If one were to ask me how to sum up the Tampa Bay Lightning 2011-12 Campaign in one word, I would answer them with, “Relentless.” From injuries, shaky netminding, an inconsistent blueline and having to kill most of our own Power Plays, the deck was stacked against the Bolts making another surprising run to and through the playoffs. However, despite the woes of the season, the Bolts kept their heads held high, kept giving it all on the ice, kept battling, they played relentlessly. They played for the Cup, then they played for each other, and then at the end they played for the fans, because it was the right thing to do, there’s always a reason to play.
But, what happened this past year? All thought the Bolts would be a lock for the playoffs after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, taking the would be Stanley Cup Champions to a Game 7. After the miracle run ended the Bolts headed to the off-season and as with any off-season, some pieces were let go; Sean Bergenheim to the Panthers, Simon Gagne to the Kings and Mike Smith to the Coyotes.
A number of folks have expressed that if the organization kept Mike Smith and let Dwayne Roloson go, the Bolts would have been much better off during this season. Yes, Smith has played exceptionally well with the Coyotes this year, however it is not an indication that he would have done the same for the Lightning. Sometimes a change of location, pace, system, etc can really kick-start a goalie or at times disrupt (Ilya Bryzgalov). General Manager Steve Yzerman was willing to roll the dice between the two, and went with the hot (though aging) Roloson, I for one really cannot blame him for making that move.
As I have said many times before this year, shoddy goaltending has not been the team’s only issue. The Lightning blueline was directly responsible for a sizable portion of the woes in net. Losing veteran defenseman Mattias Ohlund the whole season had a noticeable impact among the defensive corps. Couple that with the on-again, off-again injuries of Victor Hedman, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Matt Gilroy, and Pavel Kubina there was no chance that these guys could develop the solid chemistry needed to help out their goalie. Their play was often inconsistent and far from being on point. Though there’s a bit of hope for our blueline, seeing how well they were able to shutdown teams towards the end of the season after the additions of Keith Aulie and Brian Lee.
From the blueline to the power play. This year’s power play can be described as “absent when needed most.” It is truly amazing that with the offensive fire power the Lightning has, our power play was more of a boon to the opponent. Even though the Bolts would be on the power play they were more often trying to survive than thrive. Unable to pass well or even get into the zone led to most of the power play woes, which led to numerous momentum shifts and 12 short-handed goals against. I forsee a lot of fundamentals work happening leading up to next year along with Coach Guy Boucher redeveloping his power play strategies.
While suffering through the aforementioned issues the Lightning still played with spirit and tenacity, staying in the playoff hunt far longer than most would have thought possible. All was not doom and gloom though when it came to these issues. As a result of all the injuries and inconsistent play, it gave (and at times forced) the organization to shuffle lines and make numerous call-ups from the American League affiliate in Norfolk. Call-ups like P.C. Labrie, Dustin Tokarski, Trevor Smith, J.T. Wyman and the well traveled Evan Oberg took the opportunity to play with the Lightning and made the most of it. Often times it was because of the play of these future Bolts that kept the Lightning heading in the right direction, giving Tampa Bay a taste of what Norfolk already knew: the future is bright for the Bolts in Blue.
Through all the toil and trouble there were some amazing successes this season, of course most notably Steven Stamkos’ 60 goals scored. What an amazing feat by this young sniper, who really is no longer just a sniper. Stamkos has continued to improve his game since last season, no longer just scoring mainly off his one-timer, but also from getting dirty in the crease. He has also upped his two-way play and play-making ability. Knowing Stamkos’ work ethic, this is only going to continue to get better.
In addition to Stamkos, the Lightning had five 20-plus goal scorers; Stamkos (60), Martin St. Louis (25), Teddy Purcell (24), Vincent Lecavalier (22) and Ryan Malone (20). A solid offensive line-up no doubt, and with the possibility of AHL MVP Cory Conacher joining the team next season, the offense will be that much more deadly.
It was a long campaign for sure, filled with more tears than cheers, but don’t let what happened in the 2010-11 season cloud your judgement of this season. Last year was a surprise, this year is what was to be expected since GM Steve Yzerman and Coach Guy Boucher came on board. Yzerman’s primary goal was to build depth for long term success. A goal that is being realized in Norfolk, who closed out the season on a 28 game winning streak and are favorites to win the Calder Cup. A goal that was seen in Tampa Bay and other NHL cities throughout the season when the Admirals became Bolts and held their own.
Though there were no playoff victories this season, there were plenty of small victories throughout. And it is these small victories that bode well for the years to come, when the Tampa Bay Lightning will be triumphant once again.
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