Tuesday April 28th, 2015

Tyler Johnson scored twice and Nikita Kucherov chipped in three assists to lead the Tampa Bay Lightning over the Detroit Red Wings 5–2 in Game 6 on Monday night. The winner-take-all Game 7 will be in Tampa on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA).

Here are three quick thoughts on Tampa Bay’s crucial victory:

1. Tyler Johnson’s magical series adds another chapter.

Where would the Lightning be without Johnson's heroics in this series? Tampa Bay has scored 15 goals against Detroit so far. Johnson has six of them, including a pair of game winners. He has three multiple-goal games in the series. The Bolts have won each of them. With Steven Stamkos struggling—19 shots, no goals—the undersized, undrafted, unbreakable pivot has become the engine that drives this team.

For a while though, it didn’t seem like that would be enough. The Lightning looked ready to pack it in after being shut out at home in Game 5. It felt like this one was just a formality ahead of a long summer of what-might-have-beens.

Instead, Johnson found a way and led the Bolts to an unlikely victory. Just like he did in Game 4, when Tampa Bay trailed 2–0 and was six minutes from falling behind 3–1 in the series. That time he scored twice late, including once in overtime, to even up the series at two wins each.

Monday night, it was Johnson’s early goal that set the tone. He got the Bolts on the board just 3:47 into the game, taking a pass from Kucherov as he hit the blue line in full stride before cutting to the middle and beating Petr Mrazek over the right shoulder. That one was a statement as much as a goal, proof that the Bolts could, and would, take back the middle of the ice that the Wings had denied them in Game 5.

His second goal emphasized the point—a blazing zone entry that caught Detroit’s defenders flat-footed and allowed him to scream down the middle of the ice and beat Mrazek five-hole. It ended up being the game winner.

At this point there’s no overstating his value to the Lightning. Johnson has proved this season that he’s a second-line center in name only, much like Evgeni Malkin is in Pittsburgh. Both may have a higher-profile player ahead of them on the depth chart, but both are true superstars capable of taking control of a game at will. That’s exactly what he did here. And now the Lightning have earned an unexpected chance to win this series at home on Wednesday night.

• Full NHL playoff schedule, bracket

2. Mrazek was magic.

If the Wings don’t pull out the win in Game 7, their summer of regret will focus on letting this contest get away.

They were blessed with a magical performance by Mrazek, highlighted by two of the best stops you’re likely to see in these playoffs. The second was on Stamkos, who was all alone 10 feet in front of Detroit’s net when Johnson fed him for an easy one-timer. Mrazek managed to get a great push and slid his right pad just far enough to prevent the struggling sniper from burying it in the back of the net.

• Watch: Red Wings’ Mrazek makes spectacular save on Lightning’s Boyle

The highlight though came earlier in the period when Vladislav Namestnikov picked off a bouncing puck behind Detroit‘s net and fed Brian Boyle out front. Boyle is no one’s idea of a sniper—the fourth line center scored only 15 goals this season—but he was 10 feet out and facing 24 square feet of empty net. Yet Mrazek recovered from the turnover just enough to stretch his stick out to his right. Boyle’s one-time shot somehow hit the paddle and was deflected harmlessly toward the corner. If not for Jaroslav Halak’s desperation pad stop minutes later on Jay Beagle in the Islanders/Capitals game, this would have been the save of the first round.

While Mrazek was giving the Wings a chance to win, his counterpart Ben Bishop seemed determined to give the game away at the other end. Last year’s Vezina Trophy finalist hasn’t looked the part in this series, coming into this contest with a .901 save percentage, but this was his shakiest effort to date. Pucks dropped out of his glove, rebounds were pushed into traffic, and a series of balance-impaired stops left him incapable of getting back into position. Despite his generosity, the Wings couldn’t capitalize.

Mrazek has been the story of this series. You wonder, though, if the real Bishop will finally show up in the last chapter.

3. Will Nik Kronwall be suspended for Game 7?

Niklas Kronwall is, without a doubt, one of the most dangerous men in hockey. He hones in on unsuspecting opponents and crushes them with a ferocity that can drain the competitiveness out of their teammates. His name has become synonymous with devastating body contact: “Kronwalled.”

He usually makes those hits cleanly. He keeps his feet planted and turns his back into his target. That’s how he’s managed to avoided any supplementary discipline to this point while dominating the highlight reels. He knows how to stay on just this side of the rules.

NHL
Evgeny Kuznetsov's late winner lifts Capitals over Islanders in Game 7

But there was nothing borderline about his second period hit on Nikita Kucherov on Monday night. As the Lightning forward tried to break out of his zone with the puck, Kronwall sized him up, leapt off the ice and led with a forearm to the head.

It was cartoonishly brutal. And yet somehow no penalty was called.

Kronwall now faces a disciplinary hearing today, but the fact that Kucherov got right up and returned to play in the third period means there’ll probably be no suspension, although that would be a bigger joke than the missed call on the ice.

I love smashmouth hockey as much as anyone who owns a complete collection of Don Cherry’s Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em DVDs, but this is the kind of hit that needs to be eliminated from the game. This wasn’t about separating an opponent from the puck or making him pay a price. This was a cheap head shot. And it should cost Kronwall at least a game.

It will be tough on the Wings if they are forced to play Game 7 without their best defenseman, but there’s a bigger picture to consider here. Or at least there should be. The problem is that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety hasn’t shown a lot of interest in player safety this season. Don’t expect it to start now.

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