The narrative, the easiest one to reach for which is generally what most hockey observers want to do before hitting the bar, is the two-time defending champ Tampa Bay Lightning must be playing great defense because the Florida Panthers have scored just three goals in three games. And while that’s not wildly off the mark, it’s not really the whole story.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is the whole story.
The Bolts have done a good job about not letting the Panthers turn games into a 4x100 that they would like, much like the Capitals did. They’ve backed off their forecheck a bit to keep the neutral zone trenched. And while the Panthers have had their share of possessions, dominating the Corsi counts in all three games, in Game 3’s 5-1 win the Bolts did a decent job of making sure their shots and attempts came from three-point land rather than at the rim.
But that doesn’t mean Tampa has been great, or showing a new leaf and turning into the 1995 Devils to compensate for their tired legs after two consecutive Cup runs. The first two games saw them give up over two expected goals at just even-strength, and if the Cats’ power-play was even in the neighborhood of cogent right now, this could be a different series.
But it hasn’t been cogent, and the Panthers are soon to be put to the sword, thanks to Vasilevskiy.
According to MoneyPuck.com, Vasilevskiy has saved the Lightning six goals in this series. He has stopped 102 of the 105 shots faced, and he has continued the Panthers’ power-play streak of meat-handedness. And the Lightning have needed all of it. The scores may look lopsided thanks to empty-netters, but the Panthers have mostly matched them for chances and play. What they don’t have is a goalie batting a .971 save-percentage, as Sergei Bobrovsky has managed “merely” an excellent .928.
And that’s the thing about the Lightning, and why they’re still champs until they decide they’re not, is they still have the firepower to make the most out of tiny openings. The Panthers have eyeballed them, even though they’ll get swept (hockey is most peculiar, mama). But where Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau can’t quite seem to find it, Steven Stamkos is doing stuff like this:
With an assist from Nikita Kucherov, because whatever the percentages say, these guys don’t miss when they get a look. Just like when Kucherov was left just enough space behind the net with four seconds to go in Game 2, which is really when this series ended.
No, the Lightning haven’t been great. No, they’re not changing their style to be a smothering, boring, trapping, sit-on-your-head wildebeest of a team. They might not have the legs to outgun everyone as they have in the past. What they do have is their best player playing his best hockey, and the next best players picking their spots when they present themselves. Luckily for them, they have enough of those to keep doing that for another month.
Here’s Andrew Wiggins handing Luka Dončić his soul back to him after inhaling it and sneezing it out onto his hands:
You gotta hand it to Dončić, the best defensive move he made all night was to realize he was about to get his face turned into putty so he tried to con the refs into thinking he’d gotten hit in the face. It almost worked! A successful Warriors challenge is what kept this in the official scorebook.
Dončić went for 40-plus points again, and he’s all that’s kept the Mavs from getting utterly embarrassed in this series, and Wiggins demonstrated to Luka and the world just how futile that’s going to be. It’s rarely been so evident.
On a crazy day in soccer, wherever there’s a crazy day, you can be sure Mario Balotelli is lurking:
That’s eight step-overs, in case you needed the official count, and a Rabona finish into the bottom corner, because when your Mario Balotelli and your universe isn’t the same as everyone else’s, of course it is a Rabona finish into the bottom corner. Why wouldn’t it be?
In case you’re wondering, Balotelli finds himself in the Turkish league these days as his travels never seem to stop. To bemoan the waste of talent is to almost certainly miss the point of Balotelli, who has only ever worried about enjoying himself. Sure, he could have been so much more, but really all he hurt is himself. He’s almost a misplaced tennis player, like Gael Monfils or Nick Kyrgios, monstrously talented players who were always more concerned with the show than breaking through to the level of legends.
Balotelli is still a show, and stuff like this proves that’s all he ever should have been judged on.