January 22, 2013; Raleigh, NC, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier (4) chase after a puck during the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC center. The Lightning defeated the Hurricanes 4-1. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

TB 4 vs. CAR 1: Brain Junk

After a frustrating night on Long Island, the Tampa Bay Lightning travelled to Carolina where the Hurricanes, bolstered lineup and all, were waiting.  The Hurricanes added key offensive pieces this past off-season, including Jared Staal (younger brother of Carolina’s captain, Eric), and Alexander Semin, and were the talk of the hockey world coming into the season.  None of that mattered Tuesday night, however.

 

Perhaps having taken a lesson from their previous outing, which saw them give up four goals in a span of fifteen regulation minutes, the Lightning got off to a hot start.  They were up 2-0 by about halfway through the first period, and never relinquished the lead.

 

That’s not to say they didn’t relinquish momentum at times.  The second period, in particular, was all Carolina.  Luckily for the Lightning, goaltender Matthieu Garon was on top of his game, and held strong while his team’s energy waned.  He gave up a goal to Jeff Skinner, which was scored on a 5-3 power play, that Skinner scored by finding a loose puck in a scramble and, while falling down, roofing it on his back hand in an impressive display of skill.

 

The Lightning got back on point in the third period, and despite being outshot by the Hurricanes, had a better defensive showing.  Garon made big saves when he was called upon, and the Lightning, for the most part, kept the Hurricanes to the perimeter.  Most importantly (and keep in mind they were outshot 36-26 on the night), they kept the puck out of the net.

 

Tom Pyatt opened the scoring for the Bolts, by batting a puck out of the air that had been sent floating toward the goal by Vincent Lecavalier.  Six minutes later, Cory Conacher made it 2-0 by jamming a puck beneath Cam Ward that had been put on net by, guess who, Lecavalier.  After their half-hearted second period, that saw the Hurricanes cut their lead in half, the Bolts went up 3-1 early in the third when Keith Aulie netted an impressive wrist shot.  Aulie, who didn’t have his best game the previous night, was one of the better Lightning defenseman throughout the night.  Finally, the Lightning made it 4-1 with a power play goal by Ryan Malone.  The power play had been a source of frustration for most of the night, with the Lightning looking all-too often for the extra pass, or the pretty play.  The goal came when Sami Salo simply put the puck hard on net and let his teammates fight for it in front.  The Lightning won that fight, scored the goal, and ultimately won the game.  The old adage held true – put the puck on net, and good things happen.  (Interesting note: Steven Stamkos was credited for an assist on the goal, when it was clearly Marty St. Louis that touched the puck before Malone scored.  The official assists went to Salo and Stamkos.)

 

Lightning 4, Hurricanes 1.

 

It’s a good time for Lightning fans to be optimistic.  In each of their three games to start the season, there have been plenty of positives.  Better yet, they appeared to be clearly the more dangerous team last night (despite the shots total), and the Hurricanes were projected by many to finish ahead of the Lightning in the standings (not by me, mind you – I personally think the impact of Staal and Semin is being wildly overestimated).  Better yet, the Lightning appear to have the goaltending required to hold them in games when the momentum swings against them, which they obviously didn’t have last season.

 

Their biggest test of the young season comes Friday, when they square off with the Ottawa Senators.  Ottawa is running hot right now, winning their first two games by a combined score of 8-1 (and we should be thankful – both wins were against Southeast opponents).  The good news is the Senators will be on the tail end of back-to-back games – they play the Panthers on Thursday night.

 

Let’s take a look at the run-down for Tuesday night’s 4-1 win over the Hurricanes.

 

The positives…

 

1. Great start!

 

The Lightning wanted to feel what it was like on the other side of the coin – the side that builds a lead, rather than the one that needs to make a comeback.  But, for a moment, I’ll ask you to forget the goals they scored.  In hockey, you can’t be too focused on results.  Rather, it’s better to focus on doing the right things, making the right decisions, over and over, and trusting that the results will come.  Had the Lightning not scored two first period goals, it would still have been a great showing.  The Lightning were forechecking well.  They had a level of urgency to their game that was missing in the early-going of Monday’s game against the Islanders.

 

And speaking of the forecheck, Cory Conacher is making a big difference in the corners.  It’s great to see him rewarded with goals and assists because he’s playing hard every shift, and he’s doing a lot of little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

 

2. Victor Hedman on the Penalty Kill.

 

Victor Hedman might still have a flat stats-line, but he’s had a very strong start to the season.  Last night, which saw the Lightning kill several penalties (most of which were warranted, but I have to say, B.J. Crombeen’s boarding penalty was not a penalty – you could clearly see him holding up and trying not to make contact), Hedman was a standout.  He was particularly strong along the boards, where he muscled opposing players off the puck with regularity.  Hedman wound up playing more than 23 minutes in the game, a season-high so far for him, and was a +1.

 

It should also be noted that Eric Brewer had a particularly strong game.  Brewer played 22 minutes and blocked an astonishing 6 shots.  Matt Carle blocked 5.

 

3. Vincent Lecavalier is still playing like a $7.5 million player!

 

There are a lot of things that Lightning fans can, and should, be excited about in this young season.  The way I see it, first and foremost among them is what looks like a reinvigorated game from Vincent Lecavalier.  Vincent was the best player on the ice last night (if not Matthieu Garon), and has arguably been the best Bolt so far this season.

 

The big difference in Lecavalier’s game?  He’s doing the little things.  If you watch closely, you’ll see him hustling back into the defensive zone as soon as the puck heads that way, and you’ll see him winning face-offs.  Over and over again, you’ll see him making high percentage plays.  He has a goal and three assists in the first three games of the season, but that’s beside the point.  Lecavalier has shown marked improvement, and I think intentional improvement, in all the non-offensive facets of the game.  In short, he’s no longer simply doing what it takes to score – he’s doing what it takes to win. 

 

4. Is Steven Stamkos handling the puck more?

 

Something I’d noticed (but hadn’t written about) in the first two games of the season was that Steven Stamkos was not handling the puck.  He seemed to have reverted to a younger version of himself, preferring to wait to be set up instead of trying to create his own opportunities.  Mind you, when he did try to create his own opportunities last night, he was thwarted each time.

 

But let me say it again – in hockey, you can’t be too results oriented.  You have to do the right things and hope it’ll all work out in the end.  And having a dynamic player like Stamkos carrying the puck into the offensive zone is a good thing for the Lightning, and over time, like last season, it will yield results.  One particular benefit is that opposing teams realize how dangerous Stamkos is, and therefore when he carries the puck into the offensive zone, he draws plenty of attention.  That leaves his wingers a little more open than they might normally be, and creates space.

 

You might have noticed, as I have, that Stamkos feeding the puck to St. Louis has thus far created far more dangerous scoring chances than the reverse.  A lot of the reason for this is that Stamkos is the highest profile goal-scorer in the league, so not only are teams constantly aware of where he is on the ice, they’re also anticipating that he will be the shooter on more plays than not.  Keep in mind that the Lightning have a lot of capable scorers (though admittedly less capable than Stamkos) and could use their opponents’ strategy against them if Stamkos uses his scoring ability not so much to score goals, but to create space for his teammates by drawing attention.

 

 

The negatives…

 

There’s not a lot to be negative about after last night’s game.  That said, the game wasn’t perfect, and there were areas the Lightning should focus on improving upon.

 

1. Hockey is a 60 minute game.

 

There has been a pattern to the three games the Lightning have played this season.  They play well, or perhaps even great, in the first and third periods.  But in all three games, their second period has been lacking.

 

This is something they’re well aware of, however, and I expect them to focus a lot of attention on their second period play against the Senators on Friday.  If they don’t correct this, it will bite them more often than they’d like, as it did against the Islanders on Monday.  Taking a period off can create a hole too big to climb to out of.

 

2. Don’t play cute; play aggressive.

 

Take a look at last night’s goals.  Every one of them was scored by simply putting the puck on net rather than going for the extra pass.  Marty St. Louis (despite his fantastic play so far) has been particularly guilty of this, often looking for Stamkos when he has a clear path to the net.  And Stamkos, as I noted early, is drawing more coverage than Kim Kardashian, so it’s probably not a good idea to pass up a genuine scoring opportunity to make a low-percentage play to him.

 

Another issue with getting too cute is it often results in an icing if your breakout pass misses its mark.  This haunted the Lightning all night.  They wound up taking face-offs deep in their own end, with not-so fresh players, more than an amount that was safe.

 

Around the league…

 

1. The Southeast division – Four teams’ catastrophe; one teams’ good fortune.

 

The Lightning became the first team in the Southeast to win their second game last night.  Elsewhere, the Capitals were downed by the Jets (who picked up their first win), and the Panthers got throttled by the Canadiens.

 

Coming into the season, there was a lot of talk about the Capitals and Hurricanes being improved teams (the Canes because they added pieces, the Capitals because it’s unlikely they’ll be as bad as last year.  The latter, I buy).  Most Lightning fans were confident that our team was the most improved in the division, but, and I think playing in the under-analyzed state of Florida plays a big part in this, the hockey media seemed not to pay much attention to the team’s key additions, nor the unfortunate circumstances the team played under last season.

 

Yes, it has only been three games.  And no, three games do not a season make.  But the Lightning definitely look like a new and improved version of themselves this season, and winning is contagious.  The rest of the division, so far, appears to be the same old Same Old.

 

2. Luongo situation heating up.

 

Allow me to quote Vancouver GM Mike Gillis: “We have a potential deal in place with one team that has to do something with another player that they have – and it’s not who anybody thinks it is – so we have to wait.”

 

I still think that team is the Washington Capitals.  It’s unlikely that the Canucks are willing to trade Luongo to a Western Conference team, which rules out several of the other would-be “mystery” teams.  And the Capitals have a real problem in net.  No one doubts Braden Holtby’s ability, but few and far between are goalies who can carry a team at the ripe old age of 23.

 

Allow me a bit of rampant speculation.  What if the mystery team is Tampa Bay?  Your first instinct, as mine was, might be to shrug the idea off as silly.  But then, if you take a look at Gillis’ statement, and dissect it, and consider what Vancouver wants in return for Luongo, it makes a lot of sense.  In fact, it makes too much sense for me to be comfortable with (since I don’t think it would be a good idea to bring Luongo to Tampa).

 

First of all, consider that Vancouver is asking for good prospects in return for Luongo, along with a goaltender that can back up Cory Schneider.  Mike Gillis, talking about offers he has refused to accept, said, “We’ve been offered packages that don’t fit what our plan is.”  And, “(Teams would offer) excess salary coming back with a player who can’t play in our lineup.”

 

The Lightning are bloated with prospects that could play in Vancouver’s lineup (Brett Connolly, J.T. Brown, Tyler Johnson, and dare I say, though I don’t want to, Cory Conacher).  And all the players they’d be sending Vancouver’s way would be cheap.

 

A key to the deal (which, by the way, I’m not saying is the mystery deal, nor do I want it to be) would be sending Lindback to Vancouver, or possibly Garon.  At first glance it seems ridiculous because Luongo’s a 33 year-old goalie, and the team is trying to build a strong, young nucleus.  But you have to consider the X-factor in all this – Andrei Vasilevsky, who by every indication is the goalie the Bolts are projecting to be their future.  Vasilevsky won’t be NHL-ready for at least 2-3 years, and one must assume that Luongo has 4-5 years of elite playing left in him.

 

So far the pieces fit.  But then there’s the last, most cryptic piece of all: “…one team that has to do something with another player that they have…”  In the Lightning’s case, that mystery player would undoubtedly be Vincent Lecavalier.  More specifically, the issue is Lecavalier’s massive, $7.5 M cap hit.  The Lightning would “(have) to do something” about that before they could take on Luongo’s salary, i.e. move him.

 

Okay, so now that I’ve laid out the entire conspiracy theory (summary: Lindback + prospect to Vancounver for Luongo, on the condition that Tampa Bay can move Lecavalier’s contract elsewhere), let me tell you why it’s a little scary to me.  First, it’s scary to me because the pieces really do fit well, not only with what Gillis said, but also with both Vancouver and Tampa Bay’s team needs.  Second, it’s scary to me because I’m pretty happy with the team Tampa has right now, and more than that, I’m ecstatic with the way Vinny Lecavalier has played so far.

 

That said, up until this season, it’s no secret that the Lightning (and everyone in hockey media) believe Lecavalier’s contract was a mistake.  Lecavalier appears to be motivated to prove his doubters wrong this season by transforming his game into an all-around, physical one.   Had Lecavalier not had such a hot start to the year (less hot than different, reshaped), even I might be on board with such a deal being a reality.  Don’t believe what you hear – Luongo is an elite goalie.  His “failure to bring a cup to Vancouver” is overstated by a mile, with fans often forgetting that he was Vancouver’s playoff MVP in the year they came up one game short of winning the Stanley Cup.  The Canucks were simply too atrocious for Luongo to cover for.

 

As of now, I would put the chances at about 20% for this becoming reality.  Especially if you consider during training camp, the front office’s commitment to Lindback as “the man” in net seemed to be loose at best.  I think the much more likely scenario is Luongo ends up in either Washington or Philadelphia.  With Washington, I can’t figure out the “mystery player.”  In Philly, the mystery player is obviously Bryzgalov.  And the pieces Philly would be able to offer in return would be on par with what the Bolts could offer.

 

The preceding hypothesis is the result of a brain that spends way too much time thinking about hockey.

 

 

Thanks again, and see you next time.

 

-DFC

 

@DFrederickCook

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