Heading into Tuesday’s pivotal Game 4 in Detroit, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper recognized a weak spot in his team’s attack.
“As these games go on, you need to score that power-play goal,” Cooper said of his decision to spend the off day working on the man advantage. “We’ve been trying to find our way there of late. Jonathan Drouin ... 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 was a chance to work on it.”
That effort paid off. The Lightning tallied three times with the extra man, each set up by Drouin, on the way to a 3–2 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
“We put the puck in the hands of the guys who know what to do with it and challenged them a little bit,” Cooper said. “Hopefully this keeps going because it would be a huge boost for us.”
The victory gives the Lightning a commanding 3–1 series lead. Game 5 is on Thursday night in Tampa.
Here are three thoughts on Tuesday’s game:
You remember that whole kerfuffle earlier this season with Drouin demanding a trade, skipping out on a minor-league assignment and receiving a subsequent six-week suspension? Everything he accomplished in this game vindicates the team’s decision to let emotions cool rather than sever ties with the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft. Drouin is far from a perfect player at this point of his development, but there’s no denying he’s a special talent. When he’s in the offensive zone, he sees the game unfold in a way that only the truly great can. The pace slows, a lane opens and he crafts a scoring chance where others would bounce the puck harmlessly off a defender’s shin guards.
He brought that incredible vision to the first power-play unit in Game 4, and the results were immediate. After going 1 for 14 through the first three games, the power play took all of nine seconds to score on its first chance of the contest. Drouin took possession off the faceoff and sent the puck down low to Tyler Johnson, who found Nikita Kucherov wide open below the left circle. The easy tap-in gave the Bolts a 1–0 lead at 5:41 of the first period.
Kucherov scored his second of the game, and fifth of the playoffs, on a second-period give-and-go with Drouin. The pair moved the puck crisply before Drouin found Kucherov in the slot for a one-timer at 10:31 of the period.
His best moment, though, came on Ondrej Palat's game-winner. Taking a cross-crease pass from Kucherov, he paused in the left circle, drawing the attention of three Red Wings defenders in the process. That opened a lane for Palat, who drove the net and tipped Drouin’s pass behind Petr Mrazek with 2:59 left in the third period to seal the victory.
“When he gets his motor running and speed going, it’s pretty magical to watch,” Johnson said. “Really glad he’s on our team right now.”
After the game Cooper, who was long thought to be at odds with Drouin, heaped praise on the youngster.
“The one thing that gets missed in all this is that we never, ever gave up on Jonathan,” he said. “I’m unbelievably proud of the way he’s handled himself. He deserves this.”
For the first time in the series, the Lightning got an elite effort from a line other than Johnson, Kucherov and Alex Killorn. Although it couldn’t get on the board at even strength, this was a breakthrough game for the Drouin–Palat–Valterri Filppula unit. All night long the three created havoc with their speed and relentless forecheck, forcing turnovers and keeping the Wings defense on its heels. The trio ended up with six shots on net and created extended zone time during five-on-five play, an element that was absent in Game 3.
And Filppula may have saved the game when, with the score tied at two and the Wings pressing, he hustled back and got his stick in the lane just in time to disrupt a Dylan Larkin pass that was earmarked for Henrik Zetterberg, who was lurking just off the post.
All in all, a terrific night for a trio which’ll be called on to play an even larger role if the Bolts advance.
Datsyuk’s last stand
With the Wings falling into a 3–1 hole, it’s hard not to view Tuesday’s game as potentially Pavel Datsyuk’s last appearance in front of his home fans. If that’s the way it plays out, this was an ignominious end to one of the greatest careers in franchise history.
The highlight reel moment of his night wasn’t a brilliant defensive play or a Datsyukian deke. It came early in the first period when he was rocked into next week by Ryan Callahan just inside the Lightning blueline. It was the sort of hit Datsyuk would have effortlessly avoided even a year or two ago, but his feet, and his wits, were a bit too slow to spare him that humbling. He later wasted a semi-breakaway opportunity with the game still scoreless when he couldn’t quite get the puck off his stick. And he was a disaster in the circle, winning just 5 of 17 draws (29%). Datsyuk’s failures there played a large part in Detroit’s struggles to gain and maintain puck possession, forcing it to chase the game for long stretches of play.
In time, this game will be forgotten in favor of Datsyuk’s many, many great moments. But after a series in which he’s had a largely negative impact on his team’s fate, maybe the time is right for the future Hall of Famer to move on.