PONTIFICATING FROM THE SUNSHINE STATE – AUGUST 27
By Leo Haggerty

LIGHTNING STRIKES OFTEN

Normally, when the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs commence, the games are usually hotly-contested with the outcome decided by a goal or two at the most.  That wasn’t the case last night when the puck was dropped between Tampa Bay and Boston with the series tied at one game each.

The Bolts jumped to a quick 3-0 lead.  The Bruins answered with a goal of their own to cut the margin to 3-1 but, from that point on, it was all Lightning.

Before the final horn, Tampa Bay posted four more unanswered markers. That added up to a 7-1 dismantling of the Bruins and a 2-1 series advantage for the Bolts.

So, what was the big change from the first 2 hotly contested encounters to Game 3 blowout for the Lightning? I picked up on two major differences.

The first is how the Bolts reacted to the league-wide game plan of being extremely physical especially on F Nikita Kucherov.  That changed midway through Game 2 and there was a specific event that led to that development.

Late in the middle period, D Victor Hedman was called for a holding penalty when, in reality, he was punched in the face and there was no call.  When #77 emerged from the penalty box, his demeanor took an immediate turn.

The 6’6″ Swede, normally one to use finesse over physicality, started to lay the body on anyone with a different color sweater.  It was  contagious to teammates and obvious to those watching the telecast alike.

Tampa Bay, as a team, began to dish out punishment instead of just taking it.  A perfect example of this was the winning goal that was scored by F Ondrej Palat.  F Patrick Maroon and F Yanni Gourde did the dirty work in front of the net to keep the puck alive and #18 made no mistake when the opportunity presented itself.

In Game 3, the Bolts decided to push back.  The Lightning matched the Bruins check-for-check and hit-for-hit much to Boston’s chagrin.

Tampa Bay, basically, drew a line in the sand and said we aren’t going to get pushed around any more.  The Bruins now needed to fall back to Plan B and, as you will see, that didn’t work either.

The Bruins continued the second part of their physical play game plan.  The Boston thought process was, even if the Beantowners went to the penalty box, the Tampa Bay power play was non-existent  Tampa Bay was 0-for-15 with the man advantage in the playoffs.

This, also, looked like a good strategy but it backfired.  The Bolts broke out of that slump in Game 3 in a big way.  The Lightning netted three of their six power play opportunities.

So, what happened?  It was the way the Lightning attacked when on the power play.

The Boston strategy for defended the Bolts power play was by charging Kucherov every time he had the puck on the right wing.  That strategy worked especially with F Steven Stamkos still on the shelf.

Give credit to Bolts Coach Jon Cooper and his staff for devising a strategy to defeat that defensive concept by Bruins. The plan was two-fold.

First, #86 was moved from the right wing to the left point.  That forced the Boston defenders to spread out farther because they had to attack Kuckerov on the point instead of the wing with Tampa Bay on the power play.

The second portion was genius by the Bolts brain trust. When the Lightning moved the puck to the right wing on the power play, Kucherov backed up to around the red line.  When Tampa Bay brought the puck around to him, the Russian native was crossing the blue line with speed.  That way, when the Boston defender charged him, he had enough momentum built up to maneuver around and create, in reality, a 5-on-3 situation.

That worked to perfection three times when the Bolts had the man advantage.  Frankly, that was all the Bolt’s needed to secure the victory.

Now, so to speak, the puck is in the Boston end.  Let’s see what the Bruins will do to combat the Bolts reinvigorated power play.  Meet you at the TV Friday to find out.