LIGHTNING ROUND–WEEK 5

Here is the good and the bad from last week for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the rest of the NHL..

GAME SUMMARIES (Home Team in CAPS)

Lightning 8, PANTHERS 5

Goals:  Point (6), Kucherov (13), Stamkos 2 (6), Palat (4), Gourde (2), Namestnikov  (5), Stralman (2)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (18), 10-1-0

Rangers 2, LIGHTNING 1 (OT)

Goals:  Gourde (3)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (33), 10-1-1

LIGHTNING 5, Blue Jackets 4 (SO)

Goals:  Point (7), Kucherov (14), Stamkos (7), Gourde (4)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (30), 11-1-1

SEASON:  11-2-2, 24 points, 1st place in the Atlantic Division

THE GOOD

  • The Lightning’s three games last week proved that Victor Hedman is one of the premier defensemen in the NHL, and barring an injury, a perennial contender for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.  In addition to his five assists last week, Hedman, the second overall selection by the Lightning in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, averaged 26:33 of ice time per game, solidifying his status as coach Jon Cooper’s most dependable two-way player.  Hedman’s performance over the last three games underscored the fact that he is an elite, all-around defenseman who possesses high-level shutdown skills and great passing abilities while playing a large amount of minutes every night.
  • One of the more surprising early season highlights for the Lightning has been the play of forward Yanni Gourde.  Coming into the year Gourde has scored six goals and earned three assists in 22 career NHL games.  Through 15 games this season, Gourde already has four goals and five assists and has teamed with Braydon Point and Ondrej Palat to form the second highest scoring line on the team.  Gourde is filling the void quite nicely left by Jonathan Drouin’s departure during the off-season thanks to his hard-nosed play and his good hockey sense.
  • The Lightning special teams shined again last week with the penalty kill stepping up to make a significant contribution to the team’s 2-0-1 record for the week.  The power play scored three times on 10 chances, increasing their season percentage to 28.8%, tied for the second best power play in the NHL.  The penalty kill, led by the stellar play of Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan, went a perfect nine for nine last week, improving their penalty kill percentage for the season to a league 11th best.

THE BAD

  • Two weeks ago it was an issue.  Last week it was a problem.  Now that the Lightning have lost the majority of their face-offs for the fifth consecutive week, it is now bordering on becoming an epidemic.  Last week, Tampa Bay lost 103 of 198 face-offs (52.0%) and if this trend continues the Lightning’s good fortune on the power play, the penalty kill and in one-goal games will come to an unhappy end.
  • Another potential crisis on the horizon is the Lightning’s recent habit of blowing two goal leads.  Last week it happened twice when Tampa Bay blew a 3-1 lead to Florida on Monday and then a 4-2 third period lead to Columbus on Saturday.  Luckily, the Lightning won both games but Stanley Cup contenders can’t expect those results when they carelessly allow their opponents to come back from two goals down.  They need to either deliver a knock-out punch or at the very least keep their opponent at bay when they jump out to a multiple goal lead.
  • Last year after falling short in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against Anaheim, the Edmonton Oilers were the darlings of the NHL.  Many experts predicted the Oilers and their young core led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, would take the next step and represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Through 13 games in 2017, however, the Oilers are 4-8-1 with a -13 goal differential and in next to last place in the Pacific Division.  Unless they turn around their season soon, the only step the Oilers will take this season is a backwards one, right out of Stanley Cup contention.

THREE STARS OF THE WEEK

  1. Yanni Gourde–3 goals, 1 assist, 4 points
  2. Victor Hedman–5 assists, 5 points
  3. Steven Stamkos–3 goals, 1 assist, 4 points, game-winning shoot-out goal

THIS WEEK’S GAMES

Wednesday–at San Jose

Thursday–at Los Angeles

Sunday–at Anaheim

LIGHTNING ROUND–WEEK 4

GAME SUMMARIES (Home Team in CAPS)

Lightning 5, HURRICANES 1

Goals:  Johnson (4), Sergachev (4), Namestnikov (4), Callahan (1), Kucherov (11)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (31), 8-1-0

LIGHTNING 3, Red Wings 2

Goals:  Kucherov (12), Stamkos (4), Point (5)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (29), 9-1-0

Ducks 4, LIGHTNING 1

Goals:  Kunitz (2)

Saves:  Budaj (17), 0-1-1

THE GOOD

  • The Lightning continued their fast start to the 2017-18 season thanks to some very impressive record-setting performances.  Tampa Bay set a franchise record by winning their first six home games of the year following their 3-2 victory over Detroit last Wednesday night.  The win was highlighted by goaltender’s Andrei Vasilevskiy’s personal best eighth consecutive win and points by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.  Kucherov’s goal and assist and a goal by Stamkos in the win against the Red Wings marked the 11th consecutive game where they both scored a point, tying a club record for most consecutive games with a point scored to start a season.
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy is quickly becoming one of the top goaltender’s in the NHL.  His nine wins leads all NHL goalies, while his .936 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average are sixth and seventh best in the league respectively.  More importantly, Vasilevskiy has made several momentum changing saves during critical junctures in the game, especially when the Lightning defense hasn’t been at its best.  Most people would tab Nikita Kucherov as the team’s early season MVP but Vasilevskiy is not that far behind.
  • The Lightning power play continued to fire on all cylinders, finishing the week with three goals in 11 opportunities with the man advantage.  Tampa Bay has the second highest power player percentage (28.6%) in the NHL so far this season and their 76 power play goals since the start of last season are the most by any team in the league

THE BAD

  • Saturday’s 4-1 home loss to Anaheim, which snapped their six game home winning streak as well as stopping the 11-game point streak of both Kucherov and Stamkos, was the Lightning’s worst performance so far this season.   All phases of the game were to blame as the power play went 0-4, the penalty kill went 0-2 and back-up goalie Peter Budaj struggled in his second start of the year, giving up four goals on just 21 shots.  Even when the Lightning pulled Budaj for the extra attacker with over four minutes to play, they failed to put the puck in the back of the net.  Overall, it was a night to forget.
  • The loss to Anaheim also exposed a potential problem going forward when the Lightning play a Western Conference opponent.  They have scored only three goals in two games against teams from the Western Conference and so far it appears the style of hockey employed by most of the teams from the West, a physical, hard-checking game played at a slower, slogging pace, gives Tampa problems.  It’s a small sample size, but it’s worth keeping any eye on this trend, especially when the Lightning embark on a three-game Western road trip next week.
  • For the fourth consecutive week, the Lightning had a losing record in the face-off circle, winning only 49.1 percent of their draws over three games.  It’s a recurring problem Tampa needs to address, especially during the power play and penalty kill as well as late in the third period of a one-goal game.

THREE STARS OF THE WEEK

  1. Andrei Vasilevskiy–2 wins, 60 saves, 1.5 GAA, .950 save percentage
  2. Nikita Kucherov–2 goals, 1 assist, 3 points
  3. Ryan Callahan–1 goal, 1 assist, 2 points

THIS WEEK’S GAMES

Monday–at Florida

Thursday–vs. New York Rangers

Saturday–vs. Columbus

LIGHTNING ROUND–WEEK 3

Here’s the good and the bad of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s week and random NHL thoughts for the week ending October 23, 2017…

GAME SUMMARIES (Home team in CAPS)

Lightning 3, RED WINGS 2

Goals:  Johnson (3), Kucherov 2 (7)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (29), 5-1-0

DEVILS 5, Lightning 4 (SO)

Goals:  Namestnikov (3), Palat (3), Kucherov (8), Stamkos (2)

Saves:  Budaj (30), 0-0-1

Lightning 2, BLUE JACKETS 0

Goals:  Sergachev 2 (2)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (43), 6-1-0

LIGHTNING 7, Penguins 1

Goals:  Kucherov 2 (10), Stamkos (3), Gourde (1), Point (4), Stralman (1), Sergachev (3)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (28), 7-1-0

SEASON:  7-1-1. 15 points, 1st place in the Atlantic Division

THE GOOD

  • In a week in which our country’s leaders traded idioms to explain the nations’ current events, it’s only appropriate to describe the Lightning’s play last week as a hockey team cooking with gas.  Tampa was 3-0-1 for the week, including two wins on the road and a dominating six goal victory over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Lightning corrected their defensive lapses from the previous five games, allowing only 2.0 goals per game last week, while maintaining their fast start offensively by averaging 4.0 goals per game.  Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy continued his early season sharp play, winning all three games he started thanks to a 1.00 GAA and a .971 save percentage that included a shutout victory against Columbus.  Add it all up and it’s a recipe for a nearly flawless week of hockey that vaulted the Bolts into first place in the Atlantic Division and the NHL’s best record with 15 points.
  • With the Lightning averaging over four goals per game, the spotlight, and rightfully so, has been on Nikita Kucherov and his 10 goals in nine games.  But as last week showed, the Lightning have a very balanced scoring attack.  In their four games last week, Tampa had nine different goal scorers and 12 different players score a point.  The Lightning defensemen, unlike last year, also made a significant contribution, scoring four goals and 10 points in four games.  Getting goals and points from more than just Kucherov and Steven Stamkos only makes Tampa a stronger Stanley Cup contender.
  • Both aspects of the Lightning’s special teams continue to contribute to the team’s early season success.  They scored six power play goals on 17 opportunities last week, improving their power play percentage for the season to 28.9%, the fifth best in the league.  Meanwhile, after struggling in the first four games, the penalty kill has stepped up, allowing only three power play goals on 17 chances last week, and elevating their penalty kill for the season to 81.1%.

THE BAD

  • It’s hard to find any faults in a week in which the Lightning went 3-0-1 but there still remains the problem of giving up too many scoring opportunities to their opponents.  Once again, Tampa was outshot for the week (137-116) and that doesn’t include the 52 shots the Lightning defenders blocked.  They can’t expect Vasilevskiy to continue to stand on his head and maintain his early season torrid goaltending.  They need to clean up their propensity, at times, of allowing too easy of an entry into their zone and the high amount of point-blank and excellent scoring chances they give their opponents.
  • The Lightning also can’t expect Vasilevskiy to play every game and that’s why keeping his backup, Peter Budaj sharp is critical to the team’s success.  Playing him only once in the first nine games, however, isn’t fulfilling that need.  Head coach Jon Cooper needs to find more ways to insert Budaj in the lineup so that Vasilevskiy isn’t burnt out come playoff time.
  • The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers are paying a hefty price to learn a very important lesson–you can’t make your highest paid player, Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, respectively, your goaltender.  So far this season, the Canadiens and the Rangers are combined 3-11-3 and discovering the hard way that success in today’s NHL is predicated on paying for good, not great, goaltending, which frees up the money to pay for the players in front of the goalie who can score and do the dirty work necessary to win games on a nightly basis.

THREE STARS OF THE WEEK

  1. Nikita Kucherov–5 goals, 4 assists, 9 points
  2. Andrei Vasilevskiy–3 wins, 1 shutout, 1.00 GAA, 100 saves, .971 save percentage
  3. Steven Stamkos–2 goals, 8 assists, 10 points

THIS WEEK’S GAMES

Tuesday–at Carolina

Thursday–vs. Detroit

Saturday–vs. Anaheim

LIGHTNING ROUND–WEEK 2

Here’s the good and the bad of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s week and random NHL thoughts for the week ending October 15, 2017…

GAME SUMMARIES  (Home team in CAPS)

LIGHTNING 4, Capitals 3–(OT)

Goals:  Killorn (1), Kunitz (1), Kucherov (3), Point (3)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (23), 2-1-0

LIGHTNING 5, Penguins 4

Goals:  Koekkoek 2 (2), Hedman (1), Stamkos (1), Kucherov (4)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (36), 3-1-0

LIGHTNING 2, Blues 1

Goals:  Johnson (2), Kucherov (5)

Saves:  Vasilevskiy (28). 4-1-0

SEASON:  4-1-0, 8 points, 2nd place Atlantic Division

THE GOOD

  • Unlike their two games against the Panthers last week, the Lightning looked like a Stanley Cup contender in their three games this week.  Their puck management was stronger, they outhit each of their three opponents (68-50) and won more than 50% of their faceoffs for the entire week.  They also scored a power play goal in each of their three games, going a combined 5-12 on the man advantage against three elite opponents in Washington, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
  • If you are a hockey fan, don’t miss a chance to see the Lightning play either Washington or Pittsburgh during the regular season and especially the playoffs.  It’s 60 minutes of end-to-end, fast-paced action that is the definition of firewagon hockey.  Lightning fans were treated to two such games last week and it was simply a blast to watch.
  • Before the season started, Nikita Kucherov was considered one of the elite forwards in the NHL.  His five goals in five games only validates that assessment.  Kucherov has become must-see hockey every time he steps on the ice with everyone in the building anxiously awaiting for him to produce another highlight reel moment.  “Kuch has so much deception to his game,” head coach Jon Cooper said after Saturday’s game.  “That’s why he’s a special player.”

THE BAD

  • When you win three games in a row, it’s difficult to find any faults.  The Lightning did outshoot their opponents for the week, 101-95, but they did lose the shots on goal battle to Pittsburgh (40-34) and St. Louis (29-25).  The penalty kill did improve against St. Louis, shutting out the Blues on three power play opportunities, but against Washington and Pittsburgh they allowed three power play goals on nine chances.  Allowing fewer shows on goal and improving the penalty kill are two areas where the Lightning need to improve so their offense, the strength of their team, can control the rhythm of the game.
  • Over the previous four seasons, Andrej Sustr has been a mainstay of the Tampa Bay defense.  This season, even when Cooper has played with seven defensemen, Sustr has been absent, playing only one of the team’s first five games.  Based on the early returns, Sustr appears to be on the team’s trading block.
  • If you are a Buffalo Sabres fan, you’re praying the team doesn’t go on the power play.  In their first six games, the Sabres have allowed five shorthanded goals.

THREE STARS OF THE WEEK

  1. Nikita Kucherov–3 goals, 2 assists, 5 points
  2. Andrei Vasilevskiy–3 wins, 87 saves, 2.66 GAA
  3. Alex Killorn–1 goal, 5 assists, 6 points

THIS WEEK’S SCHEDULE

Monday–at Detroit

Tuesday–at New Jersey

Thursday–at Columbus

Saturday–vs. Pittsburgh Continue reading “LIGHTNING ROUND–WEEK 2”

LIGHTNING ROUND–WEEK 1

Here’s the good and the bad of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s week and random thoughts about the NHL for the week ending October 7, 2016…

GAME SUMMARIES (Home team in CAPS)

LIGHTNING 5, Panthers 4–Goals:  Palat 2 (2), Point (1), Namestnikov (1), Kucherov (1).  Saves:  Vasilevskiy 33, 1-0-0

PANTHERS 5, Lightning 4–Goals Kucherov (2), Namestnikov (2), Point (2), Johnson (1).  Saves:  Vasilevskiy 43, 1-1-0

SEASON:  1-1-0, 2 POINTS

THE GOOD

  • Both Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan appear to have fully recovered from their season-ending injuries of a year ago.  Stamkos skated fast, hard and effortlessly, making several plays that would give no indication he tore his lateral meniscus 11 months earlier.  Meanwhile, Callahan showed no ill-effects of the right hip injury that has sidelined him since last January.  He was his usual blue-collar self on the ice this past weekend, throwing his body around and relentlessly fore checking at both ends of the ice.  Both performances were a welcomed sight.
  • It’s early, but if the first two games are any indication, then Brayden Point won’t suffer from any sophomore jinx.  Point scored two goals and had three assists in the Lightning’s first two games and playing alongside wingers Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde, centered the most consistent line of the weekend.
  • Ever since the Lightning dealt goalie Ben Bishop at last year’s trading deadline, the prevailing question has been whether or not Andrei Vasilevskiy could handle the pressure of being the team’s number one goalie.  Based upon his performance at the end of last year and the first two games this season, the answer is a resounding yes.  His 76 saves this past weekend kept the Lightning from being blown out of both games and the main reason why they were able to salvage two points against the Panthers.

THE BAD

  • In all honesty, the Lightning should have lost both games to the Panthers by a large margin.  They were outshot 84-55 in the two games combined because the Lightning lost nearly every battle along the boards and around the net and were sloppy with the puck.  Consequently, the puck stayed in Tampa’s defensive zone the majority of both games.  The only time Tampa flipped the ice was in the last nine minutes of Saturday’s game when they were down two goals and desperate to send the game into overtime.  With the Capitals, Penguins and Blues on this week’s schedule, the Lightning need to play with that type of desperation if they hope to earn some critical early season points and to set the foundation for a successful season.
  • It only took five periods of play before head coach Jon Cooper started juggling his lines in order to generate some spark or change the momentum of the game.  It’s clearly Cooper’s M.O. but it comes at a price.  The Lightning are seemingly always searching for consistency or a go-to-line to snap them out of a funk.  Cooper’s constant shuffling of lines simply doesn’t allow for that to happen.
  • The NHL’s new emphasis on slashing this season is doing more harm than good.  The league hoped the new interpretation would open up play, create more scoring chances and more power play opportunities.  Instead, the increased number of penalties has become annoying and disrupted the rhythm of the game.

THIS WEEK’S SCHEDULE

Monday:  vs. Washington Captials

Thursday:  vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Saturday:  vs. St.  Louis Blues

 

LIGHTNING 3, DUCKS 2 (SO)

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Those were the words Thomas Paine wrote in his famous pamphlet, American Crisis, in an effort to renew the spirit of the American soldier and discourage them from deserting or going home during the early days of the Revolutionay War.  If Paine were alive today, he surely would have used those same words to motivate the members of the Tampa Bay LIghtning prior to their game last night against the Anaheim Ducks.  Facing the prospect of falling further behind in their quest to make the playoffs, Tampa desperately needed the same encouragement Paine offered the Revolutionary troops with his pamphlet that enabled the upstart Americans to cross the Delaware in desperate conditions and then defeat the Hessians in the Battle of Trenton.  As it turned out, the ghost of Paine and his immortal words may have filtered into the Lightning’s locker room, as Tampa defeated the Ducks, 3-2 on a game-winning shootout goal by Brian Boyle, in a game one could argue was a must-win situation.

In reality, the game never was as close as the score indicated.  The Lightning, who mustered only 21 shots on goal in each of their previous two games against the Boston Bruins and the Ottawa Senators, outshot the Ducks 37-16, including a 30-7 advantage from the second period through the overtime.  Tampa also dominated Anaheim in total shot attempts, 82-39, including 15 by Jonathan Drouin and 10 by Nikita Kucherov.  Even more impressive, was the Lightning’s work in the face-off circle.  Facing the NHL’s best team in face-offs won, Tampa won 36 of the game’s 67 face offs, symbolizing the overall dominance they displayed against one of the Western Conference’s best teams.  If it wasn’t for the fact that the Lightning hit three goal posts during regulation, the game never would have gone to a shootout.  In what is hopefully a sign of things to come, the game, according to most observers, had the intensity of a playoff game and if the Lightning hold out any aspirations of making the playoffs, that type of effort is needed every night they take the ice.  More importantly, the two points the Lightning earned with the win, coupled with Boston’s loss to Toronto, moved them to within six points of third place in the Atlantic Division.

According to most historians, Paine’s publication of American Crisis, played a crucial role and was a turning point in the American’s battle for independence.  Hopefully, the Lightning can take inspiration from those same words and use it as a renewal of their own morale in the next couple of weeks.  As impressive as their effort was on Saturday, it will go for naught if they can’t follow it up with another dominant performance on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings at Amalie Arena for their second consecutive victory, a feat they haven’t accomplished since December 20 and 22 when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings, 4-1 and the St. Louis Blues, 5-2.  A loss to the Kings before they embark on another road trip and the Lightning may need more than just some historical words of inspiration for them to have any chance at qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

BRUINS 4, LIGHTNING 3

In their first game after the All-Star break, the Lightning desperately needed a home ice win against an Atlantic Division opponent ahead of them in the standing in the Boston Bruins.  The end result was a disappointing 4-3 loss that was emblematic of Tampa’s season after 51 games played.  The offense once again seemed stuck in neutral, managing only 21 shots on goal and missing on several golden opportunities to hit the back of the net, including Jason Garrison’s slap shot that skidded between the pads of Bruins goalie, Tuuka Rask only to have defenseman Colin Miller slap the puck away before it crossed the goal line.  The defense, which looked like it had turned a corner during the recently completed six-game road trip, fell back to its old ways of failing to clear the puck out of their defensive end and allowing the Bruins extended time in the offensive zone that resulted in 35 shots on goal.  Especially back-breaking was the two goals they allowed in the last 1:52 of the second period, including David Krejci’s goal with less than a second on the clock that turned a 1-0 Lightning lead into a 2-1 Boston advantage after two periods.  Or as Tampa defenseman, Anton Stralman said afterward, “We just lose our game plan when we hit a bump.  There’s been too much of that happening.”  Despite a late rush at the end of the third period that included a goal for the returning Braydon Point, the Lightning fell agonizingly short, a frustrating loss that was embodied by Victor Hedman’s reaction of smashing his stick on the ice once the final horn sounded.  The loss put the Lightning 8 points behind the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division and six points behind the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.   The season isn’t over but with three games left on this current homestand, things need to turnaround, and turnaround soon, if Tampa wants any chance of making the playoffs.

With the season essentially in the balance over the next 30 days, it’s time for head coach Jon Cooper to make a decision about who his number one goaltender is and allow his choice to start the majority of the remaining games.  So far, Cooper has employed essentially a platoon system between Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy that rarely sees either goalie playing more than two consecutive games unless an injury to either one (specifically Bishop) forces him to do otherwise.  The results of Cooper’s strategy, unfortunately, have failed to produce any consistent results.  The tandem of Bishop and Vasilevskiy has combined for a 2.78 goals against average and each has earned 11 victories, numbers that are mediocre at best.  It just seems neither goalie has been given the chance to gain any rhythm and history shows that those teams who contend for a Stanley Cup have a bellwether goalie that plays game in and game out.  Personally, my choice is Bishop, a goalie who led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and the Eastern Conference Final last year.  More importantly, when Bishop was out earlier this season for an extended period of time, Vasilevskiy was essentially given the chance to win the starting job and he failed to capitalize on the opportunity.  There’s no denying that the chances of Bishop, a free agent at the end of the season, staying in Tampa after this year are slim at best.  However, if Cooper wants to take a shot at the Cup this year, his best chance of success starts with handing the starting goaltending reigns to Bishop on a permanent basis.

No one wants to hear any excuses as to why the Lightning have arguably been the most disappointing team in the NHL this season but here are a few facts that, at the very least, may explain, why they are struggling just to become playoff contenders:

  • Five players have made their NHL debut for the Lightning this season.
  • The Lightning have played a total of eight games  with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan and Nikita Kucherov in the same lineup.
  • Only two players have dressed for all of the Lightning’s 51 games–Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.
  • 31 different forwards and defensemen have dressed in the team’s 51 games.
  • Through 51 games, the Lightning have a -11 goal differential and are 15th in the league in goals per game (2.7) and 23rd in goals against (2.9).

 

COYOTES 5 LIGHTNING 3

Tampa Bay’s 2016-17 season officially hit rock bottom Saturday night in Glendale, Arizona.  The Lightning’s 5-3 loss to the Coyotes was the result of a total breakdown in all phases of the game–offense, defense, goaltending, the power play and the penalty kill.  After four games, the current six-game road trip has been a microcosm of the season since Thanksgiving:  One step forward, three steps backwards.  The loss also signified the first time all year that the Lightning’s record fell below the .500 mark.  With two games on the road, at Chicago and at Florida, before the All-Star game next Sunday, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that gaining three points in their final two games before the break is imperative if Tampa has any hopes of making the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The one positive thing to come out of Saturday’s loss was the continued solid performance of Tampa’s “French Connection” fourth line of Cedric Paquette, Michael Bournival and Gabriel Dumont.  Since being put together, this line has been the most consistent and seemingly the only line creating any energy each time they take the ice.  They constantly keep the puck in the offensive zone with their aggressive forechecking and grinding style of play.  It was good to see that all of their hard work paid off against the Coyotes on Saturday when Paquette scored his fourth goal of the season on assists from Bournival and Dumont.  If the Lightning are to make any kind of second half push for the playoffs, the rest of the team needs to play with the same desperation this line has done over the last two weeks.

With all due respect to head coach Jon Cooper, it drives me nuts to see how much he shuffles his lines throughout the game.  The only line he seemingly leaves untouched is the aforementioned “French Connection” line and interestingly enough it’s has been his most productive on this current six game road trip.  With an offense that has seemingly gone into hibernation since January 12 (9 goals in five games), it may be time for Cooper to find some consistency with the line he sends out onto the ice.  If he’s looking for suggestions, here’s where I would start:

“The Triplets”–Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov

Valteri Filppula, Jonathan Drouin and Brian Boyle

Vladimir Namestnikov, Alex Killorn and Nikita Nesterov

“The Tampa Frecnh Connection”

Granted, Nesterov is a defenseman, but when Cooper has played him as a forward, he’s played his best hockey.  If and when Ryan Callahan returns, he could replace Nesterov on the wing.  At this point, anything to jump start the offense would be in order.

NEXT GAME:  Tuesday at Chicago, 8:30 pm