After a hiatus from writing post-game articles, it seems I have returned to an entirely different Lightning world. At the time of my last writing, the Lightning were scoring goals at a methamphetamatic clip, they were sitting cozily atop the Southeast division, and most importantly, they were winning. My, how things can change.
So for this addition of Brain Junk, since I have so little that’s positive to say about last night’s game, how about we examine the Lightning’s losing streak? What exactly were the Lightning doing while they were winning that they are not doing now? Or, in Coach Guy Boucher’s terms, what were the Lightning’s good habits, that lead to winning, and what are their new, worse habits, that have led to their current slide?
And I’m not talking about staying out of the box. What I’m talking about is playing within a system, and sticking to that system for sixty minutes. What we’ve seen so far this season has been a tale of two Lightning, and stranger still, we often see that same tale played out inside of individual games. How terrible, for example, were they through 2 and 3/4 periods vs. the Montreal Canadiens? And who was that team that showed up in the final six minutes of the game and scored three goals to force overtime?
The Lightning have a terrible habit of slipping slowly out of the style of play that saw them roaring out of the gate. What this comes down to, mostly, is momentum. When things are going well, the Lightning play great. When things are going poorly, they tend to try to force the issue, they tend to forget about backchecking, and they tend to make low percentage Hail Mary passes through the neutral zone that often turn into give aways. It’s not until their backs are against the wall (and they’re down 3-4 goals) that the former, tighter team returns, and that tightness combined with the desperation of skilled players often leads comebacks or near-comebacks.
What this actually illustrates is a much deeper problem. Being such a creature of momentum shows that the Lightning have yet to build a winning culture, a winning mentality. They’re not yet a team, so to speak. What great teams have in common, and here I’m thinking teams over the last twenty years like the Devils, Avalanche, and Red Wings, is they are cool under pressure. While none of these teams were impervious to momentum, momentum did have a minimal effect on the way they played. Great teams are focused on making the right play, every time, in every situation. And if you continue to do those right things, you’ll win more than you lose.
Right now the Bolts are often regressing into last year’s team – the team that scampered recklessly up the ice and played rush-by-rush rather than forecheck-by-forecheck, and the team that often found itself pinned in its own end seemingly clueless about how to properly break into the neutral zone. Which leads me to:
2. The KISS concept (Keep It Simple, Stupid).
Am I alone in my frustration with the Bolts’ forecheck? With the way they’re constantly looking for the extra pass, the pretty play, the cross-ice saucer feed that inevitably gets picked up and cleared? What were the Lightning doing when they were winning? Well, for the most part, they were funnelling pucks toward the net, and using their skill to take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves organically. Lately, the Lightning have been trying to force opportunities to present themselves.
But at the highest levels, skill does not work that way. A skilled player is successful, more often than not, simply by capitalizing on the same opportunities lesser skilled players get at a higher rate. If two players make high percentage plays over and over, the more skilled of them will ultimately score more goals.
That’s not to say there’s no room for creativity. The Lightning have an abundance of dazzling players who can, occasionally, take a nothing play and turn it into a something-play. But creativity, like everything else, must exist within the system, otherwise it becomes recklessness. Again, the Lightning need to take the opportunities that present themselves, including the opportunities to get creative.
3. Where did the physical, backchecking, do-the-little-things Vincent Lecavalier go?
I had no shortage of praise for Vincent Lecavalier’s play to start the season. The Vinny I was seeing was not the Vinny I’d seen in the past. He was better. Lecavalier opened the season by being ferocious on both the backcheck and the forecheck, by being physical, and by simply doing all the little intangible things that might not show up on a score sheet, but lead to wins. And I was thrilled.
Unfortunately, since suffering a bone bruise in his foot, Lecavalier appears to have regressed, in many ways, to his old self. He’s primarily a (secondary) scoring threat on a team that doesn’t need him to be a scoring threat. At the beginning of the season, Lecavalier was getting his points, but he was mostly getting them by being in the right place at the right time, and by doing the little things right. Shift after shift you (and I) would notice Vinny hustling back to his own end to catch up with the play. He was winning face offs. He was leading by example.
While Lecavalier remains excellent in the face off circle, the rest of his good habits appear to have tailed off. He’s no longer as noticeable on the backcheck, nor do you see him playing with the same physical edge he’d had. In other words, he’s slowly returning to his old self.
But that’s not a good thing. Lecavalier’s old self functions more/less like a spare part on the team, rather than the integral cog Lecavalier’s new self had become. Worse, he’s a drain on the team’s payroll when the best thing he’s bringing to the table is secondary scoring. Through the first 7 games of the season, Lecavalier was, in my opinion, the team’s best player, and well worth the 7.5 million he’s making. That hasn’t been the case of late, as it wasn’t the case last season.
4. Forwards playing the point on the power play.
Coach Guy Boucher, in my opinion, has a winning attitude about hockey. He encourages skilled players to play a gritty game, to pay the price, and to use their skill as bonus on top of their work ethic. He talks a lot about the dangers of being results-oriented, and how a team must focus on making the right plays, time after time, and trusting that the results will work themselves out in the wash.
If I have one criticism of Boucher (other than, perhaps, that I sometimes wish he were a little more iron-fisted, Scotty Bowman/Barry Trotz-like), it’s his tendency to play forwards at the point on the power play. Now, keep in mind, this is not always a bad move. There are plenty of successful teams that have a forward quarterbacking their power play. Unfortunately, Boucher doesn’t seem to realize one of two things: 1.) it takes a special type of forward to be successful playing the point on the power play, or, 2.) the Lightning don’t have that forward.
It is not skill that a forward needs to man the point. It’s not a hard shot, and it’s not swift feet, nor is it the ability to make a crisp cross-ice pass. It’s vision. Everything else helps, but it’s vision, it’s that certain who-knows-what, that allows certain players to anticipate the play developing in front of them in much the same fashion as a chess master.
That’s not to say that the Lightning don’t have several players with good vision – they do. But they don’t have a forward with the exceptional kind of vision required to man the point on a power player. Marty St. Louis might be more skilled than players that do possess that kind of vision, but he doesn’t quite have it. Nor does Vincent Lecavalier, nor does Teddy Purcell. Steven Stamkos might develop into a player that can successfully quarterback a power play, but for now, he’s not.
Examples of players that could do it? Joe Sakic is one. People tend to think of Sakic’s laser beam wrist shot as his best asset when playing the point, but in reality it was his decision making. He knew when to be patient, when not to be, when to pinch, when not to pinch, and he knew how to navigate the possibilities within possibilities that presented themselves from that point on. The Lightning’s own GM Steve Yzerman was another, as was his teammate Sergei Fedorov, either one of whom could often be spotted opposite Niklas Lidstrom in the mid-to-late 90s and beyond.
The Lightning simply don’t have a forward with that kind of poise. Marty St. Louis is the closest thing they have, and lately they’ve been trying Teddy Purcell out back there.
But this is a bad decision on multiple levels. Not only do forwards simply struggle to play the point on the power play, but the Lightning, you might notice, are equipped with a number of defensemen more than adequate for the role. Marc-Andre Bergeron, let’s not forget, is a power play specialist and has only dressed in three games so far this season. Worse, the Lightning have a budding star in Victor Hedman, and they would do well to get him as much PP icetime as they can. Lately, it would appear they’re relying mostly on Sami Salo and whatever forward has been deemed worthy, and in my opinion, it’s been a mistake.
5. You win games by winning battles.
Sounds simple right? When the Lightning were winning games, they were winning the battles. I’m talking about the little battles, battles in the corner and in front of the net (in both zones), battles along the boards at center ice, and battles in the face off circle. To start the season, one of the most familiar sights in Lightning games was Cory Conacher zipping into the corner, creating a battle where by all rights there shouldn’t have been one, and winning it. And Conacher’s still doing it, don’t get me wrong. But too many Lightning players aren’t.
6. What happened to the physical play?
Bluntly, when the Lightning were winning, they were playing mean. They were finishing checks, rubbing forecheckers out along the boards, stepping into their man with bad intentions. They were not a fun team to play against. Victor Hedman was playing like a beast of myth and Eric Brewer was just plain nasty.
Most of that has disappeared. Whether it’s a preoccupation with offense, or simply the onset of lethargy, I can’t be sure. But something has changed. There is too much flow to Lightning games these days, and that happens because not nearly enough bodies are crashing into each other. There needs to be a price to pay for dumping the puck into the Lightning’s corner, for trying to sidestep a D-man along the wall, for crashing the net.
And the Lightning have the players to do it. I’ve noted many times before, the Lightning D-men are huge, and for the most part they do know how to play big. It’s not a foreign concept. It’s not like asking Sergei Gonchar or Erik Karlsson to finish their hits. Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie, in particular, have it in them to be imposing defensemen, and at times this season they have been.
Around the league…
Speaking of Karlsson, I assume we have all by now seen the cringe-worthy injury he took to his achilles tendon at the hands (or skate, as it were) of Matt Cooke. To say this is a crushing blow to the Senators would be like saying Thomas Vanek has been sort of a surprise this season. Karlsson has established himself as perhaps the most potent offensive defenseman in the league, and the Sens’ franchise player.
Of course, this has led to all kinds of speculation about Cooke’s intentions on the play (which, let’s be honest, wouldn’t even be an issue if this weren’t Matt Cooke. But it is Matt Cooke, so even the most generous among us concerning benefits of doubt are forced to raise one giant collective eyebrow and wonder). In my opinion, this was an accident. And that opinion has nothing to do with Cooke’s integrity as a player. I believe this was an accident because it would simply take an amazing amount of skill, forethought, and execution to target an opponent’s achilles tendon rather than, say, his knee (the more traditional target of the ill-intentioned) or his face.
Elsewhere in the league, not only have the Vancouver Canucks been stellar of late, but Roberto Luongo has been playing out of his mind and quite possibly out of his body. Undoubtedly, this has reminded teams league-wide that the Canucks netminder remains among the best goaltenders, and players for that matter, in the league. Teams that were lukewarm on acquiring Luongo at the beginning of the season must now be having more serious thoughts, and the Lightning (given the so-so start of Anders Lindback) might well be among them.