When one team dictates play for the majority of a game, it often ends up winning that game. “Dictating play” can mean that it had the puck more, posted more shots and generated more scoring chances. It can be a steady advantage throughout a game – or a lopsided edge during part of a game. Or both.
But the club that has dictated play isn’t guaranteed a win. A goalie’s performance – either goalie’s performance – can offset one team’s advantage. Also, the other side might be more proficient in a certain game at converting its scoring chances into goals, even if it didn’t produce as many scoring chances in all.
This is tricky part of interpreting hockey analytics, which attempt to measure and quantify how much a team typically dictates play. In a large sample size – a month or a full season – carrying play repeatedly in games will lead to a winning record. But in a smaller sample size – a seven-game series, for example, or even a single game – those other aforementioned variables have a more significant role. Meaning that, because of goaltending or an ability to make a key play at a key time, a team can win a game in which it has been otherwise back on its heels.
Those “other variables” were present in the series between the Lightning and Islanders. In each of the five games, one team did have an advantage in overall play. Maybe it was a slight advantage. Or a big advantage for a portion of the game. But it was still, at the end of the day, an advantage. One that could have given that team a victory. The team with an advantage won only two of the five games in the series, however.
In Games Two and Five, the Lightning decisively outplayed the Islanders. They won both. Game Two saw the Lightning jump out to an early 2-0 first period lead. I know that the narrative through the first four games revolved around how good the Islanders were in the first period. In Game Two, they outshot the Lightning, 12-5, in the first. But up until the last five minutes of the period, the Islanders weren’t especially dangerous in the frame. The Lightning successfully killed off two penalties before allowing a goal on the third consecutive New York power play. But I thought the Lightning were the more threatening team in the first, even though they were outshot. Then, in the final two periods, the Lightning took over the game. They dominated shots, chances and puck possession.
Similarly, in Game Five, the Lightning grabbed a 2-0 first period lead. Unlike the late stages of the first period in Game Two, the Islanders, in that deciding game, never generated any sustained momentum. They did have some scoring chances throughout the game, but they were isolated. Afterwards, many called the Lightning’s 4-0 win their most complete game of the playoffs. It’s hard to argue with that claim.
So Games Two and Five followed a conventional script, if you will. The Lightning enjoyed the run of play and were rewarded with a win in both. But the other three contests followed a different script.
Let’s tackle Game One first. This was the game in which the Islanders jumped out to a 3-1 first period lead, then extended it to 4-1 early in the second. New York eventually won the game, 5-3. So why do I think the Lightning had an advantage in that game? Facing a multi-goal deficit early in a game isn’t easy. It makes the contest feel lopsided, a game in which the losing team is being badly outplayed. But I don’t think that’s accurate in this particular game. It’s true that the Islanders, after allowing an early goal to Ondrej Palat, enjoyed a first period surge. They scored their four non empty-net goals in a 23-minute span from 5:44 of the first until 8:59 of the second. But in the entire game, the Islanders only posted 22 shots. Ultimately, they netted those early four goals because a) Ben Bishop had a rare off night and b) they were able to convert on some chances that resulted from Lightning coverage errors. Those two components helped them build a big lead. Then Thomas Greiss helped them maintain it. The Lightning weren’t the only ones to have coverage issues in Game One. The difference was that the Lightning weren’t able to cash in when the Islanders made a mistake. The Lightning’s third period surge was their best stretch in the game – they outshot the Isles, 17-5, and almost rallied to tie the score. But they also had chances early in the first and at different points in the second. For the game, the Lightning outshot New York, 36-22, had most of the puck possession and the majority of the scoring chances. But they didn’t make as many key plays as the Islanders. And that cost them the game.
Those roles would get reversed during Games Three and Four in Brooklyn. Both games went to overtime, so the score was close. But the Islanders enjoyed a tremendous surge during the first period of both games, dominating both frames. But because of Bishop, the Islanders couldn’t build more than a 1-0 first period lead in either game.
Games Three and Four weren’t identical. Game Three featured more scoring chances (and goals) from both teams. Game Four had fewer chances, especially from the Lightning. But in both, the Islanders carried play for long stretches. That’s a formula that often leads to a win. But it didn’t in either. Instead, the Lightning made one more play than Islanders. They converted on one more chance, even if they didn’t have as many overall chances.
Those were the broad strokes. There were specifics, too. After a subpar Game One, Bishop was terrific for the rest of the series. Even in Game Three, a contest in which he allowed four goals, he was a difference maker. He yielded two total goals Games Two, Four and Five combined.
After relying heavily on the line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn in the Detroit series to produce goals, the Lightning got more balanced scoring in Round Two. Johnson, Kucherov and Killorn continued to produce, but the Bolts also received goals from Victor Hedman, Brian Boyle, Jason Garrision, Jonathan Drouin, Palat, Ryan Callahan, Vladdy Namestnikov and Valtteri Filppula.
The timing of some of these goals was especially significant. In Games Three and Four, the Bolts not only scored the two overtime goals, they also netted three third period goals that tied the score, including Kucherov’s sixth-attacker goal in the final minute of Game Three.
Hedman was a dynamic force in the series. He averaged nearly 30 minutes of ice time each game, registered eight points in the five games and helped to contain John Tavares, who was held without a point in the last four games of the series.
Regarding Tavares, who is one of the top players in the league, the effort to keep him quiet wasn’t reserved only for Hedman. The Lightning, as a team, did a good job taking away Tavares’ time and space. When he was on the ice, the Lightning tried to spend as much time as possible in the offensive zone, keeping Tavares 200 feet from their net. And, in those final four games, Tavares had some close calls that didn’t result in points. On several occasions, he set up teammates for great scoring chances, only to see Bishop turn aside those shots. Tavares also hit a couple of posts in the series. But still, he was not as consistently dangerous as he had been in the Islanders’ first round series versus Florida. And the Lightning deserve credit for how well they defended him.
Now it’s on to the Eastern Conference Final. Against Pittsburgh, the Lightning will need more of that same type of defending. The Penguins have an array of offensive weapons, from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin to Kris Letang to Patric Hornqvist to Chris Kuntiz to Phil Kessel to Carl Hagelin. Perhaps their best line over the past couple of months hasn’t had either Crosby or Malkin on it. It’s been the unit of Nick Bonino, Kessel and Hagelin, which teamed up for the series-clinching overtime goal against Washington.
Certainly, Anton Stralman and J.T. Brown, both of whom are getting closer to returning from injury, will help the Bolts. We’ll have to see if either is able to play in Game One.