The Week That Was
Record: 5-2 (10 pts, 4th Atlantic Division)
Goals For/Against: 26/16
This Week: 2-1
L Pittsburgh Penguins 5 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning 4
W Los Angeles Kings 1 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning 5
W Minnesota Wild 1 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Another week is in the books, and it would be hard not to consider it a successful one for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The schedule was once again tough, with the Bolts continuing their seven-game home-stand against two recent Stanley Cup champions and a defensive-minded Minnesota Wild team that was giving up the fewest shots on goal per game in the league.
The Penguins game was a heartbreaker. The Bolts held the lead or were tied with the Pens for much of the game, but a stale third period saw them give up two goals and go down 4-3. To make the heartbreak worse, the Lightning managed to tie the game in the waning minutes, but then Richard Panik took one of the worst penalties I’ve ever seen with about a minute left to go. Of course, the Penguins capitalized on the powerplay. And that, as they say, was that.
The L.A. Kings came to town next, and Bishop returned to the crease for the Lightning after being out with a lower body injury against the Penguins. Bishop was brilliant again, and the Bolts wound up taking a 5-1 win despite the action on the ice being not nearly so lopsided. In fact, the Kings actually outshot the Lightning 31-25. Martin St. Louis scored two goals and an assist in the game, but was also injured on a play where he dove to block a shot by Drew Doughty and took the puck off his skate.
The big question leading up to the Minnesota Wild game was whether or not St. Louis would play. The Lightning recalled preseason standout Brett Connolly as a precaution. But St. Louis did play, and played well. Coach Jon Cooper decided to dress Connolly anyway, and Connolly played fourth line minutes.
The game was hard-fought. The Lightning played well in the first period, but in the second, they hung on to a 1-0 lead only by the once-again stellar play of Bishop. It was one of the worst periods the Lightning have played this year. The third period was quite a different story, however. Despite giving up the Wild’s only goal, the Lightning dominated the third, outshooting the Wild 13-2. And thanks to some late-game heroics by Steven Stamkos and Matt Carle, they managed to regain the lead and hold it for the win. Sami Salo added an empty netter, his first goal of the season.
If there was a lot to be optimistic about after Week 1, there’s even more to be optimistic about after Week 2. The Bolts are winning the games you’d expect them to win and they’re stealing a few games you’d expect them to lose. Despite the loss to the Penguins, the Lightning proved they were everything the Penguins could handle. And the Penguins are perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
The Lightning have banked 10 points in the first seven games of the season, a feat which, given their schedule, is substantial. Few people thought the Lightning would get points in the L.A. game, and even fewer thought they would get points out of Chicago at the beginning of the year. The schedule won’t always be as tough as it is right now, so getting these points early puts the Lightning ahead of the curve. And, most importantly, it helps cushion the blow of the inevitable slumps that all teams go through in a season.
Ben Bishop has been among the very best goaltenders in the NHL to start the season. Going into Saturday’s game against the Boston Bruins, Bishop is a perfect 5-0 with a staggering 1.57 GAA and .943 save percentage. He’s yet to surrender more than two goals in a game, and on at least two nights, arguably more, he’s been the Lightning’s best player.
There’s also been steady improvement from the rookies. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, in particular, appear to be acclimating to the NHL game and becoming comfortable with their roles in it. Both have four points as of this writing. They’ve gotten better as the season has progressed, and the added scoring depth, as well as defensive responsibility, has made the Lightning that much tougher to play against. The more coach Cooper can count on them, the better. And he’s counting on them more and more with every game.
Richard Panik has had some struggles this season, but overall, he too seems to be improving. After his gaffe against the Penguins, Panik has put in two solid games against the Kings and Wild. Against the Kings, sheer bad luck kept Panik from scoring at least twice, and against the Wild, Panik managed an assist. There are still noticeable mistakes (giveaways, mainly), but he’s improving. With Brett Connolly now in Tampa, he may be fighting for a roster spot – someone’s going back to Syracuse eventually (when Tom Pyatt returns from injury at the latest), and there’s no guarantee it’ll be Connolly.
Steven Stamkos is a brand new animal. He’s not just a scoring machine anymore. Stamkos is noticeable on the backcheck, and he’s also forechecking along the boards with a physicality we haven’t previously seen from him. He’s killing penalties. He’s taken his plethora of athletic gifts and put them to use on all 200 feet of the ice. It’s still something of a secret NHL-wide. Oh, and just because Stamkos isn’t only a scoring machine anymore… well, that doesn’t mean he’s not still a scoring machine.
After a shaky start to the year, Ryan Malone looks like he’s back in form. He’s been getting better with every game, and has been a force on some nights. Other noticeably improved players in Week 2 were Victor Hedman (a beast at times) and Radko Gudas (a beast naturally). Gudas is making a name for himself around the league.
After another good week, it’s hard to find things to be pessimistic about. With relatively low expectations on this year’s team, given its youth and inexperience, nothing can take away from the fact that they are playing far better than any pundits thought they would. Or could.
But alas, there are some issues to talk about.
Anders Lindback’s outing against the Penguins looked a lot like Lindback from last year. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt against the Bruins, and I maintain that Lindback was solid that night, but against Pittsburgh, Lindback’s play was cause for concern.
If it were any other goalie, you could cut them some slack. Other than the last goal, it’s hard to call any of the Penguins goals soft – three of them, remember, were scored by the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby. But this is what Lindback does. He stops more A-grade chances than he should, but he struggles with the B-grade chances. Or, simply, more of those B-grade chances seem to beat him than other goalies. That was the case again against the Penguins, and it makes you wonder if Lindback has progressed from where he was last season. There are also still plenty of questions about his mental toughness. He seems to crack under pressure, or when things aren’t going his way – both of which were true at the end of the Penguins game, and Lindback gave up a soft goal that cost the Lightning at least one point.
The other thing to consider is this: Ben Bishop can’t play out of his mind forever. Sooner or later, those gaudy numbers will come back down to earth. And then, the big question will be whether or not the Lightning will be able to win tough games without their goalie playing like the reincarnation of Dominik Hasek. On the good side, the longer Bishop plays well, and the longer the Lightning win regularly, the more confidence the team gets. And confident teams don’t fall apart so easily. (Note: to see a team falling apart and lacking confidence, have a look at last season’s Tampa Bay Lightning.)
It’s also worth noting just how tough the Atlantic division is. 5-2 is only good for 4th right now, so the Lightning may have to eye one of those two Wild Card playoff spots come the end of the season. What makes the division tougher is most of the Lightning’s opponents this season will be from within the division, making almost every night nearly a must-win situation. Unless they continue to bank points.
Player of the Week
“Big” Ben Bishop 2GP, 2-0, 1.00 GAA, .964%
Season Totals: 5-0, 1.57, .943%
The big, and I do mean big, story of the Lightning’s season thus far is that they’re finally getting goaltending. And not just good goaltending – great goaltending. Stellar goaltending. Insert your own adjective here: _________ goaltending.
Given his 5-0 start compared to Anders Lindback’s 0-2 start, I think it’s safe to say the Lightning have found their man. Lindback could still get hot and get some games as a result of it (Cooper is known for going with the hot hand), but by and large, I would say the Tampa Bay crease is licensed and registered to Bishop.
The Lightning, while vastly improved, still have their self-destructive moments. They can still go 10, 15, or even 20 minutes looking like last year’s team. And so far this year, Bishop has been up to the challenge every time, holding down the fort until the Bolts finally get their heads together. Which they do, usually.
Honorable Mentions: Steven Stamkos (see above praise), Victor Hedman.
The Week Ahead
There are just two games on tap between now and next Friday. But what a tough two games they are. The Bolts will be rematching both the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks, who together made up last year’s Stanley Cup final.
The Bruins come to town Saturday. In their previous game, the first of the year for both of them, the Bruins took home a hard-fought 3-1 win. The Lightning proved a lot that night, despite the loss, and will no doubt be looking to prove “a good showing” is no longer good enough. The Lightning are beyond wanting to prove they have potential.
The Bruins come into the game with a 4-2 record, which sits them just behind the Lightning in the Atlantic division but with a game at hand.
The game has goaltending duel written all over it – Tuukka Rask’s numbers are slightly gaudier than even Ben Bishop’s. He’s currently posting a 1.51 GAA and a .947 save percentage. His 4-2 record is a reflection of the Bruin’s struggles to score this year.
The Lightning will then have a four-day rest before the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks visit. The Hawks, as of today, are 4-1-2, and one of those post-regulation losses came at the hands of the Lightning. The Hawks drastically outplayed the Bolts in that game, however, and will no doubt have revenge on their minds.