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