In many respects, the Eastern Conference Final was wildly unpredictable. As was the case in the Lightning’s earlier series, momentum didn’t carry over from game to game. Only one time did a team win back-to-back games – the Lightning did it in Games Two and Three. Also, the games themselves were drastically different. There were three low-scoring games, three blowouts and one 6-5 overtime shootout. From an advanced stats standpoint, the series was didn’t follow the expected script. In a number of games, the team that had much of the puck possession and the majority of the shot attempts didn’t win. But despite the haphazard nature of the series, I believe there are explanations for why it unfolded the way it did. And why the Lightning won it.
Before delving into specifics, here’s an overview of the final scores. The series began with two games at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers won Game One, 2-1, and the Lightning took Game Two, 6-2. The Bolts won Game Three at Amalie Arena, 6-5 in overtime. The Rangers tied the series with a 5-1 victory in Game Four at Amalie Arena. Game Five at MSG went to the Lightning, 2-0. Another road win for the Rangers in Game Six, 7-3, tied the series at three. Then, similar to Game Five, the Lightning won the deciding Game Seven at MSG, 2-0. So how do we make sense of what happened?
Experience vs. Inexperience: Heading into the series, the Rangers had an advantage in overall playoff experience. While it’s true that the Lightning have individual players with plenty of postseason experience, they were, as a collective group, more inexperienced than the Rangers, who were in their third Conference Final in the last four years. While the experience/inexperience storyline wasn’t a factor in all games throughout the series, it did pop up at different points.
In Game One, the Lightning played tentatively. Afterwards, head coach Jon Cooper commented that “it looked like one team had been there before” and the other hadn’t. If not for Ben Bishop’s goaltending, the Rangers likely would have won the game by more than one goal. They had a large shot advantage, both in terms of shots on goal and shots attempted, and the Lightning didn’t generate many scoring chances on Henrik Lundqvist.
Later in the series, the Lightning didn’t react well in either Game Four or Game Six once the Rangers established a two-goal lead. In Game Four, it happened late in the second period. In Game Six, it occurred early in the third. In both instances, the Lightning unraveled defensively and yielded numerous scoring chances down the stretch (after not having allowed many chances up until that point).
What’s significant about these three games is that the Lightning rebounded well in the next contest. Their compete level in Game Two was much higher than in Game One. And in Games Five and Seven, the Lightning played two of their best defensive games of the season. The key for the Bolts was that they were able to learn from those hard lessons on the fly and correct those deficiencies. So ultimately, in what were the most important games in the series for the Lightning, the players didn’t let their relative inexperience become a factor.
High-Scoring Games vs. Low-Scoring Games: As Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault pointed out a couple of times during the series (especially after some of the high scoring games), the Lightning and Rangers ranked first and third offensively during the regular season. It’s unusual to see so many goals scored during postseason games, but as Vigneault mentioned, these two teams were capable of scoring lots of goals. In two of the games, the Lightning scored six goals. In three of the contests, the Rangers netted at least five goals.
How did they do it? In those high-scoring games, a number of these goals occurred because either a) the defending team made a critical mistake and the attacking team cashed in on that mistake or b) the attacking team’s creativity helped “force” an error from the defending club. Sometimes, it was an unforced turnover. Or quick passing led to confusion on rush coverage. Other times, and this was an issue for the Lightning in a number of the games, the defending club didn’t box out in front and the attacking squad scored a rebound goal. And yes, both goalies might have allowed some goals they’d like back. In looking at how each team scored most of its goals, though, there was a slight difference. The Rangers scored a lot of theirs off Lightning turnovers or blown netfront coverages. In terms of creating their own chances – and breaking down the opposition – the Lightning did more damage than the Rangers.
That’s a significant distinction. Because in Games Five and Seven, the Lightning reduced turnovers and protected the front of their net. As a result, the Rangers had a hard time generating chances. In those games, the Rangers also defended well. But the Bolts were still able to produce enough scoring chances to win.
Fancy Stats and Getting the Lead: In Games Two, Four and Six, the team that had a large shot advantage lost. For a healthy portion of those games, the team with the shot advantage enjoyed most of the puck possession. So what gives? Well, some may say that shots on goal, shots attempted and puck possession aren’t the only important components to winning a hockey game. What the fancy stats aficionados tell us is that a team with those advantages will, in a large sample size, likely win more than lose. But in any given game, there will be other factors contributing.
In Game Two, the Rangers built their shot advantage during two segments – in the second half of the second period after the Lightning had built a 3-1 lead and then in the third period when the game was out of reach. During that second period flurry, the Rangers cut the deficit to 3-2 and nearly tied the game. But Bishop made several key saves helping the Lightning get out of the period with the lead. In the other segment, the Rangers were forced to take a number of shots from the outside. So while their shot total might have been high in the third period, but the chance total was low. Another important point about Game Two – in the first 30 minutes (which was filled with power play chances on both sides), the Bolts had an advantage in five-on-five puck possession and were the more dangerous team. That’s how they were able to take the 3-1 lead.
Games Four and Six followed a similar trajectory to each other. The Rangers took an early lead and then the Lightning pushed back to try to tie the game. In both of those contests, the Bolts fired 39 shots. But Lundqvist was the difference – when the Lightning were carrying play, he often single-handedly held them at bay. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Rangers were able to score a key goal (or goals) to wrestle momentum away from the Lightning and New York dominated the third period of both games.
So Lundqvist’s stellar play and timely New York offense offset the Lightning’s shot and puck possession advantage in Games Four and Six. For the Rangers in Game Two, good goaltending from Bishop and the Lightning’s ability to control the early part of the game helped explain how the Lightning overcame a shot disadvantage in Game Two.
One common denominator in these three games is that the team that scored first eventually won the game, though in Games Two and Four, the losing club did momentarily tie the score at 1-1. This also happened in Game One. But in none of those games was the team that yielded the first goal able to ever get a lead. And in Games Five, Six and Seven, the club that scored first never relinquished the lead. So in six of the seven games, the team that scored first won. Only in Game Three, the wild overtime shootout affair, was scoring first irrelevant. But for most of the series, even with some of the high goal totals, getting the lead proved to be important. The team that didn’t score first needed to “chase” the game. That “chasing” likely contributed to the higher shot totals for the losing side in Games Two, Four and Six. But for the team that scored first, getting the lead allowed that club to play a confident, structured game. This was particularly true for the Lightning in their Game Five and Game Seven wins. Interestingly, heading into Game Seven, the Lightning seemed to recognize the importance of not changing their game if they did fall behind (something that hurt them in the third period of Game Six). They talked about maintaining their defensive structure even if the Rangers scored first. As it turned out, of course, that didn’t happen. But that could be an important lesson to remember in the Final against the Blackhawks.
Special Teams: Special teams contributed to the high goal totals in Games Two, Three, Four and Six. Both clubs netted seven power play goals in the series – and all but one of those 14 tallies came in those four contests. The Lightning’s three power play goals in Game Two was a big factor in their win (along with a key first period shorthanded goal). The Rangers’ two power play goals helped them pull away in the third period of Game Four.
But again, in their two biggest wins of the series, Games Five and Seven, the Lightning shut out the Rangers. That includes a combined 6-6 on the PK in those games. The Lightning also netted a crucial PPG late in the second period of Game Five. So similar to the overall series, the Lightning’s special teams may have been a bit helter-skelter, but when they needed a big performance, they got it.
Those are some of the reasons why the series unfolded so unpredictably. At the end of the day, though, the most important takeaway from the Eastern Conference Final is this: the Lightning overcame any issues that might have prevented them from moving on. Those issues may have been isolated – and included problems arising from postseason inexperience, turnovers and leaky defense – but were very costly in their three losses to the Rangers. Still, when the stakes were at their absolute highest, the Lightning repeatedly found a way to play their best. That ability to absorb hard lessons on the fly and produce virtuoso performances has given them the right to play for the Stanley Cup.