Friday, 18 April 2014

'14 Playoffs Game 2: Canadiens 4, Lightning 1

This is the Tampa Bay Lightning you kind of expected at the start of the season, having lost their captain Vincent Lecavalier, and especially once they traded away Martin St. Louis.  A good young team, with two pillars in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, relying on skating and youth, but which would need a couple of seasons to get back into contention realistically.

Except they had Ben Bishop in nets this season.  Whereas the atrocious goaltending in Tampa led to Guy Boucher being fired last year, it made Jon Cooper look like a genius this season, overcoming the loss of frontline players, injuries, and leadership to charge to second in the division.  We expected a fade in the standings when Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg, but they kept it together, kept plugging along.  Much was made of their team spirit, how many of their rookies had played and won under Coach Cooper in Syracuse, and how that carried over to the NHL.

With Ben Bishop sidelined, the Lightning are showing cracks.  Their defencemen, who look good (read, 'big') on paper, are shown to be slow, inelegant, and poor in their decision making.  They made the same errors tonight that they did on Wednesday, allowing the Canadiens to gain position on them.  Putting a knee down to block a putative shot, and taking themselves out of the play.  

Their forwards are speedy, but may not be ready for the big leagues, at least not all at the same time.  Michaël Bournival is the only Canadiens rookie forward, and his icetime is judiciously managed, playing as he does on the fourth line, whereas the Lightning have Tyler Johnson on the first.  

Their offence is lagging.  The loss of Ondrej Palat, their leading scorer this season, certainly doesn't help in that regard.  Tonight, with the Canadiens committing to blanking Steven Stamkos, no one else was able to step up for the Lightning, who lost 4-1 and went down 0-2 in their series.

While Anders Lindback didn't play badly, exactly, he again had a poor outing, and didn't provide his team with the one or two extra saves that Ben Bishop has chipped in this season.  The RDS crew mentioned that this kind of performance affects everyone on the team: defencemen play more nervously, forwards can't take off on breakouts, fearful that any mistake will end up in their nets.  Everyone grips his stick a little too tightly, and rushes his play.

Meanwhile Carey Price was back to his usual form, after a shaky game Wednesday, in which he'd let four goals in on sixteen shots in regulation.  He made up for it with a strong overtime period to earn the win.  Tonight he built on that, and had a shutout going until late in the third, when he surrendered a meaningless powerplay goal.

There was much discussion after the first game about the importance of the save percentage statistic, specifically when it's looked at over a short time span.  The argument goes that it should only be considered when you have a significant data sample, namely twenty games or so at least, since there is too much variability from game to game.  Further, there's an argument that not all shots are equal, some are more difficult to stop than others, notably those on two-on-ones, or from the stick of Steven Stamkos.

While there's truth in that, I don't think it's correct to say that we shouldn't look at save percentage for a single game, in the same way that it would be incorrect to say a pitcher's ERA in a game of baseball is irrelevant.  These stats allow us to gauge how effective the player has been in the crucial, central matter of how well they did at preventing the other team from putting up points.  Sure, only one game isn't statistically significant over a season or career, but it does allow us to distinguish a good outing from a bad outing.

So Carey had a better game, and so did P.K. Subban, and I wasn't the only one to notice.  During the game, I unfortunately would become a little tense when P.K. had the puck on his stick.  I observed though that he would quickly move the puck, either to a teammate or off the boards.  He was making quick decisions, opting for the safe play more often than not, and he was rewarded for his steady game with two assists on the night.  

The CBC crew also praised P.K.'s game, but did show a couple of situations when he grew agitated at the referees, and where Assistant Coach Daigneault, as well as Alternate Captain Andrei Markov and veteran Francis Bouillon were taking turns talking to him on the bench, obviously trying to calm him down.  So not a flawless effort from our intrepid young defender, but a much more focused game, and we can hope that it's a portend of things to come, that he'll regain his focus and his touch as the playoffs advance.

Another instance of me being Captain Obvious was how often I noticed Alexei Emelin being outskated to the outside, and he having difficulty keeping up with the play.  It seemed glaring, and sure enough, the HNIC crew spent a good amount of time on this subject between periods, showing the 'lowlights', and even having P.J. Stock demonstrating in-studio the difficulty for a left-shooting defenceman having to play and defend onrushing forwards on the right side.  

It wasn't all bad though, Alexei played well with Andrei in terms of puck retrievals and zone clearances, and laid a crushing hit on J.T. Brown.  So he's contributing, and we can hope that this is a blip in performance.  He's been getting better as he recovers from his knee reconstruction, he'd played much more steady hockey in the last few games of the season.  Hopefully next season he'll be even further removed from the injury, and that much stronger and agile.

René Bourque had a strong game, and not just in terms of buzzing around the net this time, he actually produced some tangible offence.  He scored two goals on strong individual efforts.  Is this the dam breaking?  Because I've always thought that the effort was there for René, as far as that goes for him.  The problem has been confidence, he seems lost sometimes, like he's unsure what he should do.  

I can't remember what the situation was exactly, but as an example, there was a scrum after a hit, I think it was when Steven Stamkos went after Andrei due to his late, post-whistle hit on Ondrej Palat.  René was second on the scene, and could have tried to pull Mr. Stamkos off, but a linesman was kind of in the way, so he tried to go to his right around him, but that wasn't any better, so he kind of turned around and looked for someone to hang on to, but there were only smaller Tampa players around, so he tried to skate around the now rapidly growing pile, couldn't find anyone to rip out of there, ...

We can imagine how much different this would have gone had Brandon Prust or Brendan Gallagher or even Tomas Plekanec been in René's position.  They would have barged in and grabbed Steven Stamkos, or someone.  With René, there's lots of confusion, indecision.  We can hope that the two goals tonight give him confidence, give him wings, and he can contribute this post-season, and the next two years his contract runs.

Our top line scored a goal, on the powerplay no less, on a clean faceoff win by David Desharnais that went to P.K., who walked the line, waited for a lane to clear, and slap-passed to David for the tip-in.  Again, Thomas Vanek, Max Pacioretty and David have to contribute, and not just when they're rolling and getting hat-tricks in a 7-1 laugher, but also in closer games where they're being checked closely.  That line is stacked, by design, and they need to perform in proportion.  

Thomas Vanek also competed in other ways, by standing up to Lightning fourth-liner Cédric Paquette, who he thought was taking liberties.  Thomas isn't expected to goon it up, but he is a bigger forward, and it's entirely appropriate that he assert himself in these situation, show the opponent that we're not going to be ottawa'ed this series.

The Canadiens' powerplay itself was also a good sign, in that the previous game, they had trouble just setting up shop in the offensive zone, whereas tonight they were a constant threat, passing the puck at will and getting lots of shots and lots of chances to score.  

The Antichambre boys thought that Brandon Prust shouldn't have fought with Radko Gudas, to preserve his possibly fragile health, and also to not offer the Lightning a chance to spark things up.  Personally, I felt Brandon was sending a message to the Lightning's bruiser to not stray over the line, as he is wont to do.  The AC crew were fearful of the tactic, but I applaud the result.

So we do sweep the opening two games, and do get the opportunity to step on the Tampa team's collective throats this Sunday.  Let's be coldly efficient about it, and be in a position to dispatch them quickly, so we can get ready to face the Red Wings in the next series.

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