For many of the Lightning players, the short four-game appearance in the 2014 playoffs was their first taste of the NHL postseason. Heading into the 2015 playoffs, the Lightning stated that they had learned valuable lessons from the 2014 sweep. Lessons that would help them produce a longer post-season trip this time around. That long trip almost didn’t happen, though.
The Lightning were staring at another first-round departure when they headed to Detroit for Game Six. After having outplayed the Red Wings in the first two games (but only earning a split), the Lightning had not looked like themselves in the next three. They had no room to maneuver on the ice and had a hard time generating shots and scoring chances. Not coincidentally, they hadn’t been able to play with a lead in any of those games (even in Game Four, the Lightning never led until Tyler Johnson won it in OT). Just as significantly, the Red Wings, with the exception of the final eight minutes of Game Four, had been dictating play for all three of the contests. As a result, Detroit had grabbed a 3-2 series lead and had a chance to eliminate the Lightning at Joe Louis Arena.
If the Lightning were going to win Game Six and extend the series, it seemed that they’d need to change the narrative from the previous three games. And they did it right off the bat. An early stretch pass gave Johnson room to speed into the Detroit zone. He blew around Danny DeKeyser and beat Petr Mrazek to make it 1-0. For the first time since Game Two, Detroit was chasing a deficit. That goal changed the dynamic of how the game unfolded. The Bolts outskated Detroit in building a 3-0 second period lead. Then, after the Wings cut the deficit to 3-2 early in the third, the Lightning withstood the Detroit momentum surge and iced the win with two late goals.
This win provided an important building block moving forward in their magical postseason. It showed them that they can spit in the face of adversity and win crucial games, even when it seems that the odds are stacked against them, something they would need to do later in the playoffs. That’s why I think it was the most significant win of the postseason.
Most Dramatic Win: Game Four, First Round. Lightning 3 at Detroit 2 – OT.
As referenced above, the Lightning didn’t lead this game until it was over. They were five and a half minutes away from falling behind three games to one in the series. Detroit had grabbed a 2-0 lead thanks to a pair of second period goals. And, as the third period clock ticked down, the Red Wings weren’t allowing the Lightning any time and space to make plays. The way the game was being played, it didn’t look as though the Lightning were going to be able to rally. But the Red Wings made a crucial error with just under seven and a half minutes left. Luke Glendening, who had been doing a marvelous job shadowing Johnson, needlessly crosschecked Johnson into the side boards. A scrum ensued and, as a result, Glendening sustained a cut on his hand and had to leave the game. After the game, Detroit bemoaned the loss of Glendening, who was getting ready to return just as Johnson put in the game-winner. Not having him on the ice against Johnson wasn’t ideal for the Wings. But that needless shove into the boards also seemed to galvanize Johnson. He found an extra gear on his next shift, on which he zipped into the offensive zone and roofed a shot over Mrazek to get the Lightning on the board. On his following shift, he completed a give-and-go speed rush with Ondrej Palat. Palat’s tally tied the score, stunningly, with 4:09 left. Then, in overtime, Johnson finished a cross-crease pass from Victor Hedman to win it.
Johnson’s buzzer-beater goal in the final second against Montreal in Game Three of the Second Round was also sensational and dramatic. But the Lightning led that series, 2-0, and didn’t have to rally in that game. The Game Four comeback against Detroit likely saved the Lightning’s season.
Most Entertaining Game: Game Three, Eastern Conference Final. NY Rangers 5 at Lightning 6 – OT.
It wasn’t just because the teams combined for 11 goals. Or that each team rallied from a two-goal deficit. Though both of those components factored into the entertainment value of this game. What made this game so enjoyable to watch was the high-level of playmaking, especially from the Lightning.
The Rangers scored some nice goals, too. Jesper Fast completed a well-executed breakaway in the first and later zipped home a shot from the slot in the second period. And Ryan McDonagh’s third period power play goal came at the end of a pretty passing sequence.
But the Lightning put on a show in this game. Even though they yielded five goals, they dominated play for much of the game. They outshot the Rangers, 40-28, and, if not for New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, easily could have scored more than six. Here are the ones that did go in. 1. Steven Stamkos slammed in the rebound of an Alex Killorn breakaway. 2. Johnson fed Palat for an in-alone chance (and goal) during a power play. 3. Hedman, Palat and Johnson completed a tic-tac-toe passing play for the third goal. 4. Killorn stormed to the slot, put on the brakes, then rifled a perfect shot into the top of the net. 5. Palat took a pass inside in the offensive blue line, knifed to the front of the net and put in his second goal. 6. Nikita Kucherov whistled a snap shot from the high slot past two Rangers defenseman and Lundqvist’s stick for the OT winner. Any number of those would qualify as highlight-reel worthy. To get six of them in one game was amazing.
Best Defensive Game: Eastern Conference Final, Game Seven. Lightning 2 at NY Rangers 0.
Some might wonder why I picked this game over Game Five of the ECF, which was another 2-0 Lightning road win. In both games, the Lightning played terrific defensive games after sloppy home losses. But in Game Five, I thought the Rangers had some good and dangerous looks before the Lightning broke a scoreless tie late in the second period. (Then the home side lost some of its jump). In Game Seven, on the other hand, the Lightning smothered the Rangers right from the opening faceoff. Even before Killorn netted the game’s first goal early in the third, the Lightning had the more threatening chances.
Through two periods, the Lightning had held the Rangers to only 11 shots (and two came during a couple of second period power play chances). New York finished with 22 shots, but many of the third period attempts were innocent shots that Ben Bishop easily turned aside.
In becoming the first team ever to beat the Rangers in a Game Seven at Madison Square Garden, the Lightning played a patient, structured, sound game for a full 60 minutes. It was their best defensive performance of the playoffs.
Most Complete Game: Second Round, Game Six. Montreal 1 at Lightning 4.
The aforementioned 2-0 win over the Rangers in Game Seven also could have been the Lightning’s most complete game. It was a close second. But I felt that this game was the Lightning’s best overall performance in the entire playoffs.
After winning the first three games of the series, the Lightning had dropped Games Four and Five. A Lightning loss in Game Six would send the series back to Montreal for a deciding Game Seven, where the Habs would attempt to become the fifth team in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 deficit and win a series.
So there was some pressure on the Lightning to take care of business in Game Six and avoid a return trip to Montreal. But there was pressure too on the Habs – after all, they were still facing elimination. The early part of the first period might have reflected some of that dual pressure. Both teams seemed to play a bit cautiously. The best early chance actually came off the stick of Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec. But Bishop made a key save on the point blank chance to keep the game scoreless.
When Kucherov deflected in a Palat shot with 4:35 left in the first period, though, the Lightning completely took control of the game. They added a second goal early in the second on a Stamkos snipe into the top of the net. A Palat power play goal late in the frame put the game out of reach. The Habs had one good chance in the third, but Bishop stopped Dale Weise on a breakaway. Montreal’s one goal came after a weird bounce off the glass led to a Max Pacioretty tap-in, but Kucherov iced the win with an empty-netter.
In all, the Lightning held Montreal to 19 shots for the game. As in the win over the Rangers in Game Seven of the ECF, the Lightning played a sound defensive game. But they were also dominant in their puck possession. They won 58% of faceoffs. They took the body on Montreal players throughout the night, effectively wearing them out. It was a thorough beat down – the Lightning’s most complete game in the postseason.
Of course, there were other great games and performances in these playoffs. I referenced Johnson’s buzzer-beater versus Montreal and the 2-0 Game Five win over the Rangers. But I didn’t mention Johnson’s hat trick in Game Two of the ECF, Bishop’s shutout of Detroit in Game Seven of Round One, Bishop’s heroic effort in Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final, Kucherov’s Double OT winner in Game One of the Second Round, the Lightning’s four PPG game in Game Two of the Second Round, the blowout win over Detroit in Game Two of Round One or the team’s big Game Two win at home in the SCF. But that’s what happens when a team goes on a two-month playoff journey. There are lots of wonderful memories to help us pass the idle time in the offeseason!