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

INDIANA 82 MICHIGAN ST 75

A few random thoughts about Saturday’s game…

When the executives at ESPN scheduled the Hoosiers vs. the Spartans before the season began, surely they thought they would have two top ten teams if not the two best teams in the Big 10 battling it out in late January.  Instead they got two teams, both beset by injuries, who have spent the entire season struggling for consistency and failing to live up to some lofty pre-season expectations.  Today’s game was a mirror image of the problems both of these teams have faced–an up and down roller coaster of a season that has seen their share of big victories and tough losses.  The first 20 minutes saw the Hoosiers arguably play their best half of the season, taking a 44-30 lead into the break.  In the second half, the Spartans outplayed Indiana, cutting the lead to as few as four points late in the game.  In the end, Michigan State couldn’t overcome a 20 point deficit and the Assembly Hall crowd as the Hoosiers won their third consecutive game for the first time since December and now stand 4-3 in the conference, their first time above .500 in the Big Ten this season.

With O.G. Anunoby out for the season, the most important player for Indiana is Zach McRoberts.  Anunoby’s absence means the Hoosiers lose out on one of their top defenders but it gives McRoberts, who is the best defender on the team, more playing time.  Given Indiana’a propensity to fall asleep on the defensive end, seeing McRoberts play 32 minutes like he did Saturday means Indiana has a much better chance of keeping their opponents off the scoreboard and more opportunities to play to their strengths on offense.

Before Indiana fans start to press the panic button on the season because of Anunoby’s season-ending injury, we should take solace in the fact that the Hoosiers were a Sweet 16 team last season despite incurring injuries to James Blackmon and Robert Johnson.  It’s a blueprint coach Tom Crean needs to use again.  I have been critical in the past of Crean’s tactic of constantly shuttling players in and out of games before any  offensive or defensive rhythm can be established.  Just like last year, however, with a shorter bench due to injuries, employing that strategy is less likely to occur and in the end made the Hoosiers a better team at the end of last season.  Let’s hope it can happen again this year.

At the end of last season, the Hoosiers best player was freshman Thomas Bryant.  His defensive prowess and his ability to score in the low post made him almost unstoppable at times near the end of the year.  When Bryant announced he was returning to Bloomington for his sophomore year, I expected even better production.  Coming into Saturday’s game, that wasn’t the case.  In fact, Bryant seemed to be spending more time shooting three pointers and pouting when something didn’t go his way on the court.  Against the Spartans, we saw, at times, the Bryant from last year, scoring from the low block and making good plays on the defensive end.  If Indiana has any hope of making the NCAA tourney and achieving any kind of success, they need the Thomas Bryant many experts believed was a NBA lottery pick last spring.

The secret to Indiana’s success is pretty simple.  Don’t turn the ball over and they become one of the best and most potent offenses in the country.   Saturday’s game was no exception.  In the first half, Indiana scored 44 points on 50% percent shooting with only five turnovers, positive production that gave the Hoosiers a 14 point lead that they used to defeat a Michigan State team they hadn’t defeated since 2013.  Protect the ball and Indiana has a chance to make some noise in March.