AFTER THE DUST SETTLES : LIGHTNING : MARCH 23
By Leo Haggerty
Tampa Bay was primed to make a big playoff run but failed to gain a point in the three-game home stand
Tampa Bay entered their next to last home stand on a high note. The Bolts were 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and have put 15 points on the board during that span to make an improbable climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. The Lightning needed at least two wins in the next three games to keep moving up the standing and reach that final playoff spot or higher.
The first game at Amalie Arena, and the one that loomed the largest for Tampa Bay, was against the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was the team that the Bolts had to climb over to get to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Why was this such an important contest you ask? Remember, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all about the points and this was a possible four-point swing. A Bolts victory in regulation would move the Lightning two points closer to their north-of-the-border opponent while denying the Leafs any points of their own. Saying this was a big game for Tampa Bay was an understatement and a win was imperative.
Alas, such was not the case for Tampa Bay. Toronto scored once in the first period and added a four-goal outburst in the second to shut out the Bolts 5-0.
The Bolts were playing their fifth game in eight days and it showed. Tampa Bay was on its heels from the opening faceoff and gave G Andrei Vasilevskiy no support offensively as well as very little help on the defensive end of the rink.
#88 saw his 3-game win streak come to a screeching halt. In fact, Vasilevskiy was pulled after the Leafs made in 4-0 early in the second period. Backup net-minder Peter Budaj gave up the final goal but, by that time, it was immaterial. This was the clunker that a team has from time to time and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Bolts.
With a chance to atone for Thursday’s shellacking, Tampa Bay took on the Eastern Conference leading Washington Capitals on Saturday. The Bolts played better but ended up on the short end of a 5-3 score.
Washington scored the first two goals of the evening and it looked like another long night for the Bolts. Tampa Bay fought back when LW Alex Killorn (17) along with RW Nikita Kucherov (32) lit the lamp to make it a 2-2 contest going to the third period.
Unfortunately for the Bolts, Washington’s lethal power play netted another goal after an even strength tally. When Kucherov (33) got the Bolts to within a goal, F T.J. Oshie deposited an empty net score to make the final arithmetic 5-3.
The Capitals Oshie recorded a hat trick with a power play goal as well as an even strength marker and finished it off with an empty-netter. Vasilevskiy stopped 30 of 34 shots but that wasn’t enough for the Bolts to sustain their first two-game losing streak since the end of January.
Tampa Bay had one last chance to salvage points on the home stand with a Tuesday date with the Arizona Coyotes. Remember, it’s all about the points and this could move the Bolts within two points of the Leafs as well as three points south of the Atlantic Division third-place Boston Bruins with 10 games to play.
The Lightning came out strong but gave up the first goal on a huge error by Vasilevskiy. With Arizona dumping the puck behind the Bolts net, #88 misplayed the puck and that allowed Coyote LW Lawson Crouse to shovel the puck to RW Christian Fischer. #36 eased the puck into an unprotected goal for his 3rd goal of the season and put the Arizona squad up 1-0 at 4:56 of the opening period.
That goal stood up until 9:45 of the first period when D Victor Hedmon was sent in all alone on a beautiful lead pass from Kucherov. The big Swede beat former Lightning goalie Mike Smith to the glove side for his 15th goal and knot the score at 1 apiece.
Arizona took the lead again midway through the second period. C Christian Dvorak (12) took a pretty cross-ice pass from LW Max Domi who was sent into the Bolts zone by D Connor Murphy to put the Coyotes back in front 2-1.
Tampa Bay drew even less than two minutes later with a Kucherov (34) laser from just to the left of Smith. #86 was set up by a perfect feed from the low slot by LW Ondrej Palat.
The Lightning took the lead at 18:08 of the middle period on a goal that proved the old adage that it’s better to be lucky than good. C Vladislav Namestnikov (10) was given credit for the marker after a beautiful feed from LW Jonathan Drouin who split the defense and sent #90 in alone on Smith. The Russian-born forward hit the post but the ricochet went into the Arizona net off Coyote LW Anthony Duclair. That gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead heading into the third period.
The Tampa Bay lead was short-lived with the Coyotes scoring two goals within a two minute span early in the third period. At the 4:54 mark, D Oliver Ekman-Larsson (12) knotted the score at threes and that was followed at 6:39 by RW Radim Vrbata (18th) who scored during a 4-on-4 situation to give Arizona a 4-3 lead.
The last Coyote goal sums up the entire Lightning season. With Vasilevskiy pulled for an extra attacker, and with the Bolts on a power play, D Connor Murphy lobbed the puck in the direction of the Tampa Bay net. The clear was going wide until Hedmon, who was trying to knock the puck down with his glove, managed to redirect the biscuit into the basket with just over a minute and half left in the contest.
It’s no surprise the Lightning put up a goose egg over this home stand. Giving up five goals in three consecutive games in the National Hockey League is a recipe for disaster and the Bolts experienced that to the hilt.
This team, decimated by injuries especially to their forwards, needs to get a majority of those core players back for the final playoff push. The Syracuse South Bolts have played admirably to keep Tampa Bay in the playoff conversation but it’s time for the real Tampa Bay Lightning to take center stage.
Now, if the Bolts want to make a realistic run at a playoff spot, goal scorers Steven Stamkos plus Tyler Johnson and playmakers Namestnikov along with Cedric Paquette have to find a way to get back on the ice, but more importantly, and stay on the ice in a hurry.
I said the Bolts would make it to 93 points and I’m sticking with that prediction. Can they do it with a majority of their core players? Absolutely. Can they do it without them? That’s the big question and only time will tell now that it may be Crunch time in more ways than one.