Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn't see much that he liked in his team's 3–2 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night. But he loved the play of his goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"That kid just plays lights out for us every time," Cooper said ahead of Wednesday's pivotal Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals (8:00 PM ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS). "We just haven't played very well in front of him. We seem to hang him out to dry at times during games. We limited a lot of chances in the second period, but the first and the third were just way too many chances against. Clearly, he was the reason the game was so close."
The 21-year-old rookie is expected to be back between the pipes for tonight's game. How long he stays there is dependent on the health of starter Ben Bishop. Cooper says he's "optimistic" the Vezina Trophy finalist will be back at some point in this series after suffering a lower-body injury in Game 1.
But no matter who straps on the pads, the Lightning will be in tough to maintain control of the series as the setting shifts to Tampa. Although the teams split the first two games in Pittsburgh, the Pens carried the bulk of the play. And after Sidney Crosby's slump-busting OT winner, they're also carrying momentum into Game 3
Here are a few points to ponder ahead of this swing game:
• It's no secret the Bolts need to challenge Matt Murray more often in Game 3. The Penguins' goaltender could have gotten a jump start on his Christmas cards during the first two games, what with all the free time he had. The Lightning tested him 20 times in the opener and 21 in Game 2. That's 41 shots total—exactly as many as the Penguins had in Game 2 alone.
Victor Hedman knows that's not going to cut it.
“Obviously, you want to have more shots,” the defenseman said. “You want to touch their goaltender a little bit more.
“For us, it's all about puck possession. If you don't have the puck, it's tough to shoot. But at the same time, you can't pass up other opportunities when you have a chance to shoot. When you shoot the puck, it's going to create scrambles and chaos on their end. That's what it did to us [in Game 2]. [Andrei Vasilevskiy] was obviously great keeping us in it, but being outshot 2-1 is not good enough for us. We know that."
• Except, it hasn't really been about puck possession for the Lightning, has it? Rather than trying gain control and dictate the flow of the first two games, Tampa basically hung back and waited to capitalize on any mistake made by the Penguins.
It's hard to outright criticize the approach. It allowed them to steal Game 1 and it got them into overtime of Game 2. But it also minimized the two elements—their high-end speed and skill—that got them into the conference finals in the first place. And it essentially took the sticks out of the hands of Tampa's best players.
Just look at Hedman. He proved in the first two rounds that he's capable of going up against the best the league has to offer and taking over a game at will. And yet in Game 2 he got smoked by Pittsburgh's fourth line.
He spent nearly a third of his ice time (32.8%) against that Matt Cullen-led unit. In just under nine minutes of head-to-head play, the Lightning generated two shot attempts. The Penguins had 12.
Hedman wasn't alone. Tyler Johnson was a non-factor, spending most of his time backpedaling through the neutral zone and trying to prevent second and third chances for the Pens. Same with Nikita Kucherov. Even Jonathan Drouin, who produced a few electric moments on the attack, was widely outchanced.
That's not a viable path forward.
Cooper said Tuesday that the Lightning has "more in the tank than we've showed." Look for them to adjust their approach and dial up their intensity in Game 3.
• Pairing Sidney Crosby with Evgeni Malkin provided a spark for the Penguins in Game 2, but don't expect it to carry over into Game 3. Coach Mike Sullivan would prefer to keep that option in his back pocket for when it might have the most impact.
"It's a little bit of intuition," he said. "I mean, obviously, when we put those guys together, we're hoping we get an offensive spark and try to do it in an offensive situation where maybe we can create some momentum for our team. But I think our balance has been the strength of our team over the course of the postseason and down the stretch during the regular season."
But if not Malkin, who skates on the wing with Crosby? Rookie Conor Sheary was relegated to the role of grocery stick in the third period after struggling through the first two. Veteran Chris Kunitz wasn't much better. Both are likely to see time with Sid, but it's a situation Sullivan will have to monitor closely. It might be a revolving cast of characters—hardly ideal for the Pens or their best player.
• Ryan Callahan missed Game 2 because of a bout with the flu. Coincidentally, there wasn't any carryover of the nastiness from Game 1.
Alright, so maybe it wasn't a coincidence.
Callahan is expected to be back in the lineup tonight for the Lightning, and it's a good bet he'll make his presence felt early and often. He brings an edge to every shift that has a way of rubbing off on his teammates, making them play a little bit bigger and meaner.
Special teams were a non-factor in Game 2. The Penguins were blanked on their two chances and rarely threatened. The Lightning had just one opportunity and came up short. Look for both teams to see more time with the extra man as the intensity ramps up. Whichever team makes the most of those chances should come out ahead.