NHL playoffs: Penguins vs. Lightning Game 4 points to ponder
The way Jon Cooper sees it, winning tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins is just a matter of returning serve.
"We have to just dig down and do some of the things where we've had success, and really look at some of the things that are hurting us," the Tampa Bay Lightning's coach said ahead of Game 4 (8:00 pm ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS). "The things that are hurting us are things that are a little bit uncharacteristic in what we do. But in saying that, Pittsburgh's put us in a position to be like that. We served, they volleyed back. Now it's our turn to send it back to them. That's what we've got to do."
The game is essentially a must-win for the Bolts. Go down 3-1, with two of the final three games in Pittsburgh, and they can start planning out their summer.
The Penguins took control of the series with a 4–2 win in Tampa on Wednesday night. Through the first three games, they've been the faster and more opportunistic team. They've also gotten good mileage from their depth forwards. Pittsburgh's third line of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin has combined for nine points (three goals, six assists) through the first three games. The Matt Cullen-led fourth line has carried the play whenever its been on the ice.
The Lightning haven't yet found a unit they can rely on, but the reunion of The Triplets late in Game 3 provided a spark. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat both scored, giving the team some hope that they can turn this series around.
"You're just looking for different things that work and guys that have a little bit of chemistry together," Cooper said. "Fortunately, they do. But you've got to look after the rest of your team as well, and ... you're just trying to find ways."
While Cooper looks for answers, here are three things to watch for ahead of Game 4:
• Through the first three games, the Lightning have been outshot 124-69. That's not just bad. That's historically bad. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bolts are the first team to be outshot by 15 or more in each of the first three games of a series since 1995. Not surprisingly, things didn't end well for the last team to take a beating like that. Those 1995 Sharks were swept by Detroit.
If they're going to get back into this series, they have to address that disparity.
The key to turning that around: Better puck management. It sounds simple enough. And it should be for a possession-minded team like Tampa.
The problem is that the Pens are beating them at their own game. Pittsburgh's speed and aggressive forecheck are forcing the Lightning into repeated poor decisions. That's leading to turnovers in the neutral zone and scoring opportunities for the Pens in transition.
The adjustment is simple, if not particularly pretty. Instead of trying to force plays of an east-west nature, the Lightning need to focus on moving the puck north. Get to the red line, dump it in and chase it down. It's not always going to be effective, especially against a Pittsburgh defense that's so mobile. But there's far less danger in a puck that's below the Penguins' goal line than one that's coughed up in the neutral zone. If nothing else, that should reduce the burden on goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who faced a ridiculous 48 shots in Game 3 ... and it just might lead to more offensive zone time.
• Nikita Kucherov came into this series tied for the playoff scoring lead with nine goals. Three games in, he's still at nine.
It's one thing to go into a bit of a slump. It's another to be a non-factor. And that's the problem for Kucherov.
He finally got on the score sheet in Game 3, assisting on both of Tampa's goals in the 4–2 loss. But he's been effectively neutralized. Like most of the Bolts, he's not getting enough touches. And when he does, he's getting so little time and space that he's not generating chances like he did against the Red Wings and Islanders.
Again, he could use more north-south and less east-west. But there's also some battle missing from his game. Like slumping St. Louis star Vladimir Tarasenko, he's being taught a harsh lesson about what it takes to score goals this time of year. There's a price to pay, and he's not digging for his wallet.
• Could we see more of the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin buddy act in Game 4? Coach Mike Sullivan has experimented with them as a pair in each of the past two contests, and the results have been good. They spent a little more than a minute together at even strength in Game 2, leading to a backhand chance for Crosby that was denied by a terrific glove save from Vasilevskiy. In Game 3, they got just over four minutes together and were consistently dangerous.
Sullivan has been forced to juggle his top six in each of these games as players go cold (Conor Sheary, Chris Kunitz) and fail to make the most of their linemates (Bryan Rust). Now with a potential injury to Patric Hornqvist (hand), he might be in a tighter spot. If that's the case, he could put his two golden eggs in the same basket more often.
• Like there was any chance the Pens wouldn't chirp Kessel after his post-game bad breath comment:
Nothing wrong with a little fun and games, Sullivan said.
"I think these guys enjoy one another," he said. "They like being around one another. That's part of being part of a close knit team. These guys, they don't miss much. So when they have opportunities to have some fun with one another, I think that's a good thing. I think it brings our team even closer together. For me, that's just another indication that our guys are really embracing this moment and embracing this challenge."