Jon Cooper and the Lightning face their toughest test

·5-min read
The Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves looking for answers against a hot New York Rangers team as the dream of winning the Stanley Cup for a third consecutive year looks less and less likely. (Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves looking for answers against a hot New York Rangers team as the dream of winning the Stanley Cup for a third consecutive year looks less and less likely. (Getty Images)

We have to commend the Tampa Bay Lightning for trying to accomplish the nearly impossible, in trying to sustain a dynasty in conditions that are intentionally designed for parity. They have firmly established themselves as the premier team of the salary cap era, and a third consecutive Stanley Cup win would elevate this group into a different echelon.

If watching the Lightning has been akin to fine cinema, we’re in the final minutes of Goodfellas now. The young and ascending Rangers have presented the greatest threat to the incumbent’s throne, the helicopters are circling the neighbourhood. Everything was for the taking, and now it could be all over, if Jon Cooper and company cannot win four of their next five games.

The narrative between both teams breaks into a clean and easy fault line, where the Rangers enter as the youngest team in the playoffs looking to topple the veteran Lightning. And in many ways, that’s how this series has played out thus far. New York’s Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil have been the best line throughout the series, as Chytil’s two second-period goals helped the Rangers pull away in Game 1. During an encore performance at the Madison Square Garden on Friday, the kids controlled an 88 percent share of the expected goals via Natural Stat Trick, with Kakko scoring the eventual game-winner in Game 2. They’ve outscored opponents 10-5 at 5-on-5 throughout the playoffs, and they’re peaking at the right time.

And if we’re talking about the kids, K’Andre Miller is playing the best hockey of his young career, setting up Chytil’s second goal in Game 1 with a perfect cross-ice pass, then got the Rangers on the board in Game 2 after collecting his own rebound from a blocked shot. Miller’s recovery speed and ability to remain calm under pressure is remarkable for a 22-year-old, and he’s a central component of what could be the East’s next power.

More worrisome for Cooper and his staff is that his stars are being outplayed by New York’s. Igor Shesterkin is outplaying Andrei Vasilevskiy by a significant margin through two games and since this series was billed around the two all-world goaltenders, that’s where we’ll start. Shesterkin was outstanding in Game 1, saving two goals above expected, while authoring a 37-save performance that prompted a rousing “Igor’s Better” chant. Shesterkin didn’t allow a goal at 5-on-5 in Game 2, and he robbed Steven Stamkos of a potential game-tying goal in the final minute. Vasilevskiy, by contrast, was scorched on his blocker side despite Tampa Bay holding a possession and shot-creation advantage through two games. This isn’t meant to disparage Vasilevskiy, who has proven to be one of the most clutch players of his generation, he’s simply been outshone thus far. And it’s not just on Vasi, either.

Adam Fox has outplayed Victor Hedman and at times, has operated as the focal point of the Rangers’ attack. Fox’s vision at the blue line is perhaps only bested by Colorado’s standout Cale Makar, he's one of the best defensive defensemen in the league, and his fluid skating in tandem with his ability to avoid mistakes has been paramount against a Lightning team uniquely designed to capitalize on errors. In the above clip, Fox is afforded space to calmly survey the defence, before finding a crashing Kakko who slips behind the Lightning’s defense for the go-ahead goal. Fox is averaging a series-high 25 minutes per game, he’s tied with Mika Zibanejad for the team lead with 23 points and there’s been little indication that his game will drop off with greater volume. In fairness to Hedman, his underlying numbers have been pretty damn good, but he was caught reaching on Chytil’s first goal in Game 1 and eventually the expected goals need to translate into actual goals as the clock ticks.

It’s not as if the Lightning are rolling over and dying, which complicates the equation for Cooper. Tampa Bay holds a 70-62 shot advantage and 55-45 percent expected goals advantage in all situations through two games. The shot-creation has been fine, but the Lightning have settled into a holding pattern throughout the playoffs where it sat back against the Maple Leafs and Panthers and scored on the counter. The Rangers, in large part due to Shesterkin’s heroics, can play the waiting game and use their speed in transition to their advantage.

Tampa Bay’s roster flexibility is a point I’ve written about continuously throughout the dynastic years, but it is certainly feeling Brayden Point’s absence in this series. Although the Lightning had combined a rare mix of elite talent and balanced scoring through the roster in previous years, Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli have provided next to nothing offensively, while Nick Paul, who has excelled in a bottom-six role, is showing that he’s not necessarily a long-term answer in the top-six. And though Paul and Brandon Hagel were stellar adds at the deadline, while expected to contribute to a reformed bottom-six group, Hagel appears to be playing hurt and is perhaps being miscast out of necessity while Point still remains away from the team.

The defending champions now have to win four of their next five games to keep their bid of becoming the first team to three-peat in the salary cap era alive. It is the toughest test of their dynasty and it falls on almost every player on the team to step their game up. Everything was for the taking and it could be all over.

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