It was in reach for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning could not perform well consistently under pressure and navigate through the rough patches every team encounters during the finals. Steven Stamkos, who’s hockey’s second best pure goalscorer behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, was an absolute ghost. In game 6, the players who had prime scoring chances for the Lightning are the ones they wanted, as Barry Melrose aptly stated following last night’s game. It’s easy to give credit to Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford for stifling him on his scoring chances, but as the Lightning’s captain and unquestioned superstar, this loss ultimately falls on him. Yes, Tyler Johnson’s production also experienced a huge drop-off, but Stamkos is the engine for this team.
At the beginning of the second period, Tampa Bay started with a flurry and created two grade A scoring chances. The first had Stamkos isolated in front of Chicago’s net one-on-one with Blackhawks net minder, Corey Crawford, in which he failed to sufficiently elevate the puck. The second chance had Anton Stralman fan on the puck right in front of a wide-open net. These are chances Tampa Bay would easily score on during the regular season. Especially against a team the caliber of Chicago, you cannot squander as many fantastic scoring opportunities as the Lightning did and expect to come out on top.
In terms of where Tampa Bay goes from here, there really is not much to change on this roster. Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Vitctor Hedman, and Steven Stamkos are all 25 or younger. Brenden Morrow, who’s in the autumn of his career, is the club’s only unrestricted free agent. Ben Bishop had another fine season in net and has performed well enough in the playoffs to put his team in position to win a cup in the near future. Andrei Vasilevskiy has shown himself to be capable on the sport’s biggest stage. Between him and Bishop, it gives the Lightning the top 1-2 goaltending punch in the NHL.
One area that could be improved upon is the defensive blue line. After the first pair of Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman, the Lightning just had too much of a drop-off in performances. Between making mistakes in their own zone and taking bad penalties, the likes of Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn, and Matt Carle just didn’t perform up to the standard needed to win a Cup. With Tampa’s first round pick in last year’s draft, Anthony DeAngelo, Nikita Nesterov, and Andrej Sustr’s continued development the Lightning may be able to solve this conundrum in-house. They could also use another sniper on the first line to play alongside Stamkos in order to ease some of the defensive pressure on the Tampa Bay captain. With one of the league’s deepest prospect pools, this team will challenge for hockey’s greatest prize for many years to come.