After losing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, the Pittsburgh Penguins have dominated the Tampa Bay Lightning, with Phil Kessel making a legitimate case for Conn Smythe consideration.
Just hours after Jim Rutherford was announced as a finalist for GM of the Year, the players he acquired displayed exactly why he received so much love from his colleagues around the league. And if there is anybody out there who didn’t think Rutherford’s best days were behind him when he joined the Penguins almost two years ago is either a soothsayer or a member of Rutherford’s immediate family.
But at the age of 67, Rutherford looks as though he’s just hitting his stride. And so does his highest-profile acquisition, Phil Kessel. Talk about being raised from the dead. That both Rutherford and Kessel have a legitimate chance to hold the Stanley Cup over the heads in about a month is nothing short of shocking.
But that is definitely the case, particularly after the Penguins absolutely dominant 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final. The Penguins are in control of this series at the moment, largely because the Lightning have no answer for Kessel. And you, dear readers, have absolutely no idea how weird it is to write that previous sentence.
In a series that was being billed as a track meet, the Penguins line of Nick Bonino between Carl Hagelin and Kessel is picking up all the medals, while the Lightning are getting the participation badges. As Jonathan Drouin learned late in the second period, even the most innocuous turnover in the offensive zone can turn out to be a dangerous risk. The play in question resulted in the opening goal, when Hagelin cashed in on the Kessel rebound on the Penguins 31st shot of the game. In the second period. Yeah, it was that one-sided.
So in the past two games between these two teams, the Penguins have outshot the Lightning 89-49, that’s a margin of 20 shots per game. The shot attempts are 139-94 in favor of the Penguins. And one game after the Lightning gave up seven shots to Sidney Crosby and five to Kris Letang, gave up eight to Kessel, who was simply the best player on the ice for both teams in Game 3. Meanwhile, nobody on the Lightning roster had more than four in either game. To put it into even sharper focus, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, who were united as a line in Game 3, had 11 shots among them in Games 2 and 3, which is just three more than Kessel had in Game 3 alone.
Circling back to Kessel, the player who struggled through last season and much of the regular season in 2015-16 is nothing like the player who is emerging as a legitimate candidate to win the Conn Smythe Trophy this spring. The same guy who made a cottage industry of screaming down the wing and taking ineffective shots from the periphery is now driving to the net with authority, shooting with a purpose – as he did on Hagelin’s goal when he seemed to purposely put if off Andrei Vasiliveskiy’s pad so it would bounce right out to the slot – and being much, much more involved in the play. And, if that weren’t enough, he’s even being a peacemaker, providing a calming influence to Crosby and Patric Hornqvist when the two of them were having a heated conversation on the bench.
The Penguins are clearly getting to the Lightning as well, with their speed forcing the Lightning to take penalties and their dominance piercing the armor of Vasilevskiy, whose body language was brutal late in the game. And it’s not just the number of shots the Lightning are giving up, it’s the looks they’re giving the Penguins as well that is so concerning.
“The volume of shots we’re giving up and some of the chances we’re giving up is way too many,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the game. (And he put a clear emphasis on the word ‘way’, giving it that extra emphasis so it sounded like ‘waaaaay’.) “We’ve gone through multiple playoff games and we don’t give this up in, gosh, two or three games combined.”
If the Lightning are going to reverse the trend, it’s going to take a complete turnaround. Which is much easier said than done. If you put too much emphasis on trying to shut down Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – the latter of whom looks as though he’s found his game as well – then you do so risking having the Penguins third line tear you apart. It will take some adjustments, one of which will have to be far better puck management.
Can the Lightning do it? Well, this is a team that has looked adversity in the face and spit in its eye on a number of occasions this year. Perhaps they’ll be more comfortable in this position and it will bring out the best in them. It likely will.
But the Penguins, rebooted by a GM of the Year candidate and powered by a rejuvenated star, might prove to be too much. One thing is clear, though. The Penguins and San Jose Sharks are on a collision course for the Stanley Cup final unless the Lightning and St. Louis Blues pick up the level of their games in a hurry.