Without Ben Bishop, the Tampa Bay Lightning were at a significant disadvantage. But there was more to blame than goaltending for their four-game ouster by the Canadiens: Tampa struggled on defense, too.
Although the Tampa Bay Lightning turned a Game 4 stinker into a thriller, they were unable to overcome poor defense and even poorer goaltending that nagged them throughout Montreal’s sweep. As was popularly predicted, the loss of goalie Ben Bishop to injury was too much for the Lightning. He had emerged as the backbone behind a work-in-progress defense and had a significant hand in Tampa’s evolution and growth this season. He entered the Vezina conversation as a top 10 goalie in GAA and SP, but without Bishop, the Lightning more closely resembled the team that missed the playoffs the past two years.
Tampa Bay took a step forward this season, to be sure. They improved in puck possession, got solid production out of an impressive young core and, the most important factor, had a goalie like they hadn’t had in a long time. There’s a chasm between Bishop’s numbers and those of his backup Anders Lindback – who was first acquired to be the starter in 2012 – and that gave the Canadiens a decisive advantage. The Habs’ power play struggled to click, but even that had little impact. Lindback was pulled twice in the four-game sweep and twice allowed a very early first goal. He had an .877 save percentage at even strength vs. Carey Price’s .922 – that’s the main reason why the Lightning were struck down so early. Would a switch to Kristers Gudlevskis earlier in the series, perhaps to start Game 3, have been enough to sway it? When the Latvian relieved Lindback in Game 4, he made 16 saves the rest of the way and backstopped a third period comeback that was nullified on a final minute dribbler. Jon Cooper has all summer to ponder what the outcome may have been had he started Gudlevskis. But it wasn’t only the goaltending. Montreal controlled the inexperienced Lightning through most of the series. With the exception of Game 2, Montreal held decided possession advantages throughout. And, too often, Tampa’s defensive coverage was unorganized and unsupportive of its netminder. Just check out the first goal, less than three minutes into Game 4. Daniel Briere is left wide open in front.
And here’s the
Fenwick chart for Tampa’s must-win Game 4. Notice the response to their first goal:
When they were a non-playoff team in the Southeast the past two seasons, the Lightning had no goalie, but they also had a very green, very sloppy, very turnover-happy defense. In being swept by Montreal, Tampa showed off the obvious: they desperately missed their starter. But they also showed their inexperience and the fact those old defensive issues aren’t completely in the past yet.
Follow Rory on Twitter