It’s no easy task to go into the Eastern Conference champion’s building for their team’s home opener. Last night the Tampa Bay Lightning did just that when took on the Boston Bruins, ultimately falling 3-1 to the biggest, baddest team in the new Atlantic division.
It was our first look at the Lightning in Coach Jon Cooper’s mold. Last season, Cooper took over for Guy Boucher with a handful of games remaining, but because of the condensed schedule and limited practice time, Cooper wasn’t able to fully implement his plan and his system. The time was mostly used for evaluation. This year, Cooper’s fully in charge, with a fresh new coaching staff to help him out.
Ultimately, it was the Lightning’s powerplay that failed them. They gave up two shorthanded goals, one via penalty shot, and enough odd man rushes to make your eyes hurt from rolling them. Milan Lucic added a goal at even strength for the B’s, and Valtteri Filppula scored his first NHL goal not in a Red Wings’ uniform for the Lightning.
If you didn’t see last night’s game, but you’ve been following the reaction to it, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. It was an intriguing game to say the least. And I’ve put together a little Q & A (with me playing the part of both questioner and answerer) to help you out.
Q: Was the Lightning powerplay really as bad as I’ve heard?
A: It was probably worse. I try to keep things in perspective (usually) in these articles, and to stay somewhat on an even-keel, and I try to temper both my optimism and pessimism and keep from getting too dramatic. With that in mind, here goes: that is the worst I’ve ever seen a powerplay perform in a single game. And I’ve been watching hockey for a long time.
I’ve seen ineffective powerplays and I’ve seen dysfunctional powerplays. Tampa Bay’s powerplay under Guy Boucher was often pretty bad. But last night brought things to a whole new low. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a powerplay where the shorthanded team clearly had the offensive advantage. And on a consistent basis.
The Lightning had two long five-on-threes and failed to score on either of them – I’m not too worried about that. At least, I’m not as worried about that as I am the odd-man rushes they gave up, and how confused they seemed while dealing with the odd-man rushes. The end result was two goals against and a lost game. If the Bruins never took a penalty in that game, it would likely have gone to overtime. The Bruins might have been smarter to take more.
Q: How worried about the powerplay are you?
A: On a scale of 1-10? Maybe about a 2. I’m willing to believe last night’s powerplay performance was more of a freak occurrence that anything.
I’ve been wishing for a long time that the Lightning would stop using four forwards on the powerplay, and I think that was a lot of last night’s problem. For one thing, Victor Hedman needs some powerplay minutes if we want him to ever develop into a powerplay quarterback. For another, it takes a specific type of forward to play the point on the powerplay, and the Lightning don’t have one.
Q: Give it to me straight. How bad did the team look?
A: Honestly, not bad at all. The positives far outweighed the negatives. The Lightning hung tough with the Bruins and probably outplayed them in two out of three periods.
The biggest positive from the game was the Lightning played like a unit. There wasn’t a lot of the “five individuals scrambling for a puck” that we saw in the last two seasons.
But really, it all comes down to what your expectations are for the Lightning this year. If you want them to win a cup, well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. If you want them to make the playoffs… maybe, but it’ll take a lot of luck. The truth is the NHL clipped the Lightning’s hope of a playoff berth significantly with its new realigned divisions. But hey, we can still hope for a Cinderella story.
If you’re hoping the Lightning will take a step forward this year, a step toward someday becoming a contender… in that case, I’ve got good news for you. The players seemed to buy-in to Cooper’s system and most of the rookies looked like quality NHLers. At even strength, the team probably outplayed the Bruins and the penalty kill looked, dare I say, strong.
And here’s a stat for you: the Lightning out-hit the Bruins 20-13.
Now, if we can just work out that powerplay…
Q: You just said “most” of the rookies looked like quality NHLers. Who looked bad?
A: Mark Barberio got off to a shaky start to his rookie season. He was doubly responsible for the Bruins’ first goal, first giving the puck away and then hooking down Chris Kelly for the penalty shot.
You know how Radko Gudas looked last season? How he simply slid into the lineup and looked like he’d been playing in the NHL for years? How he had so much poise? Well, imagine what the opposite of that and you’ll have Mark Barberio’s night in a nutshell.
He seemed a little overwhelmed by the moment. There’s a pretty good chance that’ll go away with experience, so it’s not something I’d worry about yet. Barberio still gives us our best bet for a legit powerplay quarterback somewhere down the road. He’ll probably see his share of press box duty after last night though.
But if we’re talking about the six (count em, six) rookies the team dressed last night, the conclusion is, again, the positives outweighed the negatives. And by far. Radko Gudas had a superb game. Say what you want about the penalty at game’s end. Gudas is always going to play the game with a feisty edge. A mean streak, if you will. It’s part of what makes him Radko Gudas. Fear the beard, brother.
But the most pleasant surprise of the rookies, and perhaps of the entire night, was Andrej Sustr. There were a lot of questions about whether or not Sustr would dress leading into the game, and before that not many people expected the big USA-educated Czech to make the team. But make the team he did, and he showed why last night. He was arguably Tampa Bay’s best defenseman, and there were long stretches of the game where it wasn’t arguable.
Sustr played 20 minutes last night. Victor Hedman played 19.
Q: How did the Top Gun Line look?
A: Like NHLers. Tyler Johnson showed off his wheels. Ondrej Palat had a couple of the unspectacular scoring chances he’s famous for. Richard Panik, oddly, was the least visible of the three, but by no means did he have a bad game.
The line fit in and applied some pressure at times. If you’re expecting them to set the world on fire – don’t. They’re a third line, after all. And they looked like a quality third line last night despite their lack of NHL experience (3 rookies, 1 line, usually equals doom). In my book, it was a resounding success.
Q: So overall, who was the Lightning’s best player?
A: My vote goes to Valtteri Filppula. Eric Brewer made a highlight reel play that resulted in a Filppula goal, but even without that goal, Filppula was the best Bolt last night. He played with the composure you would expect from a guy who’s spent several seasons with a winning franchise. His puck skills were on display, his decision-making was spot-on, he won faceoffs, and all in all, if he puts in that kind of performance every night, I will easily put aside all my concerns about his contract. He was a $5 million player last night and then some. Here’s hoping he keeps it up.
Q: I noticed you didn’t say Steven Stamkos or Marty St. Louis. What was up with the top line?
A: To be blunt, the top line was probably the Lightning’s worst line last night. A lot of that has to do with going up against the Patrice Bergeron line.
From my point of view, there were two main issues:
1. Let me put this delicately. Last night, every time Steven Stamkos entered the faceoff circle, he looked like someone Patrice Bergeron bought for a pack of smokes in prison. I think you know what I’m saying.
Stamkos went an abysmal 9/25 at the dot last night. Again, a lot of that had to do with his main faceoff opponent, Bergeron. But still. If Stamkos is going to be a #1 center, he’s going to have to do a much better job of going up against the league’s best faceoff men. Because it doesn’t get any easier – Saturday it’s Jonathan Toews with the pack of smokes and his cell door wide open.
The Stamkos line was the only line that wound up consistently pinned in the defensive end, and it happened, mostly, because Stamkos didn’t win enough draws. The worst part about that is it’s the Stamkos line that gets pinned – you know, the line the Lightning depend on for most of their scoring?
2. Ryan Malone probably isn’t a top line player anymore.
Maybe he simply had a bad game. I don’t know. But I know it didn’t look like simply a bad game. It looked like a guy who couldn’t keep up with his linemates. Aside from a good physical presence, Malone was largely invisible last night, and it often appeared that Stamkos and St. Louis were a duo without a third.
Malone can’t have many performances like that without getting demoted down the depth chart. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened immediately. If Malone doesn’t get it together quickly, there might be an opening in the Lightning top-six. And I don’t think I’m the only one that watched last night’s game with Brett Connolly on my mind.
To put it in perspective: Malone played 20 minutes last night. Valtteri Filppula played 15.
Q: Were there any other bad performances?
A: Victor Hedman had the worst game I’ve seen him play in a while, and it renewed my concerns about his decision-making. If Hedman ever shakes his tendency to have mental hiccups at exactly the wrong moment, he might wind up the elite NHL defenseman we’re hoping he’ll be. But there are very real concerns, and they way back.
Hedman was chiefly responsible for Milan Lucic’s goal last night when he badly screened Anders Lindback by pulling a butterfly in the slot in an attempt to block the shot. As Don Cherry is fond of saying: if you’re going to go down, you’d better block the shot, because the goalie can’t see it.
Q: But wait. I’ve been reading Anders Lindback had a poor game. Are you saying he didn’t?
A: That’s exactly what I’m saying. I think Lightning fans are a little quick on the “blame the goaltender” trigger right now. It’s understandable – Lindback earned his reputation.
But if you want to break down the goals, it looks like this. The first came on a penalty shot, scored by Chris Kelly, and if you show me a goalie who can stop that ridiculous deke 50% of the time, I’ll show you a $6 million goalie.
I’ve seen a lot of people calling the Lucic goal soft, but like I said before, that one’s not on Lindback. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect anyone to stop a puck off Milan Lucic’s stick when there’s someone the size of a small shed doing a butterfly in front of you. Plain and simple: Lindback didn’t see it.
The one goal Lindback would probably like back is Patrice Bergeron’s. But if you’re not satisfied with Lindback’s performance because of a goal scored by one of the league’s premiere players in a 2-on-1, on a powerplay no less, then, well, I think maybe you’re expecting a little much out of a $1.8 million goalie.
Lindback played well enough to give the Lightning a chance to win last night. That’s his job. Against a lot of team’s, he would have got the W.
Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Saturday’s game versus the Chicago Blackhawks?
A: It’s sort of an out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire situation. The Bolts started off with the Stanley Cup runners-up and now they get the champs. Well, I guess it’s always a good thing to see where you measure up.
The Lightning, despite some of my gripes, measured up pretty well last night. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough, and that might end up being the case again on Saturday. The Blackhawks are a well-rested bunch, and let’s not forget how they started last season.
But this game, much like the last one, really is all about the measuring stick. At the end of the night, winning and losing won’t be as important as learning where the Lightning stand. If they can compete with the champs, it’ll be a good sign that the team has indeed taken a step forward. And in a season like this, that’s what really counts.