Separating Lightning fact from fiction through three games vs. the Maple Leafs

The fact the Lightning are 15-0 after a loss in the last three postseasons is a starting stat, and a telling one considering the back-to-back Cup champs are in that situation again.

But it’s how they pull it off which is more interesting.

Take Saturday, for example.

About 12 hours after Tampa Bay’s 5-3 defeat via the Maple Leafs, they were back in a meeting room at their facility at TGH Iceplex. They usually rotate which coaches run the meetings, and this time it was coach Jon Cooper and assistant Jeff Halpern. These meetings are almost always limited to around five-to-seven minutes, according to assistant Derek Lalonde, with the focus on being precise.

“It’s about the ‘why,” Lalonde said.

They went over about 90 seconds of video from Game 3 in this meeting, which highlighted a bit of what went wrong (ie penalties, some chances allowed). What has struck veteran Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, now on his fourth NHL team, is how Tampa Bay’s video session are not discriminant — mistakes by stars or role players get highlighted fairly, and evenly. It’s not always this way, Bellemare noted.

“If it’s a (Steven) Stamkos turnover, he’s on the video,” Lalonde said. “If it’s (Ross) Colton, he’s on it.”

Cooper is a big believer in not looking in the “rearview mirror” — “we can’t go back and fix what happened last night” — so these meetings quickly move away from the “why” to the solutions, gameplan for the next matchup . They’ll often ask some of the players, “How did you guys feel? What do you see?

“Rarely are we not on the same page,” Lalonde said. “It’s a trusting process. It’s not anything rocket science. It’s just a bit of a mindset, you start with the ‘why,’ move to the solution and flush the last game and go.”

In this meeting, the coaches talked about how their five-on-five numbers were “through the roof” in Game 3, but that penalties (five in the first 22 minutes) helped lead the game to get away from them. They discussed how their best period was the third period, when they held a 70 percent Corsi For rating, according to Natural Stat Trick. How? It was their mindset, their urgency, winning 50-50 battles. Their faceoffs went from 28 percent (5-for-13) in the first period and 50 percent in the second (11-for-22) to 67-percent in the third (14-for-21).

Then they started building towards Sunday’s Game 4, with a practice that included reps for both power-play units (minus Nikita Kucherov, who had a rest day), work on breakouts and offensive-zone habits. You talk to Lightning players about their record after a loss, and many discuss their experience, the ability to keep an even keel through all the outside noise, the self-accountability of the group and, of course, their pride. Like they talked about after their Game 2 win, they make every loss “personal,” and it’s that mindset that drives them into the next game.

“We have a recipe, we have a plan,” Cooper said. “We have been in these situations a plethora of times in the last couple years. Is it a guarantee we’re going to win tomorrow? No. But I always believe it’s our urgency to start games if we have that with us.”

This very much feels like a punch and counterpunch kind of series, with both sides seeming confident. What among the narratives is spot on and what are not? Let’s separate some fact from fiction through three games.

The Lightning should be happy with their five-on-five performance

Well, if you look at it strictly by goals scored five-on-five, then of course the Leafs have the edge. Toronto has seven even-strength goals to three for Tampa Bay, including just one in Game 3.

Several players have mentioned it’s tough to judge because of all the power-play time on both sides, so there really hasn’t been much of a flow in five-on-five situations. Each team has tilted the ice in different periods, with the Lightning at a 70-percnet Corsi For percentage in the third period in Friday’s Game 3. Tampa Bay also had the higher expected goals for in five-on-five in each of the last two games (1.82-1.63 in Game 2, 2.01 to 1.77 in Game 3).

With Brayden Point, Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli on the ice — often against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — Tampa Bay held a 13-0 edge in five-on-five unblocked shot attempts, 10-0 in scoring chances and 5-0 in high danger ones. Matthews and Marner did end up getting their chances in the game, a combined 12 shot attempts, and Andrei Vasilevskiy had to make two stops on a Matthews breakaway and rebound.

“We’re comfortable playing the way we’re playing,” Cooper said. “There is so much disruption and there is a little uncertainty too now the way the games are being reffed. Not saying it’s bad… we have to fight through that. But there’s a lot of our game we like. The Leafs, give them credit, have taken advantage of the situations we’ve given them, probably at a bigger rate than normal. We’ve given them some juicy ones and they’ve capitalized. Guys have made plays on their team a couple more times than we have.”

A prime example of that is this Colin Blackwell goal, which was even strength, but came right after a Lightning power play. Tampa Bay got a bit overzealous in the offensive zone, the Leafs won the puck battle, and it was an odd-man rush the other way.

Jack Campbell is outplaying Andrei Vasilesvskiy

It’s hard to argue with the numbers right now.

Campbell has posted a 2.37 goals-against average and .924 save percentage to Vasilevskiy’s 3.72 and .890. This was supposed to be one of the bigger advantages the Lightning had in the series, with the Conn Smythe winner and his experience of it in net. The series is far from over, and Vasilevskiy can quickly flip the script, but — so far — Campbell has given Toronto a much-needed boost. The Lightning know what they have in Vasilevskiy, but Campbell’s play has given the Leafs a lot of reasons to feel good. Campbell’s sprawling stop on Steven Stamkos’ one-timer with seven minutes left in Game 3 was a game-saver.

“Human nature as an athlete, you want to be the best you can be,” Campbell said. “Obviously, (Vasilevskiy) has proven how good he is over the course of his NHL career. It’s a fun challenge. I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to do my best to beat him.”

Vasilevskiy has been the Lightning’s backbone in the past two playoff runs, leading the NHL in goals saved above expectation (17.33) in 2020-21 and 2019-20 (11.4), according to Evolving-Hockey. Those were at least twice as good as the second-best goaltender in the postseason. In the first three games, albeit a small sample size, Vasilevskiy’s GSAx – which factors in shot quality faced — has been .08, which is 15th. Campbell is at 1.26.

“I believe we’ve got the best goalie in the world in our net,” Cooper said. “Your goaltender can only be asked to do so much. The guys have got to play in front of him.”

While Campbell made a game-saving stop on Stamkos, Vasilevskiy’s breakaway save on Auston Matthews in the third period would have been considered the same thing had Tampa Bay pulled it out. If Matthews scored there, it would have been 4-1 and it’s game over. Tampa Bay managed to continue the comeback and had a chance, because of Vasilevskiy.

“It’s kind of a joke that he’s stolen a bunch of goals in this series and here I am wondering about the ones he should have had,” NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp said. “It’s such an unfair position. It’s like I’m waiting for (Vasilevskiy) to steal a game that they don’t deserve to win. That whole team has another level, that’s for sure.”

Vasilevskiy, along with Kucherov, got a rest day on Saturday, and didn’t go on the ice. Many people have wondered if Vasilevskiy’s workload has played a role. He made 63 starts this season, one shy of his career high, and he has played in more games than any goalie since 2017-18 season. No goalie has made more than 60 starts in the regular season and won the Stanley Cup since Jonathan Quick started 69 in 2012 season. Then again, the last few years have been unprecedented, with the pandemic-shortened season in 2020 (and playoff bubble) and the condensed schedule last year.

When we talked to Vasilevskiy right before the playoffs, he indicated he was feeling good overall.

“Mentally I’m in a good place,” he said.

The Lightning felt good about Vasilevskiy, and Cooper was doing his best gamesmanship in his comments on Campbell, saying, “We’ve scored seven goals on him the last two games, so if he’s going to sit here and have a 3.50 goals-against average in every two-game set, we’ll take that.”

Nikita Kucherov has been a little off

Game 2 looked like it would be a springboard for Kucherov, who ended the regular season on a hot streak. Kucherov had a goal and an assist in the Lightning’s 5-3 win in Toronto, with the former Hart Trophy winner showing why he’s so dynamic on the power play.

But in five-on-five, Kucherov has been pretty quiet in the first three games. He’s got just three points (all in Game 2, two of which on the power play) and has just eight shots on goal). Plus-minus isn’t the most significant stat, but Cooper takes note of it, especially for his top players like Kucherov and Point who are both typically big plus players. Kucherov, like Steven Stamkos, who has also not been as much a factor at even strength, is at his best when he’s aggressive with higher shot volumes.

His offensive contributions from a shooting and passing standpoint through the first three games are lower, and that’s why the team is generating less while he’s on the ice. According to Evolving-Hockey, at five-on-five, the Lightning have generated 52.4 shot attempts for with him on the ice and to account for quality, 1.7 expected goals for per 60. You compare that to the regular season and it’s about seven shot attempts fewer per 60 and 1.4 xG for less.

“The first game I thought ‘Kuch’ was a little too nonchalant,” said Rupp, a Cup-winner with the Devils. “In the more dangerous part of the ice, he was throwing the puck around very confidently. He’s gotten better with that past few games. But he’s got the ability to be the best player in the series, and he says a lot with the guys in there. I’m still waiting for him, he’s got another level. There are times when he’s the best player in the world, and he’s not there right now.”

quick hits

  • The talk the past two Lightning Cup runs was about their depth, and how the Yanni Gourde line played such a key role in changing momentum and providing secondary scoring. You’re seeing the Leafs’ depth up front show up in this series, with Pierre Engvall and David Kampf becoming difference-makers.
  • The Lightning are at their best when they’re in and out of their zone quickly. Other coaches around the league have taken note at how good Tampa Bay is at retrievals, ending plays in their own end and fueling their rush. Lightning color analyst Brian Engblom noted they haven’t been moving their feet as well in their own end, allowing the Leafs to pounce on them and extend possession.
  • One adjustment the Leafs have made is sending one of their forwards up the ice—often times William Nylander—with the hope of taking away one of Tampa Bay’s defensemen from their neutral-zone structure. That makes it harder for the Lightning to keep the puck inside the Leafs’ zone. “So you’ve taken away that tight gap from how they like to play in the neutral zone,” Engblom said. “You got to hand it to them, it’s worked pretty darn well.”
  • Those who wondered whether Cooper might consider lineup changes — perhaps going to an 11 forwards 7 defensemen alignment for Game 4 — but he said Saturday he’s not considering it. All of Tampa Bay’s lines were the same as the way they started Game 3, with Riley Nash filling in for a resting Kucherov.

(Photo by Nikita Kucherov: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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