Brain Junk: Thoughts and ramblings from your resident Canadian, an obsessed hockey fan who thinks he knows way more than he really does.
The Tampa Bay Lightning extended their winning streak to four games on Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers, and widened their early lead in the Southeast division standings. They sit second in the East, with a game at hand on the first place Senators. The Panthers remain in the division’s basement.
While it wasn’t quite as dominant as Sunday’s win over the Flyers (Tuesday’s game lacked a certain near-masterpiece quality that Sunday’s game approached), it was no doubt impressive. The Panthers were hobbled by injuries and had played the previous night. It was a game the Bolts were supposed to win, and they won big. At no point did the Panthers seem like much of a threat, though as the game wore on, there were points where the Lightning got a little gung-ho and could easily have given up an extra goal or two, if not for another stellar game by Anders Lindback.
Lindback, despite a somewhat inflated Goals-Against-Average (2.8), now has a very good .914% Save Percentage. He’s given up a combined 3 goals in his last 2 games, and appears to be growing progressively more comfortable with his new responsibilities. As the Bolts get better at clamping down in the defensive end, and playing a 60 minute game, his GAA will undoubtedly slim down.
Meanwhile, back up Mathieu Garon is likely to see some action over the weekend. The Lightning have back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday. Saturday’s game is against the expected-to-contend New York Rangers and will likely be the Lightning’s biggest test of the season. It will be interesting to see if Guy Boucher decides to rest Lindback on Friday, against Winnipeg, in favor of using him against the Rangers, or if he will let Lindback start against the Jets and use Garon against the Rangers.
The Jets will be coming into the game after playing 24 hours before, the third straight Lightning opponent in that situation. 24 hours after that, the Lightning will be in that situation themselves when they play the Rangers.
Let’s take a look at the rundown for Tuesday’s 5-2 win.
1. Physical play.
On Sunday, against the Flyers, the Lightning established a strong physical presence, and it held through Tuesday’s game against the Panthers. Physical play isn’t simply body checks – it’s also a tough presence in the corners, a willingness to play the opponents body rather than the puck, and muscling yourself into position battling in front of either your own net or the opposition net.
It might be time to start thinking of the Lightning defense as “intimidating.” Five of the top six Lightning D-men stand taller than 6’3, and Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie are a towering 6’6 and learning to play big. Hedman, in particular, appears to have all benefits of being a large player with none of the usual impediments. Aulie doesn’t have Hedman’s speed, but he has the makings of a great shutdown defenseman. The steps these players have taken has been a very underrated factor in the Lightning’s improvement from last year.
2. Team speed.
Game in and game out, the Lightning appear to have an advantage in speed. Each forward line has significant speed, and the Lightning consistently beat their opponents to loose pucks, particularly in the corners. On defense, Victor Hedman’s skating has been breath-taking at times, and in the last few games we’ve seen him more willing to join the rush.
All that said, it’s hard to talk about team speed without talking about Cory Conacher. At this point, I’m beginning to suspect that he might be the fastest player in the league, and by good margin. He wins races he’s not supposed to, often catching players with two or three strides on him. That kind of speed gives him the ability to turn broken plays into scoring chances. (Fearless Prediction for 2014: Conacher will not only be an All Star, but he’ll win the Fastest Skater competition.)
And the speed doesn’t let up from there. The third line might well be solidified after last game, with Tom Pyatt, Benoit Pouliot, and Dana Tyrell. All three of them are fast, but Tyrell approaches Conacher levels of speed. They might have been the best Bolt unit in the game, combining for 2 goals and 4 assists.
3. Anders Lindback is adjusting to the pressure of his new role.
When Lindback was brought in, the first thing the Lightning front office and coaching staff did was try to lower expectations. They didn’t even officially name him their starting goalie, even though it was pretty obvious to everyone that that was the plan. Whether or not Lindback felt the pressure of being responsible to correct last season’s most noticeable flaw is anyone’s guess.
To say Lindback struggled in his first three games wouldn’t be fair. He made the stops he was supposed to make, and gave up goals when the team let him down. He was solid, if unspectacular. Ironically, the first bad goal he gave up came against the Flyers on Sunday, in a game that turned out to be his best performance of the young season. He was great against the Panthers as well, stopping 26 of 28 shots, and improving his season Save Percentage to .914%. If this is the Lindback we can expect, then it would appear “Yzerman’s gamble” has paid off.
4. Benoit Pouliot is capable of playing on a scoring line.
While this is likely true for many of team’s depth players, it’s particularly true of Pouliot. Overlooking his late-game power play gaffe that led the Panther’s second goal, Pouliot played a strong game at both ends of the rink, and did not look at all out of place in the limited time he saw alongside the team’s stars.
It might be an intriguing option for Coach Boucher to occasionally swap Pouliot in for Ryan Malone. Malone, despite his 3 goals to start the season, has yet to really carve out a role for himself on this new-look Lightning (other than a net presence on the power play). While I think, for the most part, Pouliot is a great fit alongside Pyatt and Tyrell, he does inject a nice amount of jump to scoring lines as well, and could be used in that role in certain situations.
1. Sloppy play with the lead.
Once it became clear (or, as clear as can be in hockey) that the Lightning were on their way to a win Tuesday night, their play in their own zone and in the neutral zone deteriorated. They slipped into a run and gun style, often relying on big saves from Anders Lindback to keep their wide lead. There were moments in the third period that looked less like an NHL game than a street hockey game.
While it’s better to make this mistake with a lead than, say, in a tie game, it’s also important that the Lightning get used to clamping down and snuffing out any hope their opponents have of a comeback. They’ve shown they have what it takes to play well at both ends of the rink, but as Coach Boucher is fond of saying, hockey is mostly about forming good habits rather than bad ones.
2. Steven Stamkos and the Face Off Circle. Again.
Occasionally Stamkos will have a good game in the circle and I will begin to believe he’s putting his face off woes in the past. Unfortunately, with six games under his belt, it appears the problem is ever-present. Stamkos was an abysmal 35.7% in the circle against the Panthers, and on the season he has won just 44.8%.
It’s hard to explain why a guy with some of the best hand-eye coordination in the league, and a reputation for working at all facets of his game, is not able to figure out how to win draws. And make no mistake – lost draws add up.
In contrast, Vincent Lecavalier appears to have put in some work in the off season and looks much improved in the circle. He’s won 55.7% of his face offs so far this season, and that kind of reliability is helping him transform his game into more well-rounded one.
Around the League…
1. Southeast woes.
Currently, the Lightning are sitting with a 3-point lead in the Southeast division, with a game at hand on their closest competition (the Winnipeg Jets, tonight’s opponent). The Lightning are the only Southeast team sitting inside the playoff picture, currently ranked 2nd in the East with a chance to overtake Ottawa for first if things pan out tonight.
2. Thomas Vanek: leading scorer.
The Buffalo Sabres’ sniping winger picked up his second 5 point game of the season last night, giving him 15 on the year, putting him a single point ahead of the dynamic San Jose duo (Thornton and Marleau) for best in the league.
It would appear this is the year of the underachiever. Both Marleau and Vanek have gotten their share of criticism over the years for never quite living up to their potential. In Marleau’s case, it lead to a not-so flattering mention in Jeremy Roenick’s recent autobiography, where Roenick put Marleau in a list of players he hated during his career, claiming that he should have Marleau’s talent and Marleau should have his heart.