For most of Game 4 against Detroit Thursday, the Lightning looked as if they were about to go down 3-1 in their first-round series. But Tampa Bay got two goals in 67 seconds late in the third to send it to overtime, then got the game-winner from blossoming superstar Tyler Johnson – and just like that, the series is even at two games apiece.
Heading into the playoffs, the one area of concern about the Tampa Bay Lightning was that starting goalie Ben Bishop may not be experienced enough in the post-season to thrive, and the rest of the team would pay the price if he struggled. And it wasn’t an ill-founded concern: although he deserves all kinds of credit for posting a 40-13-5 regular-season mark this year, the reality is the 28-year-old Bishop had just a single game’s worth of experience at the professional hockey level – and it came in the American League in 2011. So when Bishop batted a puck into his own net late in the second period of Game 4 of the Bolts’ first-round series against Detroit (a series the Lightning trailed the Red Wings in two games to one) a massive upset not only was continuing to materialize, but enter its late stages.
However, in a span of one minute and 17 seconds in the third period, Tampa Bay – specifically, blossoming star center Tyler Johnson, who scored his third goal of the playoffs at 14:34, then assisted on Ondrej Palat’s game-tying goal at 15:51 – erased all the trouble signs with a pair of goals to send a shocked Wings squad into overtime. And only 2:25 into the extra frame, Johnson scored his second of the night to win it and even up the series at two games apiece.
Don’t count out the Lightning just yet. In fact, with the series shifting back to Tampa Bay for Game 5 Saturday and again for a potential Game 7 Wednesday, it’s probably safer if you count them in. The rapid emergence of the 24-year-old Johnson as a game-changer nearing the level of teammate Steven Stamkos (who, incredibly, is still looking for his first goal of the series) is an incredibly positive harbinger of what could be to come for the Bolts the rest of this post-season and the playoffs to come.
Of course, the Red Wings can’t be counted out completely, either. They were in the driver’s seat for much of the game and kept some of Tampa Bay’s elite players (including Stamkos) off the scoresheet altogether. They also know they can get in Bishop’s head: in addition to the miscue on Detroit’s second goal, Bishop received two minor penalties (for holding Tomas Tatar in the second period and for an absolutely needless tripping penalty on Tatar in the third), and clearly was rattled before he settled down for the rest of the game. Johnson’s momentous night may have stopped a goaltending controversy from arising for Game 5, but that doesn’t mean it can’t arise again.
That said, this loss had the feel of one of those wasted opportunities that come back to haunt a team sooner than later. The Wings were five-and-a-half minutes away from taking a commanding series lead, but couldn’t close out the game and now must win two of the next three games to move on to the second round. And with Johnson’s tremendous play giving Stamkos time to find his groove, the odds of Detroit keeping No. 91 quiet for another three games are slim.
You should never count out a Mike Babcock-coached team, but the Wings’ Game 4 loss was ugly enough to make you deeply concerned for their immediate chances of success. They’re still led by future Hockey Hall-of-Famers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but there was a freefall quality to Detroit’s collapse that makes you think their youngsters who are serving as the foundation for the franchise’s next competitive cycle haven’t quite mastered the art of the playoff game close-out.
And given that the Lightning are younger, deeper and more skilled in all the right places and capable of capitalizing on a lack of killer instinct from the opposition, that post-season learning curve may be enough to do in Detroit’s season.