but was outscored 19-8 by the No. 8 seed Blue Jackets.

The first-round debacle was just the latest in a string of postseason disappointments. The Lightning held a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final before losing to Chicago in six games. In 2016 (Pittsburgh) and 2018 (Washington), Tampa Bay failed close out 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference finals.

This year’s collapse stung, too, because it not only came against a team the Lightning dominated during the regular season, but Columbus is also coached by John Tortorella, who was behind the bench for Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup championship in 2004.

”We put ourselves in this position because we didn’t meet our expectations,” Cooper said. ”I’m going to relish the moment when we’re all back here again and we have met those expectations as a group.”

WARNING SIGNS?

The Lightning had a tendency to fall behind during the regular season, posting 29 comeback wins, an NHL record.

”In a lot of those games we out-skilled out of those games,” left winger Alex Killorn said. ”But in the playoffs, there’s times where you’re not going to be able to skill your way out of it. I think just we have to play a more playoff mentality throughout the season. Build your way into playoffs.”

PLAYER MOVEMENT?

Point is a restricted free agent who is in line for a potential offer sheet. Defensemen Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn are all unrestricted free agents.

INJURIES

2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman (upper body) played in Games 1 and 2 after missing the final four regular season games but sat out the final two playoff games. … Stralman (lower body) never got on the ice. … Killorn played Game 4 with a slight MCL tear that won’t require surgery.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Lightning have plenty of questions to answer after playoff failure

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Not winning the Stanley Cup isn’t what makes the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning a failure.

Sometimes great teams simply don’t win.

There is no shame in losing in the Stanley Cup Final. Losing Game 7 of a conference final is nothing to hang your head over.  If their season had ended in that manner (again), or perhaps even in the second round against Boston or Toronto, there would have been some criticism and some doubt about their ability to finish the job, but the reaction wouldn’t have been anywhere near as harsh as it will be following their four-game exit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Championships are rare, and a great regular season guarantees you nothing when it comes to hardware because there are so many factors that go into being handed that trophy at the end of the playoffs.

What makes this Lightning team a complete and total failure is the fact it simply no-showed in the playoffs. And even saying that may be letting this group off the hook more than they deserve.

This was not the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals outplaying a team for seven games only to lose because a goalie got white hot and played the series of his life. This was not a team playing well and doing things right only to go lose a long, drawn out seven-game series because a bounce or two didn’t go their way.

This was the best regular season team of the modern era, and maybe one of the best regular season teams ever, getting absolutely humiliated in four straight games. This thing was not even close.

Outside of the first 15 minutes of the series where the Lightning jumped out to an early three-goal lead, there was never a point in this series where you felt like they were close to breaking through, or that they were playing their game and simply being beaten by a goalie or some rough puck luck, or that they were going to get themselves right.

They just flat out got whooped.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A team that scored 325 goals during the regular season, and had three different 40-goal scorers, and outscored teams by more than 100 goals, was thoroughly dominated.

They managed just eight goals in four games. They were outscored by a 19-8 margin for the series, and 19-5 over the final 11 periods.

If you wanted to look for excuses, you could point to the injuries to Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on the blue line, and especially Hedman’s. He is one of the key cogs that makes the machine run smoothly. But this wasn’t the first time they played without him this season and they never looked that bad without him.

And for as good as Stralman is, they only had him for 47 games during the season and still managed to win 62 games without him.

This is also a team that was deep enough and good enough to be without its starting goalie for an entire month and still went 12-3-0 without him.

You could also point to the fact the Blue Jackets are probably better than their final regular season record because the roster as currently constructed was only together for about a month-and-a-half. Maybe that, combined with the absence of Hedman in Games 3 and 4 and the fact he surely wasn’t healthy in Games 1 and 2, narrowed the gap.

But there is no way it narrowed the gap this much. 

You can’t fault anyone for injuries. But you can fault, say, Nikita Kucherov for taking himself out of Game 3 due to a reckless, selfish play. You can fault the offense for not showing up.

What makes this performance even worse for the Lightning is that it in a lot of ways validated any criticism they may have faced for falling short in recent postseasons.

As I wrote before the playoffs began, the Lightning were under a ton of pressure to win this year (probably more than any other team in the playoffs) not only because of what they did during the regular season, but because of the way they have fallen short in recent postseasons.

Again, this is a team that had a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and then lost three games in a row scoring only two goals. This is a team that in two of the past three years had 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference Final only to lose both, scoring just three total games in the four games they lost (they scored three goals in their Games 6 and 7 losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, and zero goals in their two defeats a year ago to the Washington Capitals).

There is losing, and then there is collapsing.

The Lightning have developed a tendency for collapsing.

Now comes the hard part for the Lightning.

Now they have to figure out why this happened, why this team failed so spectacularly, and what exactly there is to do about it.

There is no denying the talent on this team, and it’s not like the group is without its share of success. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning have won more regular season games than any other team in the NHL, and the third most playoff games. The core that produced all of those wins is still locked in place and under team control, and most of them are still in the prime of their careers. It’s not like this is a situation that is screaming for a massive overhaul, and quite honestly, a massive overhaul is probably the worst thing they could do.

But it’s no longer unfair to ask if something is just off here.

Is it the coach? Is it the players? Or was it simply a team that had been ridiculously close in recent years, falling just short, simply falling on its face at the worst possible time?

In a vacuum any of the Lightning’s recent postseason losses are nothing to be terribly worried about on their own.

That’s sports. Your season is going to end short of a championship far more often than it doesn’t. But to keep losing the way they have, and to keep going out as meekly as they have when they have been in a position of control is something worth talking about.

Simply losing isn’t what is going to define the 2018-19 Lightning, or even this current core of players.

It is the way they have lost that is defining them.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blue Jackets cap off all-time upset, sweep Lightning

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Let this be a lesson.

A lesson that anything is possible, no matter the odds. A lesson in never writing off a team, no matter the circumstances. And a lesson that, no matter how good a team is in the regular season, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference come playoff time.

Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off what many thought impossible, an upset for the ages after a 7-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night in Game 4 of their best-of-7 series.

Swept.

The Lightning certainly crashed (the first Presidents’ Trophy-winning team to be swept in the first round), and the Blue Jackets won their first playoff series in franchise history.

Gone are the horrors of that crossbar in overtime of Game 3 against Washington last year. So, too, with it, the agony of losing four straight after beating the Capitals twice in their own barn.

Columbus returned to the postseason this year with a vengeance, and my, oh my, did it ever show.

The formula for Tampa seemed simple enough. Do what you did all regular season: score at will, steal souls on the power play and suck the will out of teams with superb goaltending.

It’s a recipe that cooked up 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most ever in a season. But when the Lightning checked the cupboards for ingredients in Game 1, the cupboard was bare.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

Sure, the Lightning exploded to a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 1. They then gave up four straight and lost in spectacular fashion.

Why you ask? The Blue Jackets implemented a near-perfect game plan from the second period of Game 1, onward. A relentless forecheck stifled the Lightning. A commitment to blocked shots took away scoring chances. Providing great screens in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy made a great goalie seem mediocre. And finding scoring from the up and down the lineup, both on forward and defense, added a layer of guesswork that Jon Cooper and his troops had no answer for.

Since the 17:50 mark of the first period in Game 1, Columbus outscored 19-5.

The stat actually looks better given that the Lightning scored twice to tie the game 3-3 in the second period. But as things went all series, the Blue Jackets had an answer, scoring on a delayed penalty to regain the lead.

Tampa poured it on for nearly 18 minutes in the third before pulling Andrei Vasilevskiy. That last gasp effort resulted in three empty net goals against. The clouds cleared and the Blue Jackets emerged standing, virtually unblemished.

Vasilevskiy came into the game with a .866 save percentage and a 3.73 goals-against average, numbers that look nothing like his stellar regular-season statistics that may win him a Vezina in June.

He was at his worst in this series, allowing four more on 22 shots in this game, and had just one game above a .900 save percentage in the series.

Two-hundred feet the other way, Sergei Bobrovsky was sensational, especially in the second and third games of the series, and masterful in the third period in Game 4, turning aside all 13 shots the Lightning could muster.

It certainly didn’t help that Tampa’s best scorers only showed up in the final game. Steven Stamkos finally scored. So did Brayden Point. Nikita Kucherov got two assists after being suspended for Game 3. The team was also without Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman due to injury. It’s unlikely they would have mattered. They didn’t when they were healthy.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets’ best came to play. Matt Duchene finished the series with three goals and seven points. Artemi Panarin added two goals and five assists. Seth Jones contributed two goals and four points. Pierre-Luc Dubois picked a great time to find the score sheet, picking up three points in the final game.

John Tortorella said his team was ready for the challenge a week ago. Man, was he ever right.

Columbus proved us all wrong, and it was incredible theatre.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck