Jan 21, 2013; Uniondale, NY, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Anders Lindback (39) works for a save during the second period against the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

TB 3 vs. NYI 4: Brain Junk


It started with a bang (Pierre-Cedric Labrie and B.J. Crombeen dropping the gloves with respective Islander opponents to start the game) and finished with a fizzle (back to back Lightning penalties in the closing minutes of the game, thwarting a would-be comeback).  The Lightning went into Long Island with an opportunity to get a leg up on the South East Division, and left with a loss, and a long flight to Carolina ahead of them.  The team squares off with the Hurricanes tonight.

 

It’s not that there aren’t a lot of positives to take from last night’s game – there certainly are.  But for about fifteen minutes, this year’s Lightning looked like last year’s Lightning.  And that can’t happen.

 

The Islanders opened the scoring in the second period on a breakaway by Michael Grabner, who seemed to materialized behind the Bolts D and went on to score despite having Eric Brewer draped all over him.  Brewer was given a minor penalty for his efforts, which he had to serve because the Bolts were already shorthanded.  Later in the period, Matt Martin did some materializing of his own, popping out of the penalty box in his case, and scored on another breakaway.  About a minute later, the Islanders bumped their lead to three, when Kyle Okposo decided to hold onto the puck on a two-on-one and beat Anders Lindback low on the glove side.  The fourth Islanders goal came early in the third period on a three-on-two that saw David Ullstrom beat Lindback over the shoulder with a breath-taking shot.

 

And then it was the Lightning’s turn.  Tampa Bay finally seemed to have some zip in their step in the third period, much of which I credit to the assembly of a Stamkos-St. Louis-Conacher line.  It’s undersized, but the speed is incredible, and they buzzed every time they took the ice.  Shortly after the last Islanders goal, Marty St. Louis put the Bolts on the board with a goal out of a harmless looking scramble, where his own shot pin-balled through some skates and then bounced back to him for a second try.  A few minutes later Benoit Pouliot picked up his first goal with the Lightning when a Victor Hedman shot did some pin-balling of its own (through Adam Hall and B.J. Crombeen, who got the assists) and Pouliot whacked it home beneath the pad of Evgeni Nabakov.  On the very next shift, Cory Conacher found Steven Stamkos near the crease, and Stamkos cracked in his first of the season.  The Lightning suddenly found themselves down by just one goal, with all the momentum you could hope for, and twelve minutes to work with.

 

And that’s when the wheels fell off.  The Bolts appeared well on their way to a magnificent comeback, and played with a lot of heart, a lot of fire, down the stretch.  It was enough to make you believe they were going to do it, or at least make you commend the effort.  And then, like the way it happens in the most frustrating dreams, Nate Thompson took a penalty with two and a half minutes remaining (for the record, I watched the replay of the penalty a number of times, and maybe there’s some hidden angle out there that shows Thompson’s hand on the Islander player’s hip, but I didn’t see the infraction).  If that wasn’t bad enough, less than a minute later, Brian Lee took a hooking penalty (this time I saw the infraction plain as day), ensuring the Lightning would finish the game short-handed.

 

Islanders 4, Lightning 3.

 

So for Bolts fans, it was a night full of highs and lows.  We can walk away happy that the team didn’t throw in the towel, but we have to be disappointed that they put themselves in that situation to begin with, and then squandered their chance to make a comeback.

 

So:

 

The Positives…

 

1. The Smurf Line

 

I wish I was a more popular writer so this could catch on.  Alas, I’m not, but what I am is stubborn, and therefore I’ll continue to call Stamkos-St. Louis-Conacher the Smurf line even if I’m the only one (which I no doubt will be).

 

Coach Boucher put this little masterpiece together in the third period, and the chemistry was instant.  What they lack in size and strength they make up for in speed and creativity.  They outskated and outworked their bigger, lumbering Islander foes last night, ultimately resulting in a pair of goals and six points spread around evenly.

 

Don’t be surprised if the line gets a full test drive tonight in Carolina.  The Lightning will be tired from last night’s effort, and its deflating finish, and will need a good start.  And even though it’s only game 3 of the regular season, it’s a big game – Carolina is a division rival, and the division, as a whole, is struggling a bit.

 

2. Lindback played great.

 

You don’t often say a goalie, who just gave up four goals, had a great game.  But that’s what happened last night.  Lindback was the only reason the Lightning came out of the first period in a tie.  From there, the defensive breakdowns became too much, and thus the four goals.  It’s important to note that the Islanders had a total of 44 shots last night, which is a good clue about where the real problem was.

 

Lindback has given the Lightning a solid start to the season.  The goals he’s given up have either been odd-man rushes or mad scrambles in front, and in those cases you can only hope he stops the puck, but it’s hard to put too much blame on him when he doesn’t (a chunk of last night’s game looked like shootout practice).  He’s done enough for the Lightning to be confident in him.

 

I was surprised to see Lindback playing last night, given the back-to-back situation the Lightning are in.  I would be even more surprised to see him start tonight (three games in four nights).  The more likely scenario is he’ll be rested and get his next start on Friday, at home, against the Senators.  The Senators have gotten off to a hot start, so Lindback will need to be on his game.

 

3. Is Victor Hedman bigger?

 

Victor Hedman has always been huge, but this season he looks simply ginormous on my screen.  He’s also playing the body harder than ever, and tossing opponents around like frightened villagers to the tune of “Fee Fi Foe Fum.”  It’s impressive, and a good sign of things to come.

 

Hedman has yet to register a point this season, but he’s doing the right things.  He’s making crisp passes, particularly out of the defensive zone, and is directing pucks at the net in the offensive zone.   The numbers will come.

 

4. Courageous hockey.

 

When Marty St. Louis scored the first Lightning goal last night, you could tell they were just getting started.  Things had finally clicked.  While we can all wish things had “clicked” earlier in the night (and it occurs to me that the Lightning didn’t really get going until the third period of the Washington game either), it is a good sign that the team wasn’t willing to roll over and die.

 

And if not for the end-game penalties, who knows what would have happened?  The Lightning were buzzing at that point, and had the Islanders on their heels.

 

5. Stamkos killing penalties?

 

Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis have been spotted in foreign territory – on the penalty kill.  I, for one, am a fan of this.  I believe your star players should be your best players—the players you want on the ice in every situation.  The beauty of these two on the PK is it doesn’t close the door entirely to offense, and either of them are capable of scoring short-handed goals.  And short-handed goals, quite often, will win you games.  Not only do they put a number up on the scoreboard, but they also deflate the opponent, giving you plenty of momentum to ride.  First and foremost, obviously, is attention to the defensive end.   And for Stamkos, in particular, I think this is a great step toward rounding out his game.

 

 

The Negatives…

 

1. Passes need to be crisper.

 

How many passes last night, particularly on the power play, were delivered to the general area of the receiver and nowhere near the wheelhouse?  Time after time a player would receive a pass, and rather than being immediately set to make the next decision, he would have to first gather the pass in and set up, thus giving the defense time to adjust.

 

Perhaps this is a function of rust.  Cory Conacher, who’s in mid-season form, seems not to be afflicted by whatever bug the rest of the team has, and his passes are textbook tape-to-tape.  But most of the team appears to be struggling in this regard, and it’s hurting their efficiency.  Point to point passes seem particularly bad, as well as St. Louis-to-Stamkos passes (which might be a case of both players trying to force the issue; notice that the reverse, Stamkos-to-St. Louis has delivered better results so far).

 

2. Pierre-Cedric Labrie.

 

I have no problem with Labrie dropping the gloves to start the game (I must admit, for that first second of regulation time, the game was on pace to be my all-time favorite).  And I thought Labrie was one of the more impressive AHL call-ups last season, and was rooting for him to make the team this year.  However, Labrie had a shift against the Islanders where he made back-to-back unnecessary turnovers, and, unless I missed something, spent the rest of the night on the bench.

 

While it’s in no way fair to let one bad shift reflect on a player, Labrie must have taken notice that the Lightning acquired Jean-Francois Jacques yesterday, and JFJ is basically Pierre-Cedric Labrie (right down to the hyphenated French name) with more NHL experience.  The only expectation on Labrie is to be big, strong, and physical, and to otherwise do no harm.  Two turnovers, in the fashion they were made at least, is not acceptable, and one can’t help but wonder if the Lightning are considering a switcharoo of a hulking depth forwards.

 

3. Why you don’t dig a 4-0 hole…

 

The reason why you don’t let yourself get down four goals is because you can have a miraculous period, where you score three goals, and still be down one.  And then if, say, you take two penalties in the final two and a half minutes of the game, you lose.

 

In the first two games of this season, the Lightning have played exceptionally well in the third period.  All four of Steven Stamkos’ points, for instance, have come in the third period.  While it’s great to have a team that can close out a game in style, it’s not good if the other periods are so-so.  Against Washington, Tampa Bay played well throughout, but it must be noted that they started the third period in a 3-3 tie.  The Lightning have given up 7 goals so far this season, and 5 of them have come in the second period.

 

4. Courageous hockey/dumb hockey…

 

The Lightning need to be smarter.  Of the 26 PIM they took against the Islanders, more than a few of them were bad.  Keith Aulie took a penalty that you simply can’t take at the NHL level, one borne more out of personal revenge than any team-objective.  And Brian Lee’s hooking penalty to finish the game was downright disastrous, and by no means a penalty he had to take.  By contrast, Eric Brewer went to the box twice in the game, but both penalties were warranted – the first came when the Lightning were trapped in their own end, and Brewer came sliding in to break up a pass that might well have resulted in a goal, and gathered the puck in with his glove (obviously the team would have been better off had he abstained from that last part); the second was taken trying to prevent Michael Grabner’s breakaway goal.

 

There are certain penalties that are unavoidable.  There are others that are, well, just dumb.  I’m all for penalties that are taken trying to break up a scoring chance that appears destined to end in a red light, or a roughing penalty where a player is coming to the aid of a teammate.  Many of Tampa Bay’s penalties last night were simply bad penalties, team-hurting penalties, and it wound up disrupting the momentum they were trying to build.

 

 

Around the League…

 

1. South East Struggles.

 

Good news Lightning fans – the Bolts failed to go 2-0, but so did everyone else in what’s arguably the NHL’s worst division.  The Panthers got destroyed by the Senators last night, and the Jets picked up just their first point of the year losing in a shootout to Boston.

 

The Jets and Capitals square off tonight.  The Capitals should come out on top in that one, seeing as how the Jets are playing their third game in four nights, whereas the Caps are coming off two days rest.  Elsewhere, the Panthers are playing the Canadiens.  The Panthers are on the tail-end of their own 3-in-4 stretch, but the Canadiens might be exactly the team you want to face in those circumstances.

 

And our own Lightning are traveling to Carolina.  It will be interesting to see how they hold up as the game goes on.  Fatigue could easily become an issue.

 

2. Did you see that goal?

 

Damien Brunner scored what’s been dubbed a “Datsyukian” goal in the shootout  last night between the Wings and Blue Jackets.  Brunner, a 26 year old rookie, has struggled in his first two NHL games, though it would appear the struggles are not for lack of talent.

 

3. Leafs sign Joffrey Lupul.

 

It would appear the Maple Leafs are embracing the philosophy of awkward timing.  First, they fired GM Brian Burke days before the opening of training camp, and now they’ve signed Lupul to a 5-year, $26.25 million contract after their first game (they’ve now played two).  Not that the signing is bad – Lupul played well for the Leaf’s last year – but the timing is, again, awkward.

 

4. Gomez likely to sign with the Sharks today.

 

Scott Gomez, Montreal’s favorite whipping boy, is likely to sign with the San Jose Sharks today.  Gomez was originally told to stay home by the Habs, because at the time, buyouts weren’t permitted until the end of the season, and only if the player was healthy.  So Gomez would have had to put his career on hold for an entire year while waiting for his buyout (to be sure he stayed healthy).  Luckily, common sense prevailed, and the NHLPA stepped in and worked out an agreement that allowed Gomez (and Wade Redden in New York) to be bought out of their contracts immediately, thus allowing them to sign with another team.

 

An odd element to this is that Gomez is actually being rewarded for his bad play, in essence getting two contracts for one year (his new deal with the Sharks to go along with his Montreal money for this year).  That said, it would not have been fair to force a player to sit for an entire year, which would have severely limited his opportunities for a return.

 

6. Paul MacLean’s shoulder puppet.

 

If you haven’t seen it yet, have a look at any shot you can of Ottawa coach Paul MacLean from last night’s game against the Panthers.  More specifically, take a look behind him.  You’ll see a fan that looks near identical to MacLean, mammoth mustache and all, sitting just behind the glass, giving it a spooky mirror effect.

 

5. Luongo deal close, and with “not who anybody thinks it is.” – Mike Gillis

 

Take it for what it’s worth.   My guess?  Washington.

 

 

Till next time.

 

- DFC

@DFrederickCook

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