If two consecutive losses and mounting pressure weren’t enough to have the Lightning on their heels ahead of tonight’s Game 6 against the Canadiens (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA), now they have to deal with this: Alternate captain Ryan Callahan is out indefinitely after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Monday night.
That’s a gut punch for the Bolts. Callahan is a leader. A calming presence. A been-there, done-that guy. On the surface, exactly the kind of person coach Jon Cooper needs in his lineup with his young team on the verge of unraveling.
But this could end up being the proverbial blessing in disguise.
As valuable as that leadership is, it doesn’t necessarily show up on the scoreboard. And after another offensive brownout in Saturday’s 2–1 Game 5 loss, what this team needs most is someone who can provide a spark and light the way.
“My problem is, we don’t have enough quantity,” Cooper said of his team’s lack of scoring chances in recent games. “We need to get more. We can’t just sit here and rely on six to eight chances a game, of which only three are Grade As. We’re a much better team than that. We’ve proven that before.”
They sure have. But that was way back in the regular season when they were the league’s top-scoring team. That doesn’t count for squat now. In this matchup the Canadiens have created all the chances. They’ve controlled the puck. They’ve won the battles. And they’ve outshot the Lightning in every game. For the series, they’re up 173-127, a staggering gap in just five games.
And it’s finally paying off for the Habs. They’ve outscored the Bolts 8-3 during the past two contests and seized the momentum in the series.
That’s certainly not on Callahan. The veteran wasn’t brought in to carry the offense. Still, more was expected of him than the three assists he’s contributed through 12 games this postseason, especially since he’s spent most of his time skating on the top line with Steven Stamkos.
So maybe this trade-off is exactly what Tampa needs right now. Especially if Cooper does the right thing and inserts Jonathan Drouin in his place. Not just in the lineup, but on the first line.
Sure, Drouin has been held scoreless himself in three playoff games, but that’s a byproduct of his usage. He’s played fourth-line minutes with fourth-line players who don’t have the speed or hockey sense to keep pace with his superlative skills.
Easing him into the shallow end made sense during the regular season. But now, with the team’s playoff life at stake, it doesn’t make sense to leave any bullets in the chamber.
Drouin's sublime playmaking is the missing ingredient for the Lightning. They need someone who can help them gain the offensive zone and then break through Montreal’s defensive coverage, to buy shooters like Stamkos the time and space to test Carey Price up close instead of settling for the low percentage shots the way they did in Games 4 and 5.
He’ll require some defensive protection of his own—maybe Anton Stralman is on the ice every time Drouin goes over the boards—but the trade-off is worth the risk.
Does Cooper have it in him to go for the win instead of playing it safe? We’ll find out tonight.
But if he doesn’t, we’ll probably be talking about Game 7 tomorrow.
The numbers game
• For the first time in their storied history, the Canadiens have forced a Game 6 after trailing in a series three games to none. The Lightning have yet to lose three games in a row this season.
• The Ducks are in the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in their history, and the first since 2007 when they won their first Stanley Cup. They are now 4-0 when trailing after two periods in these playoffs. During the regular season they set an NHL record with 18 wins after falling behind in the third period.
• Chris Kreider of the Rangers is the fourth player in NHL history to record two opening-minute goals the same playoff series. The others: Maple Leafs forward Sid Smith in the 1951 Stanley Cup finals vs. the Canadiens, Flyers forward Reggie Leach in the 1976 finals vs. Montreal, and Canadiens forward Mario Tremblay in the 1984 division semi-finals vs. the Bruins. The last player to tally at least two such goals in the same playoff year: Canadiens forward Brian Gionta, whose three in three different series set an NHL record in 2010.
• Those front office changes in New Jersey have put plans for this expected reunion with the Devils on hold.
• Ask around and you’re likely to hear that Mike Babcock is the best coach in hockey. Cathal Kelly puts that theory to the test.
• Brendan Shanahan is doing things his way in Toronto, but is it the right way?
• When you consider this batch of prospects, Buffalo’s future looks all right.