In the NHL, shot totals will typically show the dominance of one team over another. The team with the most shots should usually win. However, that is not the case in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite out-shooting the Tampa Bay Lightning 162-106 through four games, the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in a 2-2 series tie with the Lightning. The Lightning have also faced some injury trouble this series. Without their leading goal scorer, Steven Stamkos, who has yet to play this postseason, and without All-Star goalie Ben Bishop, who is questionable to even play another game this series, this is why the Tampa Bay Lightning will still be able to advance past the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has shocked the hockey world. From being the 19th overall pick four years ago, he has progressed into arguably the best goaltender this postseason. He has posted a 0.928 save percentage this series despite facing 153 shots. This has not been an easy feat either. The Penguins are the 2nd highest scoring team this postseason and were the 3rd highest this regular season. To add to Vasilevskiy’s impressive play, he has only allowed two powerplay goals on 11 chances. Pittsburgh powerplay also ranked in the top three this postseason before the series began. If the Lightning defense can help out Vasilevskiy and keep his shots faced below 40 for the next few games, it is likely that the Lightning will be able to advance past the Penguins.
Young Talent stepping up
When Steven Stamkos was injured, I immediately thought the Lightning would get eliminated because they did not have part of their dual-threat scoring of Stamkos and Kucherov. With a combined 66 goals between the two, the next highest goal scorer was Ondrej Palat with 16 goals. However, in the absence of Stamkos the Lightning’s young talent has stepped up and played phenomenally. Nikita Kucherov has continued his goal scoring, scoring nine times in 14 games. Tyler Johnson has already scored six goals after a rough 14 goal season. And last but certainly not least, Jonathan Drouin has come up huge in this series and has scored three goals in four games this series. After a rough season of only playing 21 regular season games, requesting a trade early this season, and abandoning his AHL team for five weeks, he has proven to have matured significantly this year and is ready for his shot in the NHL. Not only is Drouin scoring, he is doing all the little things he needs to to help his team win. In this postseason, he has found open ice to get easier passes and get his team more shots on net. As long as these young players can continue to find ways to get shots on net and keep Pittsburgh’s offense out of their offensive zone, there is no reason why Vasilevskiy and the Lightning defense cannot hold down the fort for the few chances that get through on their way to an Eastern Conference Championship.
As I mentioned earlier, the Lightning penalty kill has played phenomenally against the high scoring Pittsburgh powerplay. However, the Lightning powerplay has also played well this series. The Lightning have scored on 2 of 8 powerplay chances this series and have been getting more and more chances as the series goes along. This is a major turnaround from the beginning of the postseason. The Lightning powerplay was 4 for 23 on the powerplay against the Red Wings and 3 for 19 against the Islanders. While the penalty kill has been great this postseason, the Lightning have also cut down on the amount of penalties they are committing. They had a combined total of 185 penalty minutes in the first 2 series of the NHL Playoffs. If the Lightning can keep their penalty minuted down in the remainder of the series and maintain the high level of play of their special teams, the Penguins would be taking a critical hit to their offense which they most likely would not be able to recover.
Overall, as long as the Lightning can maintain their surprisingly high level of play as-of-late from their offense, young talent, and special teams, it is very likely that they will be finding themselves in a similar situation to last year when they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.