Oct 5, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) waits for a face off against the Chicago Blackhawks during the third period at the United Center. The Lightning beat the Blackhawks 3-2 in the shootout. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning Need Grit As Playoffs Hang in the Balance

Ever since Steven Stamkos‘ Nov. 11 injury in Boston, I wanted to be at the first game he came back to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning.  I wanted to welcome back one of our best and most beloved hockey players after a lengthy (but not nearly as lengthy compared to regular humans) journey back to the ice.  And by my lucky stars (since I almost bought tickets to that Feb. 6 Detroit Red Wings game, his previously rumored return date, which would have been a bust for such intentions) I was able to be at the Tampa Bay Times Forum last night as the Bolts played at home for the first time since the Olympic break against the Buffalo Sabres and welcome home Stammer:  our newly minted “C“aptain of the team (adios Marty).

The air was full of a certain kind of magic at Stammer’s known return.  A video montage of his rehabilatation played on the big screen; full of inspirational, goosebump conjuring music, pounding out into the crowd. It concluded with a somehow suspenseful statement:  “IS BACK” splayed across the screen.  Cue Tesla coils.

Stammer skated out onto the ice for the first time in 45 games to a standing ovation; revealing for the first time to the public that he was indeed named the 10th captain in Lightning history.  With a slight hand salute to the cheering crowd, Stamkos skated out across the ice with a concentrated fury. He careened around the rink with a spotlight following along above; looking happy this day had finally come while cold focused to make the most of it.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, that was the only part of the night that held any sort of magic for the Lightning who fumbled another chance at two points to the worst team in the NHL – losing 3-1 in regulation.

Stamkos looked good last night overall in my opinion.  He had a lot on his plate after coming back from the first significant injury of his career, his first night as captain, and all the pressure and attention swirling around the team since former captain Martin St. Louis‘ exit.

He passed well.  Had good speed.  Looked a little tenative with the puck on scoring chances but I think that’s to be understood from someone playing again after such a long dormant period.  Stammer just needs to zero-in the sights on his stick a bit, I think, and that only comes with time.  If you remember, Stammer was a little slow at the beginning of the season, too, with getting the puck into the net (goalless in the first three games of the season then scoring a hat trick in the first Lightning home game on Oct. 10 against the Florida Panthers), before going on a tear, scoring 14 goals in 13 games; a tear interrupted only by his injury.

I think now that the first game back is over he can settle down and into his regular routine and we’ll see his quality of play pick back up.

As for the rest of the team…

If you’re looking at last night’s stats then you’re no doubt scratching your head.  Because on paper, we should have won that game.  44 shots on goal to Buffalo’s 21.  22 hits to Buffalo’s 18.  37 faceoff wins to Buffalo’s 24.

But here is where the stats start to show the sad truth of how a game that looked as good as those stats above suggest are misleading.  Giveaways:  TB 6, BUF 2.  Takeaways:  BUF 10, TB 3.  Blocked Shots:  BUF 21, TB 6.

The Sabres played tighter defense in front of stellar goaltending efforts by Jhonas Enroth who stole the show last night in net for the No. 1 Star.  Buffalo allowed hardly any of Tampa Bay’s 44 shots on goal to come from advantageous angles.  Enroth allowed no convenient rebounds to go the Lightning’s way; wrapping up everything.  Everything until Tyler Johnson‘s late third period goal from high in the slot which was so well screened I doubt Enroth had eyes on it.  If he had, we might be talking shutout right now.

Buffalo played shutdown defense and waited for Tampa Bay’s defense to breakdown, which it did, and scored on the opportunties presented.  And that was all Buffalo needed to do to win.

The Bolts played with some pep in their skates, and that’s good.  That’s the kind of play that nine times out of ten will result in a win.  But the breakdowns in blueline defense, zone entry, and passing on the break need to get cleaned up, and fast.  Tampa Bay is running out of games to turn this sudden drop in fortune around.  We are tenatively holding onto a wild card position as it is; whereas just two weeks ago we held a top-three spot in the Atlantic.  This season, along with Marty’s departure, is threatening to derail even further if something isn’t done to course correct.

I saw a few good things last night, though; things to be happy about in the Bolts’ play.  But as per usual, I also saw a lot of the same issues that continue to plague this Lightning team from being truly successful.  And that, in my opinion, is soft defense.  We got finesse.  And we got talent in the backfield.  But we don’t got, aside from injured Radko Gudas who did not play last night, a series of gritty, no nonsense players who make teams afraid to bring that puck into our zone.  And that, I think, will continue to plague our team’s ability to be elite if those areas are not addressed at some point in the very near future.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Callahan had a decent game last night in his debut.  Good puck retrivel coupled with some good hits.  But at the end of the day he had as much reason to be nervous as Stamkos in his frist game as a Bolt.  Got to give Cally some time to find his footing in the blue and white sweater, but overall, I was pleased and excited to see what elements he can bring to the team.  Hopefully some more physicality up front which could create more scoring opportunties for our offense; who look like they desperately need a spark.

I’m not worried so much about Anders Lindback because I feel that situation will sort itself out eventually, once Kristers Gudlevskis gets his shot at the number two spot.  But honestly, Lindback does what he can with the defense in front of him.  Ben Bishop is just that much better that he can save the majority of our defense’s breakdowns, but still, Lindback is only as good as the team in front of him and sometimes they honestly leave him out to dry.  And it doesn’t help that he plays so sporadically that he never gets a chance to find any one groove for any series of games he plays.

With that said, his play, and inability to surprise us with some of his better play that I know he is capable of, is getting decidily old.

Lindback saves two of those three goals scored on the Lightning (if not all, why not, I’m fantasizing here) and we may have had a game with a much different complexion.  Not just in the obvious scoreboard ways, but in the way the Lightning might have played, and were to a certain extent already playing, if not forced to play catch up the whole game.  Never know now.

But Saturday is going to be a HUGE test for this Bolts team.  Boston is one of our toughest opponents this season (we have yet to beat them in three tries) and we desperately need a win if we want to stay in the playoff hunt (a four-game losing streak is a heartwrenching possibility we need to try as hard as possible to not entertain).

Time for Stammer to get some Boston revenge and lead the Bolts to a big win against a bitter division rival, and FINALLY gain two INCREDIBLY valuable points to our postseason efforts.

 

Off the Dot is an ongoing column of opinions, feelings and thoughts on all things Tampa Bay Lightning.  This is a knee-jerk reaction column for the many things that a fan maybe feels or thinks throughout a hockey season.

This is NOT a stat by stat analysis of the Bolts, but rather a theater of words concerning the Lightning and the many emotions tangled up in supporting your favorite NHL team; a theater for all fans to come to for a more personal take on Tampa Bay hockey.

That’s why I call it “off the dot”.  Because if we were “on the dot”, as in face-off mode, well, things would be decidedly more on-point and specific.  While off the dot, while we’re still just milling around the face-off circle, as I am now, waiting for the whistle to blow, then we’re just being conversational.  We’re just talking about our thoughts on strategy maybe or whatever random concept happens to come to mind, needing to be expressed.  The fun off-key banter of fans before someone (whoever) decides to hunker down, spread out their skates, and get nose-deep over the dot for the real face-off, and maybe say, statistically speaking, what happened in a win or loss in their more researched opinion.  And we have those articles all over Bolts by the Bay, and I very much encourage you to check out those articles, too.

These are just my opinions, my feelings, and my thoughts – while we’re off the dot.

Tags: NHL Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning

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