Lightning Find Themselves in Unfamiliar Territory Down 2-0

With the 3-2 loss on Friday, June 3, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in an unfamiliar spot. Now down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning head back home with their tails between their legs so to speak. The Game 2 loss represented more than a 2-0 series deficit, it also marked an end to an unprecedented streak. The Lightning had not lost back-to-back playoff games since the 2019 Playoffs, when they were famously swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Two Stanley Cups and another deep playoff run later, the club in unfamiliar territory.

Victor Hedman Steven Stamkos Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning Defenceman Victor Hedman celebrates a goal with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The New York Rangers have outplayed the Lightning in all facets of the game so far in this series. In Game 1, it looked like there was a lot of rust for the Lightning. Not playing for nine days, they had a lot of sloppy turnovers in their own zone that resulted in either goals or high-quality scoring chances. The turnovers carried into the other two zones of the ice allowed the Rangers to have a number of odd man rushes, leaving goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy out to dry.

In Game 2, the Lightning came out with a lot more energy, scoring the first goal of the game just a few minutes in. However, the defensive zone breakdowns continued as the game went on. Rangers’ K’Andre Miller scored the first goal after his original shot was blocked by Brandon Hagel, scoring on a second-chance opportunity open in the slot. The third goal came from another bad turnover by Nikita Kucherov, allowing for an odd man rush that resulted in Mika Zibanejad beating Vasilevskiy to take a 3-2 lead.

There a number of reasons for the ending of the streak. While the Rangers have done some things to stymy the Lightning thus far, the Lightning have not helped themselves out. Let’s take a look at some of the bigger storylines to why the Lightning are down 2-0 for the first time since 2019.

Vasilevskiy’s Pedestrian Performance

The “Big Cat” came into the series on fire, allowing just three goals in four games in the second round. However, he’s been pedestrian at best to start this series. The six goals he allowed in Game 1 is the most he’s given up in a playoff game since Game 3 of the first round of last year’s playoffs against the Florida Panthers. While his defense has hung him out to dry quite often, fans are used to him being much sharper. He’s been beaten multiple times on his blocker side, enough to where color commentator Ray Ferraro for ESPN noted it on the broadcast during Game 2.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Throughout the past three playoff runs, the Lightning have relied on him to bail them out whenever they came out flat. Such was the case in Game 4 of the second round when he stopped all 49 shots in a 2-0 win. Without him at his sharpest, the Lightning are not the same team. For them to have any shot of turning this series around, Vasilevskiy needs to improve from the .854 save percentage (SV%) and 4.5 goals-against average (GAA) he posted in the first two games.

Shesterkin Playing Like a Vezina Winner

Perhaps what makes Vasilevskiy’s play so alarming is the play of the guy on the other end of the ice. Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin has been fantastic thus far in the series. Any pressure that the Lightning have put on the Rangers throughout the first two games has been minimized by Shesterkin’s play. He was spectacular in Game 2, stopping 29 of 31 shots. He bailed out his team throughout the game, stopping a number of high-level scoring chances, similar to what Vasilevskiy has done for the Lightning in the past. With the Lightning trying to force overtime in the last few minutes of Game 2, he stood on his head, allowing the Rangers to weather the storm and take a 2-0 series lead.

Igor Shesterkin New York Rangers
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With an .942 SV% and a 2.00 GAA, Shesterkin has objectively been the better goaltender, answering one of the bigger storylines going into the series.

Rangers’ Superstars Shining Brighter

The Rangers’ superstars have come alive early in this series, outplaying the Lightning top six thus far. Mika Zibanejad has been the best player on the ice for either side. After a rather quiet start to these playoffs, he came alive at the end of the second-round series vs. the Carolina Hurricanes, and has carried that momentum into the early games of this series. With three points in the first two games, he’s been an anchor for the Rangers’ top line.

Related: Lightning’s Vasilevskiy is Conn Smythe Favorite Through Round 2

Meanwhile, the Lightning stars have not been up to par. While Kucherov and Steven Stamkos each have a goal, they’ve been unable to break through like fans are used to seeing. Part of that is due to the sleepy 1 of 9 start on the power play for the Lightning. Even top defenseman Victor Hedman has struggled mightily thus far in the series. Out there for all three Rangers goals in Game 2, he has a minus-4 plus/minus for the series.

Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Lightning
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What’s worrisome is that throughout the streak, these big name players have made the necessary adjustments from night to night, but so far there seems to be no adjustments being made through two games.

The Kid Line

The Rangers’ “Kid Line” with Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko have been another major difference maker for the team. With Chytil’s two goals in Game 1, and another one by Kakko in Game 2, they’ve put up top-line numbers in a a third-line role. The comparison could be made to the Lightning’s third line on their last two Stanley Cup runs. Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman put up top-six numbers as the Lightning’s third line in both their Stanley Cup runs. The Kid Line has been similar in their production throughout these playoffs.

Filip Chytil New York Rangers
Filip Chytil, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Lightning need more contribution from their bottom two lines if they want to get back in this series. Brandon Hagel, Patrick Maroon, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have been nonexistent for the Lightning. Aside from assisting the Nick Paul goal in Game 2, Corey Perry has done little to help his cause as well. While these names aren’t exactly expected to put up big offensive numbers, they need to provide some spark if the Lightning wish to win this series.

With the streak now out of the way, hopefully a weight is lifted off of their shoulders and they can deliver a win for Game 3 on June 5. The experience the Lightning have in the playoffs will be tested, as they’re not in a rare predicament that they have not seen in years.

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