The Week That Was
Record: 3-1 (6 pts, 2nd Atlantic Division)
Goals/Goals Against: 14/9
The first week and then some of the 2013/2014 NHL season is in the books, and the Tampa Bay Lightning have exceeded expectations. This, despite opening the season against the two toughest possible opponents, last year’s Stanley Cup runners-up and last year’s Stanley Cup champions.
In Boston, the Lightning played well, but couldn’t manage to get the offense clicking enough to overcome the Bruins. Boston took advantage of a disastrous Lightning powerplay and came out on top 3-1.
From there, the Lightning put on their burglar masks and snuck into Chicago where they managed to steal two points from the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Blackhawks held the Lightning without a shot in the first period, and were even better in the second period and parts of the third. Ben Bishop held the Lightning close enough for them to dig deep and pull out a comeback 3-2 shootout win.
Jhonas Enroth, filling in for Ryan Miller in Buffalo’s crease, kept Tuesday night’s game closer than it probably should have been, but the Lightning managed to pull out a 3-2 win with Alex Killorn backhanding home the overtime winner. The Lightning outshot the Sabres 34-23.
Coming home with some confidence in their pocket, still beaming mainly over their win in Chicago, they faced the Florida Panthers. Finally, everything clicked. To that point, the Bolts had looked good doing everything but the thing they looked good at last year — scoring goals. Well, they lit the Panthers up for 7 goals, gave up just 2, in what was a near-flawless performance over a team that was clearly struggling. They did what good teams do — they made a weak team look weak.
Steven Stamkos scored his first three goals of the new season, added an assist, and was also a force in the defensive third of the ice. For my money, that was the best performance of Stamkos’s young career.
It’s hard not to feel optimistic about the Lightning with the start they’ve had. But let’s throw the results out the window for a second. What we should really be excited about, beyond even the wins, is the Lightning are finally playing like a team. Gone are those extended periods of time, several shifts in a row, where the Bolts find themselves pinned haplessly in their own end. Gone are the huge momentum swings, the moments where the team looks rattled and frustrated and out of sync. Instead, what we’ve seen thus far in the 2013/2014 season, is a team that plays, well, like a team.
In the defensive zone, the Lightning are keeping it simple. The forwards are pitching in to help out the defensemen. They look like a five-man unit on the ice. To be blunt, Jon Cooper’s team looks dramatically different than Guy Boucher’s team despite having most of the same players.
That said, Cooper has had one luxury Boucher didn’t: goaltending. Ben Bishop has stood tall (pun somewhat intended) in the Lightning net in all three of his appearances. And against Boston, Anders Lindback was solid.
Goaltending proved to be the difference in the Chicago game, where Bishop’s heroics allowed the team to steal two points. And those two points are, let’s be honest, the difference in feeling good about the Lightning’s first week and just feeling so-so. Well, hockey is, as they say, a game of inches.
We also saw a new-look penalty kill, one in which the Lightning aren’t afraid to put their star offensive players on the ice. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis have been taking regular short-handed shifts, and the two combined for the Bolts’s first short-handed goal since March of 2012 on Thursday night. Short-handed goals are back-breakers (as we saw in the game against Boston). Having the ability to score them could make a big difference between this year’s team and last.
There’s not a lot to be pessimistic about after week 1 of the new season. There are, however, plenty of things to be cautious about.
For one, the season is still new. Everyone remembers the Bolts getting off to a 6-1 start last year, and likewise everyone remembers the catastrophe that followed. That said, if I may inject a sliver of optimism into the caution, there were plenty of warning bells around last year’s team even when they were winning. They didn’t have the composure they’ve shown this year, and they didn’t play the complete game they’re playing right now. Also, last year, the Bolts opened the season facing a lot of teams on the back-end of back-to-backs.
Still, we need to be guarded about our expectations. The Bolts play in a tough division and some of these teams are going to get stronger as the season goes on. Sometimes it takes veteran players a few games to get their legs back. It’s also important to remember how easily the Buffalo and Chicago games could have gone the other way, and we could be talking right now about a 1-3 Lightning team. In short: there’s a long season ahead.
Some individual performances have stood out, and not in a good way. Radko Gudas has been guilty of some defensive gaffes, although on the whole his play has been pretty solid, and the bench has been rewarding him with minutes.
Victor Hedman‘s play has alternated from one extreme to the other – he was chiefly responsible for two of the nine goals scored against the Lightning so far, but was also the main reason why at least a couple of pucks stayed out of the Lightning net.
Ryan Malone was pretty much invisible in the first two games of the season. He seemed to have trouble keeping up with his speedy linemates, and at times seemed to be hurting their chemistry. But Malone was better against Buffalo, and he was good against Florida. Perhaps this is one of those aforementioned cases of veterans taking some times to get their legs working. Let’s hope.
Player of the Week
Valtteri “Flip” Filppula 3G, 1A, +3, 18:48, 1 SO Winner
Filppula might not be the flashy choice. Steven Stamkos had the game of his life against the Panthers, and two of the Lightning’s six points have Ben Bishop’s name on them. But consistency counts for a lot in my book, and game in, game out, Filppula has been excellent.
In fact, through four games, Filppula has been better than anyone thought his best case scenario might be. And those who questioned his contract, a group I count myself among, are eating our words.
The key ingredient that Filppula provides for the Lightning is composure. The Lightning have been vulnerable to momentum swings in the past (I feel like that’s a massive understatement), and Filppula’s presence has a calming effect on the rest of the team. Jon Cooper can throw him on the ice after a defensive breakdown and be confident that Filppula will give him the same thing he always gives him – a smart, hardworking, responsible shift. Things instantly settle down.
Someday we might look back at the Filppula signing as the day the identity of the Tampa Bay Lightning changed. Filppula is leading by example on the ice, and the way he plays is a microcosm for how the team has played. He’s a skill player with a blue collar attitude. And his effect on the team has been dramatic.
For my money, Filppula was the best Lightning forward against both Boston and Chicago, and was excellent in the Buffalo and Florida games. For that, I think he’s earned player of the week honors.
“Big” Ben Bishop 3-0, 1.93, .928%
If you’re looking for a single reason, above all else, to be optimistic about the 2013/2014 season, it’s this: Ben Bishop looks like a quality NHL starter. That’s something the Lightning haven’t had since Dwayne Roloson set the world on fire in early 2011.
Bishop has yet to let up a legitimately soft goal, has made key saves in key moments, and, (one more time for the people at the back!) was the only reason the Lightning walked out of Chicago with two points.
Is he cemented as the Lightning’s starter? I would say: not quite. But the job is his to lose.
Unfortunately, news came out on Friday that Bishop has suffered a lower body injury. It doesn’t seem to be anything serious, but it could keep him out of Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And the Penguins are a team against which the Lightning are going to need some big saves.
The Week Ahead
The Bolts will be sticking to Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday for game days. This week they will host two recent Stanley Cup champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings, and then on Thursday the Minnesota Wild come to town.
The Penguins were downed by the Florida Panthers on Friday night, 6-3, but an important note from that game is the Penguins started Jeff Zatkoff. That means they’re saving Marc-Andre Fleury for the Lightning.
After another bad playoff performance last year, Fleury has come in to the 2013/2014 season with a chip on his shoulder. He’s already recorded a shutout and is boasting an even 1.00 GAA average with a .963 save percentage.
Fortunately, the Penguins are coming in on the tail-end of back-to-back games. The Lightning might be able to take advantage of some fatigue issues. However, you have to believe the Penguins are going to dig deep to make sure they get at least two points out of a road trip through the state of Florida, so I would expect them to bring their A-game.
Important note about the game: Ben Bishop may sit this one out with a minor injury. The Bolts have added Cedrick Desjardins to their 23-man roster as a precaution. It looks like Anders Lindback will get the start. And you never really know what you’re going to get out of Lindback.
The Kings will also play the Panthers between now and Tuesday, when they square off with the Lightning. At the time of this writing they are 3-2, and are the only team so far this year to suffer a defeat at the hands of the lowly New York Rangers.
While it would be a surprise if the Kings weren’t in the thick of the contenders come spring, they are beginning to develop a bit of a reputation as slow starters. While 3-2 is by no means bad, the Kings haven’t exactly been matched up with world-beaters. Last season, coming off their Cup win, they came out of the gate 0-2-1, and stretched that to 3-5-2 by early February.
All that said, Jonathan Quick remains arguably the best goalie in the world. The Bolts will need to bring their A-game. If they can get a split out of the Penguins and Kings, I think everyone in Lightning land will be happy.
The Wild come to town on Thursday, but they have three games between now and then, including back-to-backs midweek against the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their game against the Lightning will be their third in four nights. In other words, there will be two points available for the Lightning to grab. So far this season, the Lightning have won the games they’ve been expected to win, and that’s a trend that will need to continue should they have any hope of competing for a playoff spot this year.