The Lightning simply did not play well enough to win this game. Facing a desperate Winnipeg club, one that entered the game trailing the LA Kings by one point for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Lightning did not match their opponent’s intensity. Thanks to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, though, they almost escaped with a positive result. But two critical third period plays led to Winnipeg goals as the Jets rallied for a road win.
It was clear from the opening faceoff that the Jets were determined to play a solid, structured, simple road game. Missing several regulars due to injury, Winnipeg needed to focus on executing well defensively. They did. They effectively clogged up the middle of the ice, which helped neutralize the Lightning’s team speed. They were determined to get sticks in the way of attempted shots – the Bolts fired only 16 shots on Ondrej Pavalec in the game, but the Jets blocked 18 other attempts. And Winnipeg, when it had the puck, played “north”, consistently moving pucks up ice and into the Lightning’s d-zone.
The Lightning greatly aided Winnipeg’s cause with sloppy play and poor puck management. Regular readers of this column know that I often write about a correlation between puck management and team performance. When the Lightning manage the puck well – make good decisions about where to put or pass the puck and execute those plays – they are very tough to defend. On the other hand, when the Lightning don’t do those things, they give away the puck – and momentum – to the opposition. For much of the first two periods, that’s how this game unfolded. The shots in the first period may have been close, but possession time wasn’t. Winnipeg dictated play for most of the opening frame. In the second, the Jets started gaining an advantage in the shot department. Countless Lightning turnovers, especially in the neutral zone, allowed the Jets to counter with speed into the Tampa Bay end. The Jets put 16 second period shots on Vasilevskiy, who stopped them all. As a result, the game was scoreless after two periods.
Nikita Kucherov roofed a shot past Pavalec at 4:13 of the third. The shot came off the rush, following a nice drop feed from Jonathan Drouin. That goal led to some of the Lightning’s best overall play of the night. They kept the Jets out of their own end for the next several minutes. But with just under 11 minutes remaining, Kucherov boarded Toby Enstrom and was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct. It did appear that Enstrom pivoted back into Kucherov at the last instant, but he was boarded (and bloodied) on the hit. Jacob Trouba initiated a post-whistle altercation and was assessed a minor penalty, plus a 10-minute misconduct. But Tyler Johnson was also given a minor, so despite Trouba’s reaction, the Jets still received the full five-minute major (though they were without their top two defensemen for the major). Nearly two minutes into the major, Drew Stafford tied the score with a screened shot that beat Vasilevskiy. Then, with 1:17 left on the major, Valtteri Filppula drew a hooking minor on Paul Postma, leading to four-on-four hockey and an eventual Lightning power play. But as the four-on-four wound down, Blake Wheeler intercepted a Victor Hedman cross-ice d-zone pass. He cut to the right circle and zipped a shot past Vasilevskiy for what turned out to be the winning goal. The Bolts didn’t muster much of an attack in the final 7:16 and suffered just their second regulation loss of the month.
Typically this year, when the Lightning haven’t played their best, they’ve responded well in the next game. They’ll need to play a lot better on Monday, when the Montreal Canadiens visit. The Habs will be a determined bunch, after having lost three games already this year to the Bolts. It’ll be interesting to see how the Lightning respond to the challenge.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
The major penalty to Kucherov, which led to Stafford’s tying goal.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
1.Blake Wheeler – Jets. GWG.
2.Drew Stafford – Jets. Goal.
3.Andrei Vasilevskiy – Lightning. 27 saves.