The Tampa Bay Lightning has launched a serious Stanley Cup repeat bid after eliminating the Carolina Hurricanes in five games. Steven Stamkos and company powered past 2021’s top seed in the Central Divison, ending the series at the first time of asking. In doing so, they advance to the semi-finals to face the New York Islanders in a repeat of last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
Many had pegged this series to go the distance before the Lightning began dismantling Carolina’s Stanley Cup aspirations with ruthless efficiency. But just how exactly did they run amok in what was an even-looking matchup on paper?
Controlling A Game Where It Matters
While the box scores seemed to indicate that Carolina was dominating at five-on-five, the truth is Tampa controlled much of the important underlying metrics throughout the series. For instance, despite the Hurricanes leading in Corsi attempts 236-213 and actual shots on goal, 118-107, the Lightning actually produced more quality looks; in total, they led scoring chances 124-104 and more specifically, high danger chances (HDCF) 58-34.
This dominance is even starker when you consider that Carolina was chasing the game more often than not. Rod Brind’Amour‘s team trailed for over 120 minutes across the five-game series compared to Tampa’s 22 minutes and 23 seconds. Normally, you would expect the losing team to out-chance their opponents because the onus is on them to score. But the Lightning simply didn’t let Carolina launch an onslaught, particularly in Game 5.
Although Ross Colton scored to make it 2-0 Bolts in the third period, the Hurricanes were not allowed to respond. From that point, there were almost 11 minutes left for Carolina to save its season; shockingly, the team would only manage a further four shots on goal. In fact, the Canes managed just four shots from the 2:29 mark in the third period!
Tampa’s Defensive Resolve
Well, Tampa was tenacious on defence. They checked well and their structure was solid. The team as a whole was robust in its defensive zone coverage, keeping Carolina to the outside and throwing bodies in kamikaze fashion towards any puck threatening the goalmouth; Tampa produced 22 blocks in the final game of the series. Mikhail Sergachev, in particular, had a monster game and even pulled off a nice save with his ass.
Overall, Tampa shut the series down by making it impossible for Carolina to get to the dangerous areas. What’s more, thanks to their fast-paced breakout, once they forced a turnover, they created odd-man rushes the other way, weaponizing their defence to create more offence. Across the series, when entering a period with the lead, the Lightning out-produced Carolina in high-danger chances, 18-5 (at even-strength).
Special Teams Clinic
All of the above is without even considering the Lightning’s lethal special teams, which played a huge role in securing the series.
Despite the fact that Carolina notched their first win in Game 3, Tampa’s special teams basically took over from that point. In the final three games, the Lightning’s powerplay went six for 11. The penalty kill, meanwhile, stopped six of seven.
In fact, Tampa scored on four of Carolina’s final five infractions during the series. What makes its powerplay so dangerous is its versatility and how quickly it can kill you. Carolina likes to put pressure on the puck carrier and is aggressive on the kill, pinching hard to force turnovers. Unfortunately, if you bite too hard though, the Lightning will make you pay; their tape-to-tape passing is so fast that the overlap is created and capitalized on before you can recover. See Stamkos’ second powerplay goal in Game 4 as proof.
At the other end, the kill was particularly impressive thanks in part to Tampa’s stick checking. Blake Coleman, Anthony Cirelli and Barclay Goodrow were a constant irritation for the Canes power-play unit which was often pressured into throwing errant passes. The killers also did a good job of bottle-necking the middle of the ice and making it hard for Carolina to pick out a seam pass. So much so, that the Hurricanes, who finished second in the regular season on the powerplay, managed just two goals in fourteen attempts.
Vasilevskiy Undeniably Key To Tampa Bay and its Stanley Cup Aspirations
Naturally, netminding also dictated the series outcome. Andrei Vasilevskiy recorded his second shutout of the postseason in Game 5 and stopped 112 of 118 shots, overall. He was also excellent in high danger territories with a save percentage of (.920), which ranks third among Second Round goaltenders.
According to Money Puck, Vasilevskiy’s 12.9 goals saved above expected (in 11 games) tops the list among playoff goaltenders. For a frame of reference, Carey Price (8.6) and Marc-Andre Fleury (4.2) are third and fourth respectively in this metric. In Layman’s terms, Vasilevskiy has basically saved a goal per playoff game. That certainly becomes significant in a series where three out of the five games were decided by a single tally.
Head-to-head, the 26-year-old outdueled Carolina’s netminding duo in what was a high-quality series for goaltending. You could even say that rookie Alex Nedeljkovic‘s series contextualised just how good Tampa’s number one was. For Ned lived up to the hype in the postseason and convinced many of his Calder Trophy candidacy. However, despite his excellent performances throughout, he still conceded two series-defining goals. One was Game 1’s positioning error which produced the game-winner and the second came in Game 5, (the aforementioned Colton goal in the third).
Carolina went toe-to-toe with Tampa but couldn’t reciprocate Vasilevskiy’s herculean efforts. Now, there was, of course, a dodgy goal that he conceded on Jaccob Slavin, who threw a shot from below the circle that snuck past his shoulder in Game 4. But this didn’t end up costing the Lightning a game. As a result, the error, unlike Nedeljkovic’s, becomes a mere footnote in a near-flawless series performance.
With a clear edge in the underlying metrics, special teams and goaltending, Tampa put Carolina to the sword. Thus, the Lightning makes it out of a top-heavy Central Division, winning out over their closest geographical rivals. Now, just eight wins separate them from a third Stanley Cup in the 21st century. Not to mention a historic repeat across Covid-affected seasons. For those wondering, I’d say Tampa Bay is now the odds-on favourite for the Stanley Cup.
*All stats sourced from Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise stated.