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Mishkin's Musings: How the Lightning beat the Red Wings in Round 1

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

As the Lightning prepare for their Second Round series against the New York Islanders, let’s take a look back at their First Round triumph over Detroit.

Unlike their seven-game series last year against the Red Wings, the Lightning were able to dispatch the Wings in five games. In fact, it was the first NHL series to wrap up. But don’t confuse the brevity of the series with ease of victory. This was a hard-fought, closely-contested series. In all four of the Lightning wins, the teams were tied in the third period. So how were the Lightning able to prevail?

First, let’s examine the compete level and overall performance for both teams in each of the five games. The Red Wings, in my opinion, brought a high compete level in every game. Their overall performance, correspondingly, was consistently good. It’s true that within certain games, the Red Wings had segments when they weren’t sharp. Those were times when the Lightning surged and dictated play. But as a whole, the Wings brought a consistency throughout the series that the Lightning weren’t able to match. From the Lightning’s perspective, Games One, Two and Four differed greatly from Games Three and Five. The Lightning’s compete level didn’t match Detroit’s in Game Three, which was Tampa Bay’s only loss in the series. And in Game Five, the Lightning didn’t execute well, committing numerous turnovers and exhibiting leaky defense. Fortunately for the Lightning, Ben Bishop was able to erase all of those mistakes with a spectacular 34-save shutout.

Is there an explanation for why the Lightning couldn’t produce the same performance in all five games? Some of it, I believe, had to do with the specific circumstances surrounding Games Three and Five. In Game Three, the Red Wings were at home for the first time in the series and were desperate for a win after having lost the opening two games in Tampa. They played with an edge that the Lightning, who had given themselves some breathing room by winning the first two games, didn’t match. Game Five was the elimination game. Winning the fourth and final game in a series isn’t easy. Just look around at the other First Round series in the NHL. Just about every team that has advanced so far has had some sort of struggle in eliminating its opponent. And that includes the Lightning, who were largely outplayed in their 1-0 Game Five win.

But I’m not suggesting that the Lightning weren’t deserving of the series victory. That’s because, in Games One, Two and Four, contests in which both teams competed and executed at a similarly high level, the Lightning were the better team. Not by a lopsided amount. But they were still better. In Games One and Two, the Lightning carried play for much of the deciding third periods. In Game Four, the Lightning had a 2-0 lead before the Red Wings rallied with two goals late in the second. That surge helped Detroit enjoy an excellent third period (before Ondrej Palat netted the eventual game-winning goal with 2:59 left). But based on how they controlled the first 35 minutes of the game, the Lightning could have been up by five or six goals before the Red Wings even got on the board. While all three games were close, it’s hard to argue that the Lightning didn’t deserve the victory in any of those contests.

The Lightning also impressed with their ability to shrug off adversity in those opening three wins. In Game One, they had an apparent go-ahead third period goal wiped out due to an offside. No matter. They scored the eventual game-winner a few minutes later. In Game Two, they squandered a 2-1 third period lead. No matter. Two minutes later, they rebounded to retake the lead for good. And in Game Four, they yielded those two late second period goals, including the tying marker in the final 10 seconds of the period. No matter. They withstood Detroit’s ensuing third period charge and got that aforementioned game-winning goal from Palat in the closing minutes.

So in three of their four wins, the Lightning played the kind of game they need to play if they hope to keep advancing. They competed hard, executed well, shook off adversity within games and made key plays at crucial times.

On the other hand, they had two sub-par games. But thanks to Bishop, they were still able to steal one of those. While they will certainly want to avoid such performances moving forward, the reality is that such games can happen. If you go back to last year’s magical post-season run, you’ll find some clunkers sprinkled in with the gems.

That’s my overview of the series. How about specifics? Much of this has already been written and dissected, but I’ll add my two cents.

Much of the offensive damage was done by the line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn. They combined for 10 goals and 20 points. There was some talk during the series that the Lightning were relying too much on that line. Those three players accounted for all but two of the goals the Lightning scored in the series. Personally, however, I’m not concerned. In their three well-played games, the Lightning generated scoring chances from all their lines, not just the Johnson line. Game Four featured three power play goals for the Lightning and in those scoring sequences, other players, such as Jonathan Drouin and Palat, were involved. And in Game Five, when Killorn scored the winning goal with 1:43 left, he was playing on a line with Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula, not with Johnson and Kucherov. Fans may recall that in last year’s series win over Detroit, the Triplets line almost single-handedly carried the Lightning offensively. While the Triplets continued to play well throughout the 2015 playoffs, scoring became more balanced for the Lightning as the playoff run continued. There’s no reason to believe that won’t happen this year as well.

The penalty kill was outstanding in the series, killing off 24 of 25 Detroit power plays. That total includes two lengthy five-on-three kills and a six-on-four kill during the final 44 seconds of Game Five. They did it against a Wings power play that had scored in nine of Detroit’s final 11 regular season games. So the PK’s effectiveness was a big reason why the Lightning won the series. But they cannot expect to keep navigating this high-wire act. Twenty-five penalties leading to opposition power plays over five games? That’s too many. Two long five-on-three kills? Too many. And it’s unreasonable to expect the Lightning to maintain a 96% rate on the PK. The best penalty kill team in the regular season this year was Washington and the Caps posted a percentage of 85.2%. The Lightning would do well to limit their trips to the penalty box against the Islanders.

I’ve already mentioned the offensive production from Johnson, Kucherov and Killorn. How about some other difference-makers in the Detroit series?

Bishop was the biggest reason why the Lightning won Game Five, but he was solid throughout the series. He allowed only eight goals during the five games. Just as significantly, he made important saves when the Red Wings surged at different points. Filppula and Callahan combined to post only one point in the series, but they were invaluable to the Lightning. Both were key cogs on the penalty kill. Filppula won over 56% of his faceoffs, including a number of key defensive zone draws late in games. Callahan was a force, both on the forecheck in the offensive zone and in his doggedness to clear pucks out of the defensive zone. Drouin was dynamic in his play-making. He finished with four assists, but also had 13 shots, tied for third-most on the team. Victor Hedman averaged over 27 minutes a game, four minutes more than his regular season average.

But ultimately, this series triumph over Detroit was a team-win. The Lightning got strong contributions throughout the lineup. That’s something they’ll need in their series against the Islanders, too.

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