There are no grand surprises about a team coming off a 128-point season, which ultimately culminated in one of hockey’s most stunning upsets. This season, prolonged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, must’ve been doubly excruciating for this iteration of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who enter their fourth conference final under Jon Cooper, hell-bent on finally lifting the Stanley Cup that has heartbreakingly eluded them.
It may be too early to declare that the Lightning exorcised their demons, but their roster flexibility, ability to navigate tight spaces, create shots and their stars elevating their game without captain Steven Stamkos helped this team make quick work of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins. As it stands, there are no teams left in the field, perhaps other than the Vegas Golden Knights, who ought to feel more qualified and this is a portrait of a contender rounding into its fullest form, with an elite goal scorer working to get back into the lineup.
Tampa Bay is a relentless shot-creation machine with 806 shot attempts and 558 unblocked shot attempts through 13 postseason games prior to Wednesday’s slate, according to Natural Stat Trick. Vegas, for comparison, ranks second with 727 shot attempts and 518 unblocked shot attempts. In part due to Stamkos’s absence due to injury, the Lightning have deployed a lineup consisting of 11 forwards and seven defencemen and it has worked to near-perfection because of continuity, superstar performances from Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov and the ability to deploy burgeoning stars throughout the roster to create true balance.
The decision to surrender a first-round pick and a conditional first-round pick for Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, respectively, at the deadline has been a major talking point, proving that not all first-round picks hold inherently equal value. Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois correctly assessed that his team needed a new wrinkle and added two players who bring an element of toughness without sacrificing real skill. Paired with Yanni Gourde, this trio has often started games as the nominal shutdown line, but they don’t always play traditional roles.
Jon Cooper on the additions of Coleman, Goodrow and Maroon, and the conversations had around improving the roster:— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) September 1, 2020
"We were looking for some guys with a little dirt under their nails."
Let’s use the opening goal against the Bruins in Game 5 as an example. Coleman and Gourde work in tandem to free up the puck from David Krejci, then Coleman gets the puck to Kevin Shattenkirk, waiting at the point. Gourde, listed at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, sets up in front as an unmarked screener, while Shattenkirk fires the puck with the direct intention of it being deflected.
Ondrej Palat — who’s been exceptional lately, and more on him below — deftly deflects the puck past Jaroslav Halak. Tampa Bay has often deployed the much larger Alex Killorn and Pat Maroon as its screeners, but all of its forwards can retrieve the puck and rotate when called upon.
Just an impossible deflection from Ondrej Palat pic.twitter.com/tk1Jbmc7wA— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) September 1, 2020
Point has ascended to superstardom with Stamkos out of the lineup and while his acceleration is dazzling, his navigation of small spaces is what elevates him from your average star to a playoff-defining superstar. He’s been the focal point of Tampa Bay’s nominal top scoring line. These distinctions don’t matter all too much for a team this deep, especially with Kucherov returning to MVP form.
Brayden Point is a brilliant hockey player. What an array of moves he's been hitting people with this postseason pic.twitter.com/GaxxTgxxbR— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) September 1, 2020
The above video, compiled by ESPN’s Dimitri Filipovic is a perfect encapsulation of Point’s playoffs, so let’s go through the clips:
1) During Tampa Bay’s 7-1 rout of Boston in Game 3, Point makes the Bruins look silly after he gathers a loose puck and in one fell swoop uses Kucherov as a screen. John Moore begins to retreat with Point barrelling down, but can’t force him into a decision and helplessly stabs at the puck as the Lightning forward makes an eye-popping through-the-legs move, finishing with a no-look pass to Kucherov out front, who tucks the puck past Halak uncontested. This entire sequence took six seconds.
2) Point is trapped along the boards with Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton and Matt Grzelcyk converging on him during Game 2. Charlie Coyle is the third man in for support, but after Clifton releases, Coyle moves up in an attempt to cut off a passing lane to Mikhail Sergachev. It’s the right idea by Coyle but the wrong application as Point pulls off a nasty little spin-o-rama. After weaving out of traffic, Point realizes the Bruins have collapsed four defenders on him and finds a wide-open Shattenkirk. Kucherov, after sitting in front of the net unattended for the majority of the possession, gamely tips it in to tie the game up.
3) This third clip is a perfect summary of Point’s ability to navigate through tight spaces. Point takes advantage of a turnover and blazes into the offensive zone. After his initial attempt to get the puck to the front of the net fails, Point gathers himself and puts on a stick-handling clinic, toying with Bruins defenseman Torey Krug and finding the red-hot Palat in front of the net for the opening goal.
There’s more to unpack from Filipovic’s video edit, but these three plays best encapsulate Point’s brilliant playoffs to date and especially how he’s elevated his linemates. Palat, a puck-retrieval specialist, has come alive with unbridled confidence, wiring shots from in close — and he only needs a sliver of space to get an accurate slapshot off.
Kucherov, the reigning Hart Trophy winner, has been as good as his pedigree suggests. Hall of Famer and Lightning broadcaster Phil Esposito argued on August 25 that Kucherov doesn’t use the full scale of his immense talent and that the Lightning would need him to return to MVP form if they were to win it all. Kucherov responded with six points in his next two games, before leaving Game 5 with an undisclosed injury. In any event, Kucherov helps the Lightning reach an absurd ceiling no other team is capable of, but if he is out for a while after taking an errant high-stick to the face from Zdeno Chara, his team has proven they can adapt.
We’ve gone this far without talking about Hedman, who has been the best defenseman in the playoffs by some margin. Hedman logged 38:25 in Game 5 before scoring the series-winner, his fifth goal of the postseason, and unless you were paying close attention to the injury report, one wouldn’t notice the absence of Ryan McDonagh, who missed three games due to injury. Hedman allows for the 11F-7D lineup to work because to borrow from soccer, he can operate like a sweeper, joining into the rush as he sees fit without sacrificing anything in his own end.
As for Vasilevskiy, well, my colleague Justin Cuthbert said it best:
Sometimes I watch Andrei Vasilevskiy and don't understand how the Lightning even lose games— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) August 29, 2020
Tampa Bay’s positional flexibility also works on the back end too because of Hedman. Only a team this absurdly talented could sneak Sergachev onto their third defense pairing, a future star in the making. But Tampa will be ready to adjust as Stamkos works his way back to full health, and Kucherov’s status remains up in the air.
What does that look like?
Stamkos helped Tyler Johnson reach his lone All-Star Game in 2015 and has played large stretches throughout their shared tenure with Palat. Is it worth breaking up the Palat-Point-Kucherov combination, though? It would be a little surprising if Palat, to accomodate a right-hand shot on the left wing, was bumped down. He’s earned his spot for now.
It doesn’t seem likely Jon Cooper will break up the Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow line, although with due respect to Gourde, who has played well during the playoffs, it would be totally justifiable to toss Stamkos in, and bump Gourde onto a line with Pat Maroon and Cedric Paquette, resetting the lineup to a 12-F 6-D format.
The line of Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Johnson may be where Stamkos fits in best, and could see Killorn or Johnson bumped down to the fourth line. Cirelli is Tampa Bay’s best defensive forward and earned some discussion for the Selke Trophy, so he’s too valuable to knock out of the top-nine rotation.
These are all good problems to have, of course, and by not only experimenting with an 11-F 7-D lineup, but thriving with it, the Lightning are the most flexible team left in the dance, while remaining a shot-creation juggernaut.
This is a portrait of a true contender. But the Lightning know better than anyone that games aren’t won on paper. With the Bruins out of the way, their march to the Cup is in full swing.
More NHL coverage from Yahoo Sports