The Tampa Bay Lightning split back to back road games over the weekend with a win against their division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes, followed by a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. I suppose that’s a better result than the opposite split (giving points to the Canes is never a good thing). The weekend was full of both positive and negative signs about the team’s direction, i.e. what is likely to work and what appears to be falling through.
On Saturday, the Bolts played a near-perfect game against the Canes, working hard in both ends and being particularly responsible in front of their own net. The result was a 5-2 win, and one of the top two or three team performances of the year.
On Sunday, in Pittsburgh, the Lightning were downed by a final score of 5-3, but that score belies the game’s action in many ways. Tampa Bay stormed back twice to get themselves within a goal of tying the game, and nearly did just that in the final minute when it appeared Victor Hedman’s shot deflected off Marty St. Louis’ stick and grazed the crossbar on its way over the net. Moments later, the Pens sealed the deal with an empty net goal, and the Lightning are now sitting at 9-8-1.
But overall, the general sense among Lightning fans should be optimism. Despite losing Sunday’s game, the Lightning played well, and let’s not forget it was the tail-end of back-to-backs, which is never in a team’s favor. But even after a deflating first period, which saw the Pens score three goals (two of which, I must say, were stoppable – but more on that later), the Bolts put on a spirited effort. And of course, the night before, in a game that was more important, Tampa Bay was very impressive.
We are now just over a third of the way through the NHL season. The Carolina Hurricanes followed up their loss to the Lightning with a win over the New York Islanders, putting them in the Southeast division lead, and putting the Lightning out of a playoff spot.
Every game is more important than the last. Every point is more valuable. The Lightning have been great at times this year, and they’ve been horrible at other times. The truth of what this team is lies, in all likelihood, somewhere in the middle. I would argue the upper middle. They’re a team that has struggled with consistency and has paid dearly for their mistakes, mental and otherwise. So now, with the opening stretch of the season over and the playoffs beginning to loom large in our collective consciousness, let’s have a look at things that we, the Lightning fans, should be optimistic about, and then also at some things that range from nagging worries to shrieking terrors.
You should be optimistic because…
…Steven Stamkos is finally in 2012 form.
Early in the season, I spent a lot of time talking about how Stamkos, despite putting up impressive numbers, had yet to fully regain his nightmarish 2012 form. Over the last three or four games, I think Stamkos has finally found that top gear again.
The difference is simply in how present Stamkos is in the play. Earlier in the season, he was often the guy his teammates looked for to finish plays, while now, Stamkos is often doing the initiating himself. He’s skating the puck into the offensive zone, crashing into the corners, and just generally forcing the opposing team to be aware of him at all times. The beauty of having such a weapon is his teammates become instantly better. Why? Stamkos is sucking up a significant percentage of the attention defenders are spreading to the Lightning forwards.
After the game in Pittsburgh, which was almost as thrilling for the battle between Stamkos and Sidney Crosby in the race for the Art Ross Trophy as it was for the battle between the teams, Stamkos has retained his spot as the leader in NHL scoring with 29 points in 18 games (Crosby finished the night with 28 – both had 3 point performances). Stamkos is also leading the NHL in goals with 13, and has scored in 5 straight games.
…The team has a legitimate 1-2 punch in scoring lines.
Swapping Cory Conacher and Martin St. Louis has thus far been a success. I stated many times that I felt St. Louis was preoccupied with feeding Stamkos the puck and the play was predictable. Playing with Vincent Lecavalier and Benoit Pouliot, St. Louis’ game has become more varied. Much has been made of his lack of goals to start the season, but since being placed on his new line, St. Louis has been forcing his way to the net much more often. The line, in large thanks to Pouliot, is one that can grind in the corners and work pucks to the front, and often has extended periods in the offensive zone (though I must say, some of the defensive zone play has been scary).
Meanwhile, on the top scoring line, Conacher has had instant chemistry with Stamkos. And it’s a chemistry that could easily be predicted. Conacher’s game is similar to St. Louis, but it also has major differences. Where St. Louis is largely a finesse and skill player, Conacher is a player that does a lot of dirty work and then throws pucks at the net – and that’s where good things happen. The best thing Conacher has brought to the Lightning has been his ability to keep plays alive, particularly in the corners, by outhustling opposing D-men. He gets to loose pucks that by all rights should be cleared, and just generally has a knack for creating havoc afterward. And when you’ve got a guy in Stamkos who needs only a split second with the puck on his stick (which is vastly different from a “perfect pass”), the result is goals.
The unsung hero in all of this is Benoit Pouliot. Pouliot, since moving up to a scoring role after the injury to Ryan Malone, is suddenly on pace to set new personal highs in offensive output (and yes, I’m talking about straight, non-prorated numbers). He plays a very good north-south game that compliments the bobbing and weaving Marty St. Louis does.
…the youth movement is paying off.
The young players the Lightning have brought up this season from the Syracuse Crunch have made quick impacts. Chief among them, obviously, is Cory Conacher, whose making a strong bid at Rookie of the Year honors. Conacher, as mentioned above, has added a new dimension to the team’s top line, combining blazing speed with tenacity (a rare combination, particularly in such quantities). Does he take a few reckless penalties? Yup. But recklessness is part of the package with Conacher, and I would argue an important part. Note: He paid the price for said recklessness in the Penguins game. Conacher was nailed several times, often in highlight-reel worthy ways. He did, of course, manage to score a goal.
Alex Killorn has perhaps been more of a surprise. While it seemed pretty obvious that Conacher had the skill, and the moxie, to make an impact in the NHL (size permitting), Killorn’s instant impact has been more of a bonus. Shift after shift, Killorn provides energy, and as he adapts to the speed and intensity of the NHL game, that energy is going to more and more manifest itself into production.
Killorn’s numerical counterpart, Richard Panik, appears to be on the same upswing. Panik’s game continues to improve as he gets comfortable in his new league, and he’s already established himself as a player the Bolts are confident in putting on the ice (not so with all rookies). Panik’s first NHL goal on Saturday against the Canes and was a thing of beauty. On Sunday, he broke in alone and had a great opportunity to tie it up, but alas, Marc-Andre Fleury crushed that dream.
Of course, the youth movement in Tampa Bay isn’t rooted entirely in rookies. It’s easy to forget, after all, that Steven Stamkos just turned 23 a couple of weeks ago. Victor Hedman is 22. Want more good news? Many might-be-Bolts are still paying their dues in Syracuse, one of whom, Brett Connolly, is almost sure to rejoin the team next season (or earlier). Tyler Johson is currently leading the AHL in goals and is second in points.
And since we’re talking about optimism, take a look at this: it appears the Syracuse Crunch have finally gotten over the loss of several of their key players (Conacher, Killorn, Panik) to the parent club. The team is currently on a 7 game winning streak, and newly acquired goalie, Cedrick Dejardins, has recorded back-to-back shutouts. In fact, 4 of the 7 wins have been shutouts, a stat so psychotic it warrants a heavy-duty lithium prescription.
You should be worried that…
…it might be time to re-evaluate Anders Lindback as the team’s #1 goalie.
There are a lot of reasons to give Lindback the benefit of the doubt. For one, the team hasn’t played great in front of him at times, occasionally leaving him so hung out to dry that even through his gargantuan goalie gear you can actually see him register surprise. And of course, stats can be deceiving. But the antithesis of that argument is, the more games you play, the less deceiving the stats become. At a certain point, stats are just stats.
Anders Lindback’s sample size is still relatively small. He’s played 13 games to date, not all of them starts, and has a record of 7-4-1 (that record, however, might be stats deceiving you the other way – Lindback was let off the hook for Sunday’s loss against Pittsburgh, for instance, when the Lightning scored their third goal). He has a goals against average of 3.27 and a save percentage of .890 – one of those numbers you want big, the other you want small, and Lindback has them in the wrong order.
It’s not like Lindback gives up a lot of blantantly weak goals. He seems to stop the pucks he should, and occasionally robs opponents of a goal they should rightfully score. But it’s those middling opportunities where the problem lies. There just seem to be too many of those goals that aren’t necessarily bad goals, and yet you can’t help but wish he’d stop a couple more of them. Case in point – Sidney Crosby’s first goal on Sunday night. Was it a bad goal? No. Crosby is one of the most lethal scorers in the league, and he had a clear path to the net. …but it did appear Lindback went down quite early, and, well, you just have to wish he’d stop a few more chances like that than he’s been able to so far. Not all of them – just more of them.
It’s getting to the point where you have to wonder if the Lightning front office are quietly feeling out other possibilities, emergency plans if you will. Could Cedrick Dejardins, for instance, be auditioning for a shot in the NHL? Could, against all odds, the Lightning have entered the Roberto Luongo sweepstakes (Luongo, by the way, got shelled Sunday in Detroit, after being arguably the best goalie in the NHL to that point)? It’s beginning to look, much like last year with Dwayne Roloson, that the team is losing confidence in their netminder and adjusting their play accordingly. The Bolts were a better team in front of Garon, noticeably so, and it’s hard not to wonder how much/little of that had to do with panic when the flow went against them.
…Vincent Lecavalier is no longer a dominant force.
At the first of the season, Lecavalier was inarguably (in my very heavy-handed opinion) the team’s best player. And I say that as an admitted Lecavalier-doubter. When the team was 6-1, Lecavalier deserved the lion’s share of the credit. In the wishy-washy times since, I can’t say Lecavalier’s been to blame. But I can say that the Lightning would likely have won a couple of those close games had January’s Lecavalier shown up.
Of course, much of the frustration around Lecavalier is actually frustration with his contract. The Lightning captain comes with a $7.7 million cap hit. He’s simply no longer capable of scoring like a $7.7 million player. He is, however, capable of playing like a $7.7 million player, and was doing just that to open the year. It was most noticeable on the backcheck, where Lecavalier could often be seen hustling back to break up plays.
I’m not sure if all the magic is in Lecavalier’s left foot, but I’m sure that since injuring it he hasn’t had the same spark in all areas of the ice. He’s become primarily a scorer again, with some physical edge (and he remains great in the faceoff circle, Carolina game aside), but the two-way game has evaporated to 2012 levels.
…Steven Stamkos is losing the battle to his arch-nemesis, the faceoff circle. Badly.
Despite a good performance in the circle against the Penguins, Stamkos has won just 46.1% of his draws this year. Bluntly, that’s just not good enough. Especially when you’re taking key offensive zone draws.
Of course, it’s impossible to win all of them. But Stamkos needs to somehow figure out a way to at least win half. 3.9% (how much below half he is) might not seem like much, but over the course of a regular-length season, it will usually add up to more than a hundred more times you start your shift going in the wrong direction than in the right direction. Stamkos is too valuable a weapon for that, and perhaps it’s time for the Lightning to either address the issue or move him to a wing.
Note: Oddly, Stammers faceoff issues seem to evaporate on the powerplay, where he’s 24-13.
I’m still optimistic about the Lightning. Many of their hiccups this season have been of the mental variety, and hopefully they will become less frequent as the team builds a culture (a culture of winning, let’s hope).
Something to remember: winning breeds winning. Winning breeds winners, and winners win. It’s a cycle. Success breeds success. The Lightning need to learn what it’s like to expect to win, a zone that I would argue they were in at the beginning of the season, right up until the Ranger game that burst their bubble. More than that, they need to learn to not accept failure – to succeed after failing. As of now, the Lightning have shown, on several occasions, that they have the heart of a winning team. But they’re also prone to terrible mistakes (that Anders Lindback ultimately pays for, usually).
Heart = Good. Brains = Good. Heart + Brains = Wins.