Lightning must ditch their cautious play, remain true to themselves
There was an infamous cable-access TV show out of Michigan in the 1980s that chronicled the raucous punk rock scene of the Midwest called Why Be Something You're Not. The show, snippets of which can be found online, still comes to mind regularly more than 30 years later ... and not just when I'm in the mood to re-watch classic footage of the Misfits or Negative Approach.
It's the title. Since I first heard it as a kid, it's stuck with me as a perfectly succinct, and perfectly viable, philosophy. Don't follow the crowd, it says. Be true to yourself.
It's a philosophy the Tampa Bay Lightning might want to keep in mind ahead of tonight's second game of the Stanley Cup Final.
Through the first 82 games of the regular season, the Bolts established a clear identity. Blessed with world-class talent, they emphasized offensive skill and creativity and dared the opposition to match their breathtakingly fast pace.
The result: the best season in franchise history. Tampa Bay was the league's highest scoring team, averaging 3.16 goals per game. It set organizational records with 50 wins and 108 points. And it came into the playoffs as a viable contender to win the whole thing.
And then it decided it needed to be the 2000 New Jersey Devils to finish the job.
There's no denying that the Lightning have found success this postseason with a more defensive brand of hockey, especially in must-win contests. They earned a 2–0 victory in Game 7 of their first round against Detroit by locking down their own end. They knocked off the Canadiens in Game 6 of their second-round series in the exact same fashion, winning 4–1. Then they went into Madison Square Garden and sucked the life out of the World's Most Famous Arena to claim a 2–0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
There's nothing wrong with ramping up the defensive intensity. In fact it's mandatory, to some degree. But that's not what got the Lightning here. They got a stark reminder of that in the series opener Wednesday night.
When they were dominating Game 1, it was with their speed and their forecheck. The Bolts had the Blackhawks pinned in their own zone for long stretches during the first 40 minutes as they swirled and swarmed and attacked in a focused effort to create scoring chances. And while it remained close on the scoreboard, it was clear to anyone watching that Tampa Bay had taken control of the contest and was bending it to their will.
And then the Lightning came out for the third period wearing work boots instead of skates. They stopped trying to score and focused on stopping Chicago from scoring. What happened next was pretty much inevitable.
Safe, as the saying goes, is death.
But while they lost Game 1, the Lightning gained something that could pay off before this series is over: a reminder to be true to themselves.
"That certainly wasn't the way we wanted to play," admitted forward Brian Boyle after Game 1. "It wasn't the possession game, the forechecking we wanted. I think it was a little too cautious. We need to understand that we can lock it down by playing our game, skating forward, forechecking, taking the puck out of their hands. We want to try to get to our strengths, using our speed and skating, create opportunities for ourselves. I think that's a good way to play D. When we have the puck in their end, it's hard [for them] to score.
"If [we're going] to make a mistake, [we should] do it being aggressive," Boyle added. "We need to have that confidence that got us here."
The Lightning can be a frightening team to behold. Steven Stamkos is a bonafide goal scorer, the second-best in the league during the regular season. The second line of Tyler Johnson between Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat might be the most dangerous in the game. Defenseman Victor Hedman is as creative as Scott Niedermayer, but stands 6'6" and weighs 230 pounds.
It's a devastating group built to take a game by the throat, not hang on and hope for the best.
So why be something that it's not?