Just three days ago, NHL players were fumbling around in the dark, seemingly ignorant of what was going on around them in the outside world and ill-prepared for the onslaught of inquiries they were facing about how they were going to use their platform to address social injustice, systemic racism and police brutality. The NHL was of no help at all, putting together a ham-handed 33.69-second ‘moment of reflection’ in which the family of a man who was shot back seven times and likely paralyzed was wished well.
The past couple of days have been remarkable, largely because NHL players took control of the narrative. And when they stepped on the ice Saturday afternoon after a two-day pause, their message was clear and united. And it started with former NHLer Kevin Weekes, whose message prior to Game 4 of the second-round playoff series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins could not have been more clear. “In hockey we often let our effort, determination and passion to win do the talking,” Weekes said. “But when an issue is bigger than the game we must speak out, starting with three words we need to get comfortable saying: Black. Lives. Matter.”
That was followed by powerful words from Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and Bruin forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. “We’re going to be better,” Marchand said. “This is only the start. This is the beginning of a lot of change.”
Well done. Well done, indeed. The league and its players looked like a team that comes out as a disorganized mess in the first period and gets outshot 15-4, then regroups after the first and dominates the second and third. And as they moved into the games after taking the focus off hockey, the competitive edge for both teams was on full display. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said most of the past two days was spent talking about everything but hockey, but that when the team arrived at the rink Saturday morning, it was able to focus fully on the task at hand.
And how. The Lightning are looking very much like the Stanley Cup contender we all thought they would be when this season began. Since Ondrej Palat scored in overtime in Game 2, the series has taken a sharp turn in favour of Tampa in every aspect. The Lightning have scored 11 of the past 13 goals in the series and won both games. The hockey gods are smiling upon them. Their top line of Brayden Point between Palat and Kucherov has been beastly at both ends of the ice and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is the only goalie in these playoffs who has not been pulled so far, is exhibiting soul-crushing, Conn Smythe form. Defending the 3-1 lead they had built, the Lightning did not allow a shot on goal for the final five minutes and 53 seconds of the game.
“We’re an overtime goal away from being down 0-2 to it being 1-1,” Cooper said. “I think mentally that has a huge effect, especially when your team feels it’s getting rewarded for how it’s playing. Then you go out and you start scoring first and now you’re making the other team chase.”
Lightning winger Blake Coleman, who was acquired at the trade deadline and has delivered for Tampa, was on point when he talked about how things have fallen into place over the past couple of games. And it all starts with good defense, an aspect of the game that has eluded the Lightning at times. “The ‘D’ have been good, they’ve been predictable,” Coleman said. “It makes life on a forward a lot easier as far as coming out of the zone, and then some big shot blocks, strong in front of our net, ‘Vasi’ has been huge. Pretty much everything we’ve needed has come together.”
One thing the Lightning has done well in these playoffs is confront and overcome adversity, something they were absolutely abysmal at in the 2019 playoffs. In fact, it’s the more experienced and veteran-laden Bruins who have struggled with staying on point when things don’t go their way. They were much better at it in Game 4 than they were in Game 3, but the discipline we’re accustomed to seeing from the Bruins seems to have vanished. Less than a minute after Palat scored his second of the game to make it 2-0, Nick Ritchie of the Bruins took a five-minute boarding major for a late, dangerous hit on Yanni Gourde. The Lightning scored at the tail end of the power play to put the game out of reach.
“He’s a good player, a real good player for them, clever obviously,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said of Gourde. “Got them on the power play for five minutes, finished the game. He had no problems in the third period.”
“Well, he is a clever player, so there’s no doubt about that,” Cooper said of Gourde. “We didn’t hold him back. ‘Gordo’ is a tough kid. We were trying to err on the side of caution and he was saying, ‘No chance, I want back in this game.’ I would say he’s a clever player, but he’s also a gutsy player.”