There is not much that evokes more passion and emotion than a Game 7. Thanks to a Brayden Point overtime winner, the Tampa Bay Lightning will once again be a part of that as they face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night in the series finale.
This series has seen many highs and lows for both teams. The series started out with four lopsided games, with each team winning two of them. The timeliness and the number of penalties each team has taken is a major storyline of this series. If the Lightning plan to continue their efforts to be 3-peat Stanley Cup Champions, they will need to deal with what will be a raucous Toronto crowd, and they need these 3 players to step up their game.
The former Vezina Trophy winner has been just ordinary in this series. He has allowed at least three goals in all six outings, and has yet to steal a game. Vasilevskiy did come up big Thursday night after giving up two John Tavares goals late in the second period. Over the next almost 40 minutes of play, he made 13 saves, including nine in overtime. This has not been his best playoff season, as he has allowed 21 goals over six games, with a less-than-stellar save percentage (.885) and goals-against average (3.37).
There has been a lot of discussion about whether Vasilevskiy had too much of a workload over the season. Even as far back as March, he admitted that he was getting a little tired. “Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” Vasilevskiy said. “I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.” The Lightning staff did try to give him breaks by restricting practice time among other methods, but his lack of sharpness but have a lot to do with his workload from the last couple of seasons. He was outstanding in overtime on Thursday night and he will need to be outstanding again in Game 7.
Palat has been an under-the-radar type of player for the Lightning for quite a while. He quietly puts up numbers while playing great team hockey. He is easily one of the more underappreciated players on the team, if not the league, especially in the playoffs. Palat has 40 career playoff goals and is a plus-27 in the post-season. He plays a strong two-way game, and does the little things that allow his teammates to prosper. He will need to continue that in Game 7 so that Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have a chance to do their best work in one of the most critical games of the season.
Palat is also a decent physical player. He had a memorable check on the Maple Leafs’ Mark Giordano, driving him hard into the boards. He also added a blocked shot to his four shots in that game. Palat has excelled for the team by being proficient at gaining possession of the puck and giving his team the opportunity to go on the attack. It is not like Palat has to “step up,” he has to keep “stepping up” as he has throughout his tenure with the Lightning.
One of the issues that the Lightning must deal with in Game 7 is to reclaim the shutdown defense that they had in their two previous Cup runs. While Andrei Vasilevskiy’s numbers in this series have not been great, part of it is due to the defense in front of him not playing up to their potential. There have been too many times where Toronto has scored with great ease. Victor Hedman is going to do Victor Hedman things. When he is not on the ice, it will be up to Ryan McDonagh, with his hockey and leadership skills, to help steady the defense. He is a big part of the leadership group that has guided the team to a conference final and two Cup titles over the past four seasons.
Whether he takes shifts with Erik Cernak, Cal Foote, or Zach Bogosian, now is the time to help anchor a defense that needs to contain Toronto’s high-powered offense one last time. McDonagh has played 12 seasons in the NHL, and has made the postseason in each of those 12 years. Of those 12 playoff appearances, only three have resulted in first-round exits. There is a reason why the Rangers and the Lightning have been so successful with McDonagh on their teams, as he plays his position physically, he has no issue with giving up his body to block shots, and he handles the puck well. So it would not be a huge surprise if he does step up and stabilize the defense and the team.
The Lightning have had a relatively smooth path during their last two Cup championships. This year, they have run into a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has pushed them to the brink. There are times when the Lightning played very indifferently in the regular season, and possibly a couple of times in their playoff series. However, when they were less than 10 minutes away from being eliminated, they stepped up and took advantage of their opponent’s miscue.
Now is the opportunity for the defending Stanley Cup champions to step up one more time.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)