Late in the third period, with the surprisingly dominant Red Wings holding a 2–0 lead, heavily favored Tampa Bay was on the brink of a shocking 3-1 series deficit.
Then the Lightning struck twice.
In a mere 77 seconds, two Tampa Bay goals tied the game with less than five minutes remaining. Tyler Johnson, who tallied the Lightning’s first goal of the game at 14:34 of the third, connected again 2:25 into overtime to give coach Jon Cooper’s team an improbable, sigh-of-relief 3-2 victory.
Squared at 2-2, the series shifts back to Tampa for Game 5 on Saturday.
Here are three thoughts on tonight's game:
1. A late defensive collapse doomed Detroit, but credit the brilliance of Tyler Johnson.
For nearly 55 minutes, the Red Wings stymied a Lightning team that was among the league’s most potent offensively this season. Detroit controlled the puck well for most of the game and harassed Tampa Bay’s bevy of talented forwards. Goalie Petr Mrazek was indomitable in the face of pressure, including four Lightning power plays, and he held Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos scoreless. The upstart Wings appeared ready to take control of this series.
Everything changed with Johnson’s quick burst with just under six minutes remaining in the third period. He took the puck down the left wing, flying past Detroit’s Darren Helm—a fast skater himself—and lifted a shot past Mrazek, who was clearly caught by surprise and barely mustered a save attempt. Inexcusably, Detroit failed to shift toward Johnson after he escaped Helm in their zone.
Just over a minute later, Ondrej Palat scored the equalizer for the Lightning off a perfect centering pass from Johnson. Detroit’s Jonathan Ericsson, who also deserves some blame for his lack of coverage on Tampa Bay’s first goal, and Pavel Datsyuk allowed Palat to find space near the net. Johnson made a fairly easy pass for the assist.
The overtime winner came on a rush. Victor Hedman drew Mrazek out of his crease and found Johnson, who hit the open net. Detroit’s Kyle Quincey was helpless on the play, and the Red Wings were once again caught out of position.
The turnaround was nothing short of remarkable. The Red Wings had been dominating the game, but the Lightning suddenly found the vaunted offense they had been lacking since Game 2. Detroit’s defense seemed to run out of gas, but credit Tyler Johnson for his incredible late-game heroics: Two goals and one assist in the last 7:51 of play.
2. Stamkos still doesn’t have a goal in the series, but the Lightning should be more concerned about their power play.
There are two ways to look at Stamkos’ inability to put the puck in the net through the first four games of this series. On one hand, the series is tied 2-2 without him scoring, so if he gets going the Red Wings are probably in trouble. But on the other hand, it’s never a good thing when a team’s top scorer, especially one as lethal as Stamkos, can’t squeeze out a goal come playoff time.
A tally or two from him would certainly be nice for the Lightning, but their main issue during the last two games is that the players around him aren’t producing either. The advantage of having a superstar like Stamkos isn’t just his production, it’s also the opportunities he creates for teammates. The Bolts shouldn’t necessarily fret over his lack of production, but they should be concerned about their dismal power play, on which their sniper plays a prominent role.
Tampa Bay went 0-4 on the power play on Thursday. For the series, the Bolts are now 0-17, a pitiful mark particularly considering they scored on a respectable 18.8% of their man advantages (14th in the NHL) during the regular season.
Stamkos will likely find his touch at some point. But that power play is cause for serious concern entering Game 5.
3. Inexperience in net is hurting both teams.
Goaltending was a major question for Detroit and Tampa Bay entering this series, and after four games there aren’t many answers. After giving up four goals in Game 2, Mrazek rebounded with a shutout that he carried through most of Game 4. He looked like an experienced keeper while stopping very good chances from the likes of Stamkos.
Then everything fell apart. The goals weren’t necessarily Mrazek’s fault, but he certainly didn’t look good during the last six minutes of regulation and through the brief OT. He barely moved on Johnson’s first goal, and he flailed out of position at the winner. After Thursday, questions remain as to whether Mrazek, who finished with 26 saves, can perform consistently at the level required for Detroit to advance. Otherwise, it's up to Jimmy Howard.
Ben Bishop’s lack of playoff experience also remains a worry point for the Lightning. He mishandled the puck on Detroit’s bizarre second goal, allowing it to bounce off his body before accidentally swatting it into his own net. He also racked up two penalties during the game, for holding and tripping Tomas Tatar in separate incidents. The second penalty in particular was an unforced error, as Bishop stuck out his stick just enough to trip Tatar when the Wings weren’t even really threatening.
Both netminders showed their inexperience on Thursday night. Which team advances might be decided by the goaltender who shows the greatest sense of maturity during the pressure-filled remainder of the series.