Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat celebrate (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Lightning have put the Detroit Red Wings on the brink of elimination, and Jon Cooper’s team has Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov to thank for the 3-2 Game 4 victory. The duo combined for six points, all on the power play, as the Lightning made the Red Wings pay for heading to the box.
Before the post-season had even begun, the Tampa Bay Lightning knew their power play had to improve. And with Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman on the shelf, the Lightning had few options better than calling up Jonathan Drouin, who had walked away from Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate earlier in the season.
Drouin’s effectiveness on the power play was clear upon his return to the AHL. Only days before he was called up to the NHL, Syracuse Crunch coach Rob Zettler was singing the youngsters praises, pointing out Drouin’s skill with the man advantage and noting how he had the ability to put the puck into tight spaces. It makes sense then that with the Lightning power play struggling through three games to the tune of a 1-for-13, 7.7 percent clip that coach Jon Cooper would look to work on the man advantage ahead of Game 4 against the Detroit Red Wings. That included giving Drouin a look with the top unit.
“As these games go on, you need to score that power-play goal,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told the Tampa Bay Tribune’s Erik Erlendsson. “We’ve been trying to find our way there of late. Jonathan Drouin has come back up here, hasn’t had a ton of time to work on the power play with us, but he’s clearly an asset for us in that area, so this is clearly a chance to work on it and we did.’’
Well, that move by Cooper paid off, to say the least.
Five times in Game 4 the Lightning went on the man advantage, and three times they found the back of the net in a 3-2 victory in Game 4 that helped Tampa Bay take a 3-1 series lead. And it should come as no surprise that Drouin, who has looked incredibly skillful with the puck on his stick all series, factored in on all three power play markers. Drouin’s assists included the secondary helper on Nikita Kucherov’s game-opening goal, primary assist on Kucherov’s second goal of the game and a slick feed that set up a tap-in, game-winning goal for Ondrej Palat with three minutes remaining.
It’s not just that the Lightning scored three times on the power play, though, it’s how they did it. For long periods of time, it looked like a game of keep away with Tampa Bay moving the puck around the perimeter to set up looks from the blueline, the off-wing circle and cross-ice feeds that had Detroit defenders pinballing across the zone. On all three power play goals, it looked almost like power play practice for the Lightning. Passes were crisp and creative, and the patience shown by Drouin on his second and third assists was immaculate. If Game 4’s power play performance is a sign that the Lightning — who had the 28th-ranked power play in the regular season — have finally pieced it together with the man advantage, it could spell disaster for Detroit.
That will no doubt be tough for the Red Wings to swallow, too, because the teams traded chances back and forth in the first period at 5-on-5 and Detroit owned the puck for most of the third. The Red Wings’ dominant final frame included a near heart-stopping moment when rookie Dylan Larkin banked a puck off the far post while in alone on Lightning netminder Ben Bishop. The chances simply didn’t go for Detroit, however, which set the stage for Palat’s power play heroics.
Detroit now heads on the road and have to hope to pull out their first victory in Tampa Bay all season. For the Red Wings, that’s going to mean slowing down the Lightning power play and capitalizing on the opportunities that come their way. But if the Red Wings can’t stay out of the penalty box and can’t make the Lightning power play revert to its regular season woes, Game 5 could be the final time Detroit takes the ice this season.