Challenging the Tampa Bay Lightning physically no longer goes unaccepted.
In recent exhibition games, Lightning players, to a man, have not backed down or have stood up for teammates. In a game at the Scotttrade Center in St. Louis on Friday, a gritty line of B.J. Crombeen, P.C. Labrie and Nate Thompson found themselves in a dust-up with Blues’ players just 11 seconds after the first period faceoff. Blues Captain David Backes and defenseman Barrett Jackman took a challenge from Coach Ken Hitchcock to retaliate for a suspention-worthy beating of team mate Vladimir Sobotka, by Bolts’ prospect Adam Erne.
Erne was since demoted to his junior team, though showed an ability to find the net and play in traffic. Another Bolt getting into the mix with the Blues was B.J. Crombeen, who engaged Backes after what he took to be a hit to the knees to teammate Mike Angledis.
A change from last year, Tampa players were not easily muscled off the puck. The team’s new scheme under Coach Jon Cooper called for players to square their shoulders, take a hit, and keep their feet moving to maintain puck possession. Radko Gudas showed a propensity to finish checks and deliver big hits. Overall, players seemed to be fighting for pucks in the corners.
Defense has improved beyond mere physicality. Penalty killers are setting up a box in front of the net, to cut scoring chances, while clearing loose pucks more effectively. Forwards and d-men alike are clogging pass lanes to reduce scoring chances. Opposing screening forwards are paying the price for camping in front of the crease, and are moved out by hard-hitting defensemen.
Though Friday’s game was played by checkers, muckers and prospects, Tampa showed a vastly improved passing ability over last year, with well-timed and received passes.
The offense penetrated the zone with an organized scheme beyond dump-and-chase.
One individual surprise was Tyler Johnson. A small-ish center, he showed a great lower center of gravity and quick hands to get leverage and win faceoffs. Another great individual effort came from Valtteri Filppula, who as first star of the game, collected three helpers.
Ben Bishop seems to have taken the lead in the contest with Anders Lindback for the No. 1 goaltending spot. Friday, he played a half game, surrendering one goal, while Lindback let two past. Given the start on Saturday against the Florida Panthers, Bishop let four pucks into the net, though he played the complete game, overtime and stood tall in the shoot out.
Saturday’s game was decided by one goal scored in the shootout by standout prospect Jonathan Drouin.
As of Sunday, Tampa’s preseason record stood at 4-0, a meaningless standard, especially in light of their 6-0 start in regular season play last year. Improvement shows, with greater physicality, defense and transition play. Most of all, the players are demonstrating a willingness to keep playing, even in the face of adversity and to stick together as a team. Tampa could prove itself to be the sleeper team of this season.
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