Brain Junk: Thoughts and ramblings from an obsessed hockey fan that thinks he knows way more than he really does.
The five-game Lightning homestand opened up with a strange one against the Ottawa Senators. First of all, there were times when the game looked more like a bad figure skating meet than a hockey game, with players going face-first seemingly every time the camera was on them (Anders Lindback was a particular victim of this, having no fewer than three wobbly moments during close-ups). Secondly, the game-flow was awkward to say the least. The Lightning were controlling the action with solid play at both ends of the rink after one period, only to have the hockey equivalent of a spaz-attack in the second.
Still, the Bolts got their act together (yet again) in the third period, which started with them down 4-3. They thoroughly outplayed the Senators in the final frame, and the score wound up 6-4 Lightning, so all is right with the world.
Or is it?
Checking the Lightning media post-game, I see that my own mixed emotions about the game are reflected by the team and by Coach Boucher. Boucher was visibly disappointed at the post-game press conference, which, if you’re a Lightning fan, is good to see. The team simply cannot keep having such catastrophic second periods and expect to ride their talent to a win. It’ll bite them too many times, and already has once (in the 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders).
But the good news is it didn’t bite them Friday night. The Senators came into the game one of the hottest teams in the league, having won three straight games by at least two goals. The Lightning had two things working for them. 1.) The Senators were on the tail-end of a back-to-back set, and 2.) The Senators were starting their backup goalie, Ben Bishop, rather than their red-hot starter, Craig Anderson, who is by all accounts the very early front-runner for the Vezina trophy.
The Lightning have now scored a league best 19 goals in just 4 games (that’s just under 5 GPG average – wow!), and can say they’ve beaten what should be a playoff team in the Sens. Next up is a Sunday matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers – but the Lightning are lucky again. The Flyers will face the Bolts less than 24 hours after playing the Panthers (and destroying them 7-1).
Let’s have a look at the run-down for Friday night’s game.
1. 3rd/4th Line pressure.
It’s a little bit hard to identify the Lightning’s third and fourth line when they only dress eleven forwards, as was the case last night. Yet the team grinders were particularly good, especially in the game’s early-going. Nate Thompson, Adam Hall, and Benoit Pouliot held pressure in the Senators’ zone and won the small battles in the corners. That’s what you’re looking for out of your depth lines.
Role players are often overshadowed by their star teammates, but don’t kid yourself by thinking they’re not integral to team success. The Lightning have plenty of scoring power, and while they jury’s still out on their defense and goaltending, initial signs (2nd periods aside) look good. The final piece to building a contender might be strength in the non-scoring lines, and several Bolts are auditioning to be mainstays in that role right now. (It should be noted that Dana Tyrell played an exceptional game against the Hurricanes as well.)
2. The scoring is fine.
As noted earlier, the Lightning have scored a league-best 19 goals at the time of this writing. But the real reason to be optimistic about it is the Lightning are generating goals without any single player carrying the load.
For instance, Steven Stamkos is currently the Bolts’ leading scorer (and among the top scorers in the league so far), but has he really been all that exceptional so far this year? I would argue no. Stamkos has yet to achieve that truly frightening form he was in at the finish of 2012. And yet he still has a spectacular 8 points in his first 4 games. When you look at those points though, very few of them came on scoring chances that he created (two, maybe three, by my count), or that he had a very integral part in. His last assist, for instance, came from what must have been a puck that grazed him before Tom Pyatt scored into an empty net (because for the life of me I couldn’t find an angle that showed the puck clearly touching him), and I still maintain that he’s been credited with an assist that rightly belongs to Marty St. Louis.
But that’s all beside the point. The fact that Stamkos has amassed 8 points without looking particularly capable of devouring a goaltender’s very soul, like he did last year, is a good thing. It’s a sign of the very strong offense built around him.
Better yet, there’s little reason to believe Stamkos won’t get back to last year’s form. From my view, he’s been a little more dangerous every game, handling the puck more and more. He’s also getting into a very good habit of using himself as a decoy, knowing full-well that every team in the league is expecting him to shoot first and ask questions later. Victor Hedman’s goal last night came as a result of the Ottawa defense collapsing on Stamkos, and Stamkos very wisely dropping the puck back to the wide open point. One of Marty St. Louis’ goals in an early game was the result of another play where the opponents played Stamkos to shoot, and he passed.
3. Yet again, Cory Conacher.
The best part about having Cory Conacher in the lineup is that he’s fast enough to create a battle out of nothing, and then very often he wins that battle. This was often in evidence last night, and was undoubtedly key in Ryan Malone’s first goal.
We’re at the point where we can no longer consider Conacher a pleasant surprise. He is now a cog in the offensive machine, and a very important one. Having a player develop in their system and step right into a major NHL role makes the Lightning far more dangerous than they were last year. With 7 points in the first 4 games of his NHL career, Conacher is off to a great start, and might well be second only to Vincent Lecavalier on the team-MVP list at the time of this writing.
4. Sami Salo +5 plus/minus rating (!).
If you’re not watching closely, you might miss the little things that Sami Salo does well, game-in, game-out. It’s all about smart decisions for the veteran D-man, and his first 4 games with the Bolts have been full of them. You’ll notice him steering pucks into the opposite corner, and out of danger, in the defensive zone, just as the pressure begins to mount. You’ll notice him backing out of the offensive zone, even on the power play, at the moment it appears the opposing team is about to take possession of the puck. He puts the puck on net rather than looking for the extra pass. It’s all about high percentage plays with Salo, and high percentage plays win hockey games.
Salo was +5 against the Senators, and is a downright ridiculous +8 in his first 4 games as a Bolt. Keep in mind, Salo has been labeled by many a power play specialist, and yet the only goals that affect one’s plus/minus rating are even strength goals.
While the Lightning, as a collective, have had a number of defensive slips this season, it’s hard to say any one defenseman is off to a bad start. If I had to choose, I’d say Eric Brewer has been the most impressive out of the gate, but it’s debatable. Salo, Carle, and Hedman have all been solid, and Keith Aulie has put together back-to-back strong efforts.
1. The 2nd period woes continue.
It was on the tip of every Lightning player’s tongue in their post-game interviews. Rather than being happy about their comeback win (at one point the Bolts trailed 3-1, and then 4-2), they were frustrated by yet another second period collapse. To this point, the second period has acted like a giant mental wall that the Bolts crash into without fail.
Here are the numbers (goals scored /goals against by period):
1st period: 5—1
2nd period: 3—10
3rd period: 11—1
…Wow. The Lightning have been outscored 10-3 in second periods, while giving up a combined two goals in the first and third periods. At the moment, it feels like they come out of the gate hard, trying to make sure not to get behind, and then they let off the gas. It puts them in situations where they need big third periods, and so far, they’ve delivered. But they’re playing with fire and they know it. Look for the Lightning to have a strong, focused effort in the second period against Philadelphia.
2. Do Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos need to be separated?
I can hear your eyes rolling. Yet the fact remains, despite how spectacular Marty St. Louis has been at times this season, he still seems preoccupied with setting up Steven Stamkos the moment he crosses the blue line, and on every power play the Lightning have had. The issue with that is, Stamkos is more heavily guarded than a high profile convict on a day-outing, and is usually choking on the opposing teams’ jersey by the time the puck is in his general vicinity. I’m not sure if I recall any single clear feed to Stamkos by St. Louis so far this season.
Yet St. Louis remains an invaluable offensive weapon. He creates chances in every game – I would just like to see more of those chances directed toward the net, or seen through to their organic end, rather than shipped Stamkos’ way with a prayer (or, in this case, perhaps a file baked into the puck).
3. Breakaways/Odd-man rushes against.
For whatever reason, this is a second period problem. Teams at this point must have their swiftest skaters sharpening their skates at the first intermission. While Anders Lindback has played well so far (solid is the word), he hasn’t looked like a goalie that the Lightning can depend on for countless acrobatic saves in sequence. Nor should he be required to. Lindback is perfectly capable of backstopping the team to a win, on any given night, but they need to do their part in front of him.
Around the league…
1. Holy Rejuvenated Batman! What’s gotten into Patrick Marleau?
In case you haven’t noticed, Patrick Marleau, a man known mostly for never quite reaching his full potential, is leading with league with an eye-popping 8 goals after just 4 games. Even more astonishing, he’s accumulated those 8 goals by perfect quarters, scoring exactly 2 in each game this season. Yes, you read that right – Patrick Marleau (take a look at any player profile photo of Marleau and you’ll find he looks just as surprised as you are).
He’s added 3 assists to go along with those 8 goals, he’s shooting a whopping 40%, and 3 of the 8 goals have been game winners. While those numbers are obviously unsustainable, consider that, at this moment, Marleau is on pace for 96 goals – an NHL record. And yes, again, this is Patrick Marleau we’re talking about.
2. Fighting up, post-lockout.
Wherever you look so far in the young season, you’re bound to see a couple of bruisers going at it. Be it Milan Lucic in Boston, or Colton Orr making a case for himself to be the new heavyweight champ in Toronto, or our own B.J. Crombeen eating a couple of dozen punches from Chris Neil, you’re going to see fighting.
And this has analysts in both hockey nations gripping their heads like vices and asking, “Why? Why would there be more fighting this year?” Weren’t the players all at kumbuya levels of unity just a month ago? Why are they now so eager to bash each other’s brains?
My own personal theory? Take a look at the way every player addressed the fans of his team prior to the season’s start. Did they say, “We’re looking forward to bringing you a Stanley Cup”? No. Did they say, “We’re going to score a lot of goals”? No. What they said was, (paraphrasing) “We’re going to do our best to give you an exciting season.”
Operative word: exciting.
So, having heard that over and over again, from team after team, it’s hard for me to see all these staged fights and not put two and two together. And regardless of your opinion about fighting in the NHL, you have to admit, when one is going on it’s hard to turn away.
Thanks for reading.