Sure the Lightning's season is on the edge. But this isn't the end of the ride -- not even close.
THE HEART AND SOUL
Martin St. Louis had two teeth knocked out in Game 1. He had a double root canal performed after the game. He didn't miss so much as a practice. He scored a power-play goal in Game 2 that basically put the game away. He scored both goals in Game 3. He scored the first goal in Game 4 that snapped the Lightning out of their torpor and made things interesting again. He has four goals in the series; the rest of the team combined has five. He's out there trying to drag everyone through this series when most of his teammates aren't picking up their share of the load. He looks like the fastest, freshest player on the team, even though he turns 36 years old in June.
I hope everyone is properly appreciating Marty while he's still at the top of his game. If he played football instead of hockey, there's no doubt he would be right there with Lee Roy Selmon as the most beloved athlete in the history of pro sports in Tampa Bay.
THE FIRST GOAL
Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have reverted to the kind of hockey that just about everyone hates. Sit back, don't really do any forechecking, stack up at the blue line, clog the middle, put your sticks in all the passing lanes, and get away with as much interference and stick-grabbing as the officials will allow. It's dull, pre-lockout hockey, the kind the league tried to break up with all the rules changes in 2005 because it was so ugly and unwatchable.
Don't kid yourself and pretend that Dan Bylsma is trying all by himself to destroy the league like Jacques Lemaire and John Maclean (the Panthers coach) did in the 90s. The Lightning are doing a lot of the same things on defense with their 1-3-1 system. It's supposed to be more aggressive, but instead they're sagging back into the neutral zone and trying to force the Penguins to turn the puck over at the edge of the offensive zone, or chip it in deep.
Just llke playoff teams tried to do 10 years ago, both teams are trying to get the first goal so they can fall back on their defensive systems. (I'm trying not to use the T-word, but both teams are more or less using one.) Falling behind isn't a near-death sentence like it was before the lockout, but you have to be willing to do the work and cash in your opportunities to get back in the game. The Lightning aren't doing either one of those things. Their effort isn't quite where it needs to be to succeed in the playoffs, and when they are able to get set up on offense, their passes aren't clean and pucks are rolling off their sticks, giving Pittsburgh extra time to get in position and stop them. Once the giddy high of overtime wore off a few minutes into the extra period, it felt like there was no way the Lightning would win the game unless they scored on a power play.
It was like there were two different goalies playing. There was the proven playoff goalie that Dwayne Roloson truly is, someone who kept a struggling team in the game a lot longer than it had a right to be. Roloson made some fantastic saves, especially in the first overtime. He somehow got a skate on a deflected shot from Craig Adams, then whipped across the crease and stoned Arron Asham (who had about 75 scoring chances in this game) on the rebound at the far post. Then he stopped Asham again on a 2-on-1 after an ill-advised stick check attempt by Brett Clark. Roloson made 49 saves and really didn't have much help from his mostly overwhelmed teammates.
Then there was a Dwayne Roloson that no one was expecting -- the one who looked like an untested goalie that wasn't ready for the pressure of the playoffs. Roloson gave up a gigantic rebound to Asham in the second period, who promptly buried it for a 2-0 lead. And then there was the game-winning goal by James Neal, which was just a terrible goal to give up. A lot of Lightning fans will remember John Grahame, who was Nikolai Khabibulin's caddy during the Stanley Cup run of 2004, and then served as the team's primary goaltender in the first year back from the lockout. He let in enough bad goals that it inspired the classic John Tortorella line,"I'm getting tired of the 25 percent rule" after Grahame gave up five goals on 20 shots in Game 3 of a 2006 playoff series against Ottawa, then followed it up by allowing four goals on 17 shots in Game 4. In a related story, the Lightning lost the series.
That goal by Neal was exactly the kind of goal Grahame was notorious for giving up - sitting deep in his net, not ready to make a save, puck going in high on the short side. Playoff goalies have to stop that shot. It's a shame when someone as battle-hardened as Roloson stands on his head all night, and then that happens.
Every faceoff in the Lightning end was a horror show. Pittsburgh won most of them and then invariably generated a good scoring chance. If there's one place where the Lightning are decisively losing the series, it's in the faceoff circle. The final 45 seconds of the game went roughly like this: lost faceoff, Penguins scoring chance, iced the puck, lost faceoff, Penguins scoring chance, turnover at the blue line, Neal scores, game over.
THE WORK IN PROGRESS
It's hard to keep your expectations at the same level from the beginning of the season to the end. In October, we were all just hoping the Lightning could make the playoffs, and they exceeded that. But raising expectations along the way was setting up for disappointment, because the truth is that the 2011 Lightning were never a serious Stanley Cup contender. The goaltending situation stabilized some after the trade for Roloson, but he's 41 years old and won't be around too much longer. The defensemen need more experience in Boucher's system so they don't make as many bad decisions and get themselves caught in tough spots. Simon Gagne hasn't really worked out and may be replaced over the summer (we can haz Brad Richards?). But above all else, this series has demonstrated that the lower lines really need to be addressed.
I've been really impressed with Pittsburgh's fourth line. Every time Asham, Adams, and Michael Rupp step on the ice, it's a positive for the Penguins. The three of them have been strong at both ends and they're a matchup problem for whoever the Lightning try and use against them. They're a bit like Detroit's old "Grind Line" of Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, and Kirk Maltby. Stir things up, lean on the other team, set up better matchups for the scoring lines, and maybe score a goal or two.
The Lightning have no one like that except for Steve Downie. The good news is that it's not a very hard thing to retool. Players on lower lines are rarely locked up long-term. It's just a matter of hitting on the right combination. If it doesn't click one year, you can find some replacements and maybe it clicks the next. Fortunately there's someone in the Lightning organization who's very familiar with the Grind Line concept -- GM Steve Yzerman was the captain of those teams.
The Lightning are probably going to lose this series. That doesn't bother me too much, for two reasons. First, can you name a team that won it all on their first run together through the playoffs? It just doesn't happen, barring unusual circumstances (like Carolina in 2006, where teams were so drastically different in the first year after the lockout that experience really didn't matter). Look at the team who's about to win this series. The Penguins needed three playoff runs and a coaching change before they finally won a Stanley Cup in 2009. Or look at last year's Blackhawks, who didn't measure up to the Red Wings in that 2009 season. They regrouped, got valuable experience for many of its best players in the Olympics, and used all their lessons to take the Cup home.
And second, look at where the Lightning were 12 months ago compared to now. Or if you can do it without laughing out loud, look at the train wreck that the team was 24 months ago. Jeff Vinik, Tod Leiweke, Steve Yzerman, and Guy Boucher should get credit for an impressive reversal of the franchise's fortunes. But I'm sure none of them would say that the job is done, or even close to done. It may be tough to see it this way with the Lightning staring down elimination, but this should be one of the most optimistic times in franchise history. Let's see what happens next.