Steven Stamkos (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Lightning came into the post-season as a dominating force but have been scratching and clawing their way to victories in the playoffs. It hasn’t been pretty and sometimes it can’t be in the battle for the Stanley Cup.
When Tyler Johnson scored with 1.1 seconds left in the third period to win Game 3 for the Lightning, it wasn’t so much the goal that was shocking as it was that Tampa Bay keeps finding different ways to win games this post-season.
In the first round against the Detroit Red Wings, the Lightning were undisciplined but had a steady penalty kill. Steven Stamkos didn’t find the back of the net once in the series, yet Johnson, Alex Killorn and even defenseman Nikita Nesterov made the most of their opportunities. And, with the series on the line in Game 7, Ben Bishop turned aside every shot he faced and shut out the Red Wings to send the Lightning to the second round.
What’s interesting, though, is that you would expect this type of by-hook-or-by-crook winning to be done by a team that isn’t a Stanley Cup favorite, but rather a loveable underdog like, say, the Calgary Flames. Somehow, though, Tampa Bay has defied the numbers and their own errors to boast a 3-0 series lead on the Montreal Canadiens.
Coming into the post-season, the Lightning were one of the best possession teams in the league. When it came to 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage, Tampa Bay was the fourth best team in the league at 53 percent. As for unblocked shot attempts for, only the Los Angeles Kings and New York Islanders fared better in the regular season than the Lightning’s 53.1 percent. For some – including myself, truthfully – this was as sure a sign Tampa Bay was prepared to make a deep run and dominate possession numbers en route to what would assuredly be at least an Eastern Conference finals appearance. Instead, it has been as if the Lightning have forgotten exactly how they got here.
Through the post-season, Tampa Bay has been one of the worst possession teams in the league, relying on an inflated shooting percentage and the handiwork of Bishop instead of controlling the flow of play. According to War-On-Ice, of all teams to have played in this post-season, the Lightning are the fifth worst possession team with a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 47.2. If you think that’s abysmal, the second round has been even worse against the Canadiens.
In the Atlantic Division final, Tampa Bay’s 5-on-5 possession rate is 41.7 percent. That’s over the first three games of their series against Montreal, so you can imagine the game-by-game numbers don’t look great. In Game 1, the Canadiens had 52.4 percent of the shot attempts. In Game 2, it was 61.2 percent. Then came Game 3, which Montreal dominated from the start of the second period onward and had 64.9 percent of the shot attempts yet somehow came up empty.
So, how has Tampa Bay won? They’ve simply managed to make the most of their few opportunities and that has made all the difference.
Game 1, you may recall, was won in overtime off the stick of Nikitia Kucherov. In sudden death overtime, a single shot can be the difference and even Tampa Bay, as poorly as they may have played possession-wise over the course of these playoffs, can muster one good shot. It just so happened that Kucherov’s wrister found daylight behind Montreal goaltender Carey Price.
What followed was a 6-2 victory in Game 2. On the surface, that looks like a thorough victory – a shellacking of a team that just couldn’t hang with the mighty Lightning. Instead, it was the undisciplined Canadiens that shot themselves in the foot. Eight times they sent Tampa Bay to the power play and four times the Lightning connected, including three unanswered tallies with the man advantage beginning with Kucherov’s goal just 14 seconds into a Tom Gilbert cross-checking minor in the second period. Had it not been for the repeated power play opportunities, the game likely would have been much, much closer.
And the story of Game 3 won’t be a Tampa Bay team that was bailed out by Bishop, who made 31 saves in the winning effort. And it won’t be about the way Montreal’s attack was relentless, taking 63 shot attempts to Tampa Bay’s 34. Instead, it will be about Johnson, who managed to somehow find himself wide open in front of the Canadiens’ net with less than two seconds left to slide home the game-winning goal.
It’s rare that a team getting so thoroughly dominated continues to win hockey games, but Tampa Bay has managed just that. When it comes to defying the odds, the Lightning have done it to perfection. Sometimes winning the Stanley Cup can be about getting the right breaks at the right time. Thus far for Stamkos and company, those breaks seem to be going their way.