Brain Junk: Thoughts and ramblings from your resident Canadian, an obsessed hockey fan that thinks he knows way more than he really does.
It was a game where all the pieces finally settled and fit into each other, a game where one could reasonably say the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like a contender. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves – the Lightning were playing a Philadelphia Flyers team that had played less than 24 hours before. The Lightning’s schedule has, let’s be honest, been very kind to them. That said, the Bolts have done exactly what a winning team does when they have an advantage – they’ve won games (and, on many occasions, beaten the living snot out of their opponents).
The Lightning have played several good games this season, but Sunday’s game against the Flyers was their best yet. The dominance was a result of several players putting in, also, their best effort yet. In my opinion, those players include: Steven Stamkos, probably Teddy Purcell, Victor Hedman for sure, Anders Lindback beyond any conceivable doubt, and maybe even Vincent Lecavalier; Lecavalier gave what might have been his most inspirational performance in recent years.
Oddly enough, the game started with Anders Lindback putting the fingernails of decent Lightning fans everywhere in peril. The Flyers scored about a minute into the first when Sean Couturier directed a harmless-looking puck toward the net, and Linback failed to adequately cover the post. But if the air went out of the Lightning’s sails, it was immediately re-injected by way of an outstanding save by Lindback, and then moments later by Vincent Lecavalier dropping the gloves and holding his own with Luke Schenn.
I would bet good money there was a conversation in the Lightning dressing room prior to the game about how they couldn’t let the Flyers, a team with such a long history of playing tough that they’ve been forever known as the Broadstreet Bullies, push them around. What Lecavalier did, by fighting so early, at the very first challenge, was set the tone for the night. He sent a message to the Flyers and to the Lightning – we’re not going to be pushed around. Not tonight.
And the Lightning weren’t. Led by Lecavalier’s astounding 7 hits, they matched the Flyers in physicality and overmatched them in skill. Whenever the Flyers picked up any momentum, they were promptly shut down by Anders Lindback. In the offensive zone, the Lightning looked faster (Cory Conacher, in particular, made the Flyers look like someone had poured cement in their skates, and Victor Hedman had some similar moments), they looked more skilled, and they looked better-prepared.
All in all, it was a good night to be a Lightning fan. There are plenty of reasons for optimism right now, not the least of which was the team’s measured response to such a successful effort. They’re not getting ahead of themselves. They’re focused on improvement. That’s what you want a team to do.
Next up for the Lightning is a Tuesday night meeting at home with the struggling Florida Panthers. The Panthers will be coming in with the opposite record of the Lightning (1-4) and plenty to prove. They also have a lineup that’s more than a little beat up, and might be missing key contributors like Thomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss by the time the puck drops. Jose Theodore has arguably been the best Panther so far, and they’ll be playing the Bolts on two days of rest, whereas the Lightning’s previous pair of opponents has been on the tail-end of back-to-backs. Despite Theodore’s play, the Panthers are coming in with near league-worst Goals Against Average (their Goals For Average isn’t any better). Giving up 3.8 goals per game to date is a recipe for disaster against the high-scoring Lightning.
Let’s get to the rundown for Sunday’s win over the Flyers.
1. Setting the tone early/Vincent Lecavalier.
It’s hard to praise Lecavalier enough for the example he set early on in Sunday’s game. His fight was a statement, and it’s my belief that its purpose was to reinforce a message from the coaching staff. The Bolts have a reputation of a skill-based team (which they are), a finesse team (check), but don’t kid yourself – the 2013 Lightning aren’t going to be bullied. They can stand up for themselves, and that message was in full effect league-wide when each and every TV screen got a sample of Vinny going toe-to-toe with Luke Schenn.
Allow me a moment of full disclosure: coming into this season, I did not see Lecavalier was an integral part of the Lightning’s future. And I maintain that the 2012 version of Lecavalier was not worth his contract. But five games into the season, he’s made a believer out of me. I believe what we’re seeing is a “bought-in” Vincent Lecavalier – the birth of Vincent Lecavalier as a two-way center with a physical edge. In short: a leader. In my opinion, he wasn’t a leader in previous years, or at least not the type that can give his team an inspirational edge (think Messier, Yzerman). And it’s a bit premature to say he’s that kind of leader now. What I am willing to say, however, is he’s showing a lot of signs that he’s making the transformation, much like the Lightning’s own GM did once upon a time, into a player who checks his ego at the door and whose sole goal is winning. Not only is that worth the $7.7ish million Lecavalier is set to make this year – it’s invaluable.
The comments his team is making about him in post-game interviews says it all. No longer is Lecavalier just a player among them – he’s now the player above them. He’s providing inspiration. Check out Steven Stamkos, if you would, speaking almost in awe of Lecavalier in his post-game interview.
“We’re following in his footsteps,” Stamkos said, with a subtle shake of his head. “He’s using his body. He’s getting into the forecheck. He’s coming back on the back check.” (It’s very important that you pay attention to Stammer’s body language at this point.) Speaking about the fight, Stamkos said, “We really took a lot of energy out of that.”
2. Keith Aulie is developing into an important part of the defense.
More and more this season, the Lightning are coming to depend on Keith Aulie. Aside from one poor game (vs. the Islanders, a game in which it can be said many players had their worst outing), Aulie has provided a much-needed physical presence in the defensive end. He’s taking on more responsibility on a game-by-game basis, and proving that he’s ready to handle the load. Not only are such developmental strides great for him, but they take a lot of pressure off his teammates. He’s also beginning to show signs that he’s capable of providing a touch of offense.
The key to Aulie’s game is that he plays big, and he plays mean. That means there will be occasions where he’ll take a penalty (or several penalties in sequence) that will leave Lightning fans wringing their hands. But we have to accept this as part of Aulie’s game, and understand that it’s part of the greater good (i.e. having a big mean defenseman capable of popping off on you for stepping out of line). The key to playing such a style is to make sure you don’t take untimely bad penalties (like the one he took against the Islanders).
The jury’s still out on who will ultimately win the trade that brought Aulie to Tampa Bay (Carter Ashton went to Toronto in exchange), but the early results would lead one to predict the Bolts have acquired the better piece.
3. Steven Stamkos/Martin St. Louis are effective penalty killers.
Before I get into Marty and Stammer, allow me to take a moment to praise the exceptional penalty killing efforts of Tom Pyatt (who at one point kept a puck pinned to the boards versus three Flyers), Nate Thompson, and Adam Hall. In fact, the entire penalty kill was in peak form on Sunday.
But I am particularly hopeful about the future of the penalty kill because of the efforts of St. Louis and Stamkos. They outskated the Flyers power play at every opportunity, and created scoring chances without neglecting their defensive responsibilities. I hope to see more of this, particularly out of Stamkos, who has all the tools, and the desire, to develop into a premiere two way player.
Speaking of Stamkos…
4. Steven Stamkos adapting to his reputation.
The league has adapted to Steven Stamkos; now Steven Stamkos is readapting to the league. Stamkos played his best game of the season against the Flyers. Not only did he have a number of scoring chances, but he also quickly recognized situations where the defense was collapsing on him and dished the puck off to his wide open wingers. Against the Senators, it resulted in a goal by Victor Hedman, and here, against the Flyers, it resulted in a goal by Teddy Purcell.
Stamkos has 7 assists to start the season, and more and more often those assists are coming because of his high hockey IQ. If opposing defenses adjust to Stammers new tendency to make plays, he can always go back to shooting laser beams. As of now, he’s turned it into a “pick your poison” situation for defenders.
5. Multiple offensive weapons.
The stars are scoring; they’re supposed to. But the Bolts are getting contribution from all over their lineup, including their defensemen. Eric Brewer scored his third goal of the season against the Flyers (tripling last year’s output already), Victor Hedman has 2, Matt Carle has 1, and even Keith Aulie has picked up a goal. Sami Salo has yet to score a goal, but he’s the Bolts leading scorer among blueliners with 5 assists.
To put things in context, the Lightning defensemen have scored 7 combined goals in the first five games of the season. Last season, in 82 games, Lightning defensemen scored a grand total of 19. The additions of Sami Salo and Matt Carle, along with the growth of Victor Hedman (and Keith Aulie, it would surprisingly seem), have turned the Lightning into a new, and better, team than they were last year.
And the biggest benefactor of the new and improved blue line turns out to be Eric Brewer. I would argue he’s been the best Bolt defender of all in this young season. Obviously, having more support around him helps, but the main reason might be that he’s no longer required to play 22-24 minutes per night. Last season, Brewer averaged 23:16 of ice time. This season, he’s averaging just 19:44, and that might be a better fit for him.
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Thanks for reading.