Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Yzerman Fills in the Missing Pieces

When I go grocery shopping I wander the aisles putting things in my basket until I have what I need. Often I have to double back to pick up things I forgot to get the first time around.  When my wife goes shopping she has a list. She hits everything on that list in order with no wasted time looking at ice cream and wondering when they stopped making Pudding Pops. When it comes to free agency I'm like the Washington Capitals grabbing overpriced items at the checkout line.  Steve Yzerman is my wife.

It makes me smile to think that he woke up a couple of days ago, grabbed a pen and his “Things to Do” stationary and went to town.  He probably had himself a nice little Saturday.  After yesterday’s frenzy it probably looked a little something like this:

Big Steve’s To Do List

Draft a talented but troubled teenager - Anthony DeAngelo - check
Pick up a defenseman on the cheap - Jason Garrison - check
Clear up some cap space - Teddy Purell, BJ Crombeen, Nate Thompson - check
Chuckle at the thought of beat writers and bloggers not getting enough sleep - check
Drink one Heineken (Because Kid Rock rhymed it with my name in a song) - check
Wait for desperate GM’s to throw crazy money around in the first few hours of free ageny - check
Sign solid defenseman to a reasonable contract - Anton Stralman - check
Call Ecklund on a burner cell phone and say that “sources” tell me Yzerman is offing $49 million to Matt Niskanen - check
Chuckle - check
Replace rugged 4th line center that I traded the other day - Brian Boyle - check
Sign veteran back up goalie in case #1 goalie gets hurt a week before the playoffs (again) - Evgeni Nabokov - check
Throw a bone to Syracuse after raiding their team last season - Mike Blunden Mike Angelidis - check
Figure out a way to turn all my 2015 picks into Connor McDavid - pending

This is the upside of having a cold, calculating general manager running the organization.  He eschews the drama and gets things done.  Sure you have to deal with him passionately trading away or buying out fan favorites, but it’s worth it when he pulls off days like July 1st.

Once he started clearing space with his pre-July 1 trades, speculation that the Lightning would be major players in free agency started to mount.  Odd, since historically Mr. Yzerman didn’t dip too much into the market.  In the past he tended to target one or two players that weren’t among the top targets and then go about his day.

We hear about teams having multi-year plans all the time.  Every time a new general manager or coach takes over a struggling team we hear about a new “three year” or “five year” plan.  Most of the times those plans fizzle or the GM or coach gets axed before seeing it to fruition.  Mr. Yzerman has managed to actually build it as he wants to.

He came into a mess of an organization and immediately started stockpiling assets whether they were draft picks or young players.  The surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year masked some deficiencies, most notably depth in the defense and goaltending. When Dewayne Roloson reverted back to a 98-year-old goalie the next season, the team struggled.

However, Mr. Yzerman didn’t waiver. Digging into his vault of draft picks and young forwards he brought in a couple of young goaltenders with promise.  While Anders Lindback didn’t pan out, he looks like he has a future all-star in Ben Bishop.  Meanwhile he kept getting rid of salary while not over committing to long term deals with veterans.

Last season, saw the influx of young prospects into the lineup.  They played well, enjoyed some good luck along the way and found themselves in the playoffs.  Montreal managed to expose some of the weaknesses that lingered on defense and in net, but the core of the future was established.  Now, Mr. Yzerman just had to add the missing pieces.

With a ton of cap space and the important parts of the team already under contract  (top six forwards, goaltender and top defense pairing) he could pick and choose what he needed this year to not only get back to the playoffs, but also be a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.

Anton Stralman is the biggest piece of the puzzle that Mr, Yzerman acquired. He is the veteran (394 NHL games) steady presence that the team lacked last season. According to the scouting reports he won’t rack up the points, but he is good at getting the puck out of the zone. One thing that I’ve read over and over is that he is a “darling of the fancy-stats crowd”.  Which, to me, boils down to - he does great things in terms of puck possession. The basic tenant from the #fancystats crowd is that good things happen when you have possession of the puck.

With Stralman and Garrison in the fold the Lightning shouldn’t be booking flights out of  Syracuse to patch holes in the blue line during the season. Andrej Sustr will probably spend most of the season in New York where he will get to develop his professional game.  Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio will see their minutes reduced, which isn’t a bad thing for players in their second NHL season.

With seven healthy defensemen under contract (and Sustr soon to be re-signed) Mr. Yzerman also has the flexibility to cut someone loose.  The number one contender to be moved would be Eric Brewer. A team looking to add some depth in defense might be willing to take on his cap hit in exchange for a draft pick or two.  With Stralman eating up his minutes Brewer’s place in the line up is a little shaky.

Evgeni Nabokov is not the player he was five years ago, he’s also not commanding as much money as he was five years ago.  He is someone, however, that should be able to play 20 games a year (or more if needed) and not completely disgrace himself.  The Lightning were burned badly by not having someone ready to step in to back up Bishop last year. Nabokov fills that role without affecting the future prospects they have in the pipeline (and yes I’m avoiding looking up how to spell their names).

Brian Boyle is a nice signing.  He adds some size, but seems to do the same things that Nate Thompson did - win faceoffs and forecheck.  I would have liked to see Dominic Moore come back to the team to fill the role, but the Rangers had to re-sign at least one of their free agents.

The overall theme of the Lightning’s actions off-season revolve around goal prevention.  They didn’t add a lot of offense, in fact they sacrificed some in letting BJ Crombeen Teddy Purcell go.  I’m sure they are planning on Purcell’s production being replaced by having a full season of Steven Stamkos in the line up as well as adding Jonathan Drouin to the team.

It’s pure folly to judge how a team did in free agency before anyone has laced up the skates. However, if you’re a fan of the Lightning you should be encouraged on the moves that they made. None of the other teams in their division really strengthened their teams on the first day of free agency.  Granted Boston didn’t really need to add too much, but Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Detroit mostly held serve.  Buffalo and Florida made a lot of noise, but nothing that would make them a serious contender next season.

There is going to be some pressure on the Lightning to succeed for the first time in a couple of seasons.  Simply making the playoffs isn’t the goal any longer, now they are expected to go deep into the post season.  At first blush the team Mr. Yzerman has assembled is built to do just that.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Steve Yzerman Opens Up For Free Agency Frenzy

With just a couple of phone calls General Manager Steve Yzerman managed to wash away the one solid trade Brian Lawton made for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Catching the league (and fans) unawares, Mr. Yzerman traded pass-happy forward Teddy Purcell to the Edmonton Oilers for Sam Gagner. He then flipped Gagner to the Arizona Coyotes (that's gonna take awhile to feel right) along with BJ Crombeen for a 6th round pick in 2015. For dessert he then traded everyone's favorite Alaskan Nate Thompson to the Anaheim Ducks for two more draft picks in 2015 (4th and 7th round).

The rapid succession of moves made clear a few things:

A: Steve Yzerman cares not for your deadlines or your sleep.
B. The Lightning scouting department will be working overtime this season.
C. Mr. Yzerman cleared over $6 million in cap space and the team is poised to be a big player once the July 1st Free Agent debacle begins.
D. Or not.

Lets not kid ourselves. This year's free agent market isn't exactly overflowing with sexy names. I don't see Mr. Yzerman clearing cap room to bring in Jarome Iginla or Martin Havlat. And Paul Stastny, while the marquee name on the list, doesn't exactly address a need for the team right now. That's not saying the general manager won't sign someone (after all he didn't tip his hand with the Valterri Filppula signing last year), it's not likely that all of the cap room will be spent on July 1st.

I also don't foresee any 2004 Stanley Cup reunion tours in the near future. Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, Nik Khabibulin, and Corey Sarich are all free agents while Philly is supposedly shopping Vincent Lecavalier. As big of a fan of nostalgia as I am, I don't see any of those players skating in Tampa anytime soon.

Most likely the team with use the space to fill in depth on the bottom two lines. So I wouldn't be surprised to see them sign a player along the lines of Dominic Moore or Marcel Goc. Heck, Steve Downie is out there and affordable. If we're talking reunions why not bring back The Little Ball of Fury?

Luckily free agency isn't the only route open. The Lightning have cap room and extra draft picks to deal. That makes them very enticing trade partners for some teams that might find themselves hamstrung by a $69 million salary cap. For instance. with only about $700,000 in wiggle room and his two stars contemplating $10 million a year contracts perhaps Stan Bowman might be willing to listen on an offer for Nick Hjalmarsson and his $4.1 million cap hit.

The Flyers gave Andrew McDonald lots and lots of money this off-season. As of yet they haven't been able to trade him to Columbus quite yet (as they do with most of their other failed investments) so they're feeling the cap squeeze. Would Luke Schenn make the Lightning better on the blue-line? I doubt it would make it worse.

Of course, all talks of trades are based on various players waiving their no-trade clauses, but if you're a player being shopped wouldn't Tampa be an intriguing destination? Never mind the “no state income tax” hoopla. I'm talking about joining a team that is legitimately poised to be a serious contender for the next few years. Already there have been a few “hey the Lightning are going to be really, really good” stories pop up among the national media, confirming what we've already realized. When compared to other organizations Tampa is becoming a desired destination.

Let's not forget one lingering, dirty background detail. There is a certain former member of the Sarnia Sting who is going to need a new contract soon.  It ain't gonna come cheap. Especially once Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane set the new bars for supremely talented goal scorers.

Monday night's Trade-a-palooza was just the opening salvo in what will probably be Mr. Yzerman's busiest off-season. It's also one of his most important as he looks to add the missing elements that can build on last season's success without destroying the foundation that has took him a few years to build.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Lightning Card of the Week Returns!

Finally, it is time to return from yet another self-imposed writing hiatus. This one dragged on a bit longer than normal and featured a couple of posts that died before they had a chance to live. Lucky for you I am feeling rejuvenated and raring to go again. Of course I have no idea what to write about so I'll kick it off by leaning on a semi-regular crutch – The Lightning Card of the Week!

A once regular feature that has been mothballed (much like boxing coverage and Through The Mail posts) due to sheer laziness I figure it's a good way to keep writing with the lull between the end of the season for the Bolts and the upcoming draft/free-agency season. Let's see what the box of hockey cards has in it:

A 2001-02 Upper Deck Tantalizing Tandems Vincent Lecavalier/ Brad Richards insert.

Look at those two – so young, so unaware of their careers would take them (they haven't even starred in “The Punisher” yet. Just two kids from Canada having fun playing hockey in Tampa. When the card was issued Vincent had finished his third full season in the NHL, scoring 20 goals in the regular season for the second year in a row (a streak that would continue for 12 seasons) and was the youngest player to ever be named captain of a NHL team (Sidney Crosby and Gabriel Landeskog have since stolen that accolade).

Richards was the dynamic rookie who had lead the team in scoring in his first full season and finished second in the Calder Trophy race. This was the year that the original “Big Three” of Lecavalier, Richards and a young cast-off from Calgary named Marty St. Louis played together for the first time. The nucleus of the 2004 Stanley Cup team was born that year.

On the back of the card, the copy writers for Upper Deck wrote that “Tampa Bay will look to young and talented centers Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier to ignite the offense” and that the team was “hoping to be one of the most improved teams in the NHL in 2001-02”.

The Lightning did improve their record in 2001-02 by winning three more games over the year before. Oddly enough their offense actually decreased year-to-year. The 2000-01 squad scored 201 goals while the 01-02 team only scored 178. While Richards submitted numbers that were almost a carbon copy of the year before, Lecavalier struggled as he only scored 37 points under the burden of the captaincy.

The notable change was on their defense as the 00-01 defensive corps surrendered an unconscionable 280 goals (which is what happens when Kevin Weekes, Dan Cloutier, Wade Flaherty and Dieter Kochan occupy time in the crease). The next season would be the first full season for the enigmatic Russian Nikolai Khabibulin. With the “Bulin Wall” in net only 219 pucks would cross the Lightning goal line.

Richards and Lecavalier were both fresh-faced 20-year-olds when this card was first inserted its mylar wrapper. Over a decade later, they are now gray-haired veterans wearing uniforms for other teams. Richards, reunited with St. Louis in New York is currently battling for another Stanley Cup. Quite a turnaround from a year ago where he was a leading candidate to be bought out after being benched in the playoffs. Lecavalier fell victim to the amnesty buyout sword in Tampa and struggled through another injury-plagued season in Philadelphia. He did, however, knock off a bevy of career accomplishments by scoring his 400th career goal, his 500th career assist and 900th career point during the 2013-14 season.

As for me, I was living the good life in 2001-02. I had just bought my truck (man I miss that truck) and was still living in a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Largo, Florida. I was working at the Super Happy Fun Company making more money than I should have while not saving anywhere near enough. My game-day attire probably would have been shorts, sandals and a Lightning name-less third jersey (the one with the lightning bolts down the sleeves). Tickets to games were unbelievably cheap. So cheap that scalping them wasn't necessary. I'm pretty sure I was single.....yup definitely single.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Don't Expect The Unexpected - Mayweather vs. Maidana

Floyd Mayweather is fighting on Saturday. Did you know that? Did you know that the most recognizable name in American boxing has a major pay-per-view fight? More importantly, do you care? Is anyone other than his accountant excited about this fight? At least the Canelo fight had an engaging opponent in the young Mexican.

What does Marcos Maidana have going for him? Well, he beat Adrian Broner aka Mayweather, Jr, Jr, So the argument goes that he knows what to expect from Mayweather, he's seen the “roll shoulder” defense and he knows how to beat it since Broner pretty much employs the same style. To me that's like saying I could strike Eddie Murray out because in high school I struck out someone who copied Murray's batting stance. As far as I'm concerned “Chino” has no shot, NO SHOT, to win.

Sure he's saying all of the right things. He's going to attack, he's going to pressure, he's going to hurt Mayweather if he hits him. Which is kind of funny to me. Watching a couple of the “All Access” pre-fight shows I noticed Roberto Garcia, Maidana's trainer, uses the word “if” a lot. You would think the quote would be, “When I hit him I will hurt him” not “If I hit him”.

Therein lies the Floyd problem. He is a hard man to hit inside a boxing ring. Watching the Broner/Maidana fight is like watching a minor league version of the upcoming fight. All of the same actions are there, just at a slightly reduced speed. Those winging left hooks and chopping right hands that Maidana kept bouncing off of Broner's head? They're going to find nothing but air when he throws them against Mayweather. Either that or in the time it take “Chino” to wind up he'll eat two straight rights from the champ.

The time it took you to read this caption is about how long it took Chino to throw the punch

So how do you sell tickets to a fight that everyone knows the outcome to? You make it about something else. Hence the sudden retirement talk. If this is the last time Floyd Mayweather steps into a ring, isn't worth plunking down the $65 to see it? This could be one last chance to see greatness, and make no doubt about it “Money” is a once-in-a-lifetime great fighter, one last chance to see an artist at work. Shouldn't that bring in a couple of hundred more pay-per-views and buy Mayweather another Rolex?

After Saturday he has three fights left on his deal with Showtime/CBS. Even though he is an aging 37-year-old I don't see him throwing away another potential $100 million in purses to own the Clippers or promote other boxers. Besides, with his history of “retirements” and extended time out of the ring I wouldn't be shocked if Showtime/CBS had slipped a clause in the contract requiring a buyout or return of future funds should he not fulfill the six fight deal in a certain amount of time.

My guess, based on entirely nothing, is that after he disposes of Maidana he fights Amir Khan next (providing the flashy Brit doesn't find himself staring up from the canvas in his own fight), then Peter Quillin and maybe, just for fun, a final passing-of-the-torch match with his protegee Adrian Broner. I'm sure if Quillen or Khan muck things up you could throw Sergio Martinez's name in the hat as well.

The point being that Mayweather will fight three times over the next 18 months, but it won't be against anyone that can actually beat him. As much as he loves stacks of money, Rolexes, Bentleys and big mansions, he loves that big fat “0” in the loss column even more. That's what allows him to be who he is, the entire “Money” Mayweather myth is built around his invulnerability and the fact that no man has ever beaten him as a professional boxer. If he loses then he's just another good fighter who faded at the end of his career.

I don't think those are $1 bills

I don't want to dismiss Marcos Maidana as a fighter. He is a really good fighter who punches hard and has beaten some decent fighters in Broner and Josesito Lopez, but he also lost to the glass-jawed Khan and Devon Alexander – two fighters not exactly in Mayweather's league. However as an 11-1 underdog it appears the betting public has already dismissed him in this fight. That being said boxing is a weird sport. He might catch Floyd with a wild left hand. Or maybe he gets inside and gets away with some rough, brawling tactics – a low blow here, a forearm to the throat there – that gets Mayweather off of his game. Maybe the unfairness of receiving $1.5 million to Floyd's $32 million will motivate him to a level we don't think he's capable of. I doubt it, but that's why they decide it in the ring.

Mayweather has said that he's going to be aggressive in this fight and take it to Maidana. Mayweather says a lot of things before a fight that don't end up happening. I don't see him doing anything different than he has against Alvarez or Robert Guerrero or Miguel Cotto. He will slip punches, counter, fire off blistering combinations and then masterfully spin out of trouble before Maidana realizes what happened. Twelve rounds later the referee will hold his arm in the air as the unanimous victor. He's done it for 18 years as a professional and it's been successful all 45 times he's stepped into the ring. But will there be anyone watching when it happens?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

No. No They Couldn't Dig Themselves Out

On Wednesday night three series went to a game seven. Sadly, the Tampa Bay/Montreal series was not one of them. Since you're reading this on the internet I'm going to assume you know that the Lightning had the distinct honor of being the first team bounced from the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. While that isn't the ideal end to a season it could have been worse. You could be a San Jose Sharks fan.

As I mentioned over on Raw Charge, there is no need to break out the fancy stats for this one. Simply put, the Montreal Canadiens were the better team. They outplayed the Lightning for most of the series (there were occasional pockets where Tampa looked like the better team) and they deserved to win the honor of getting their asses kicked by the Bruins in the next round.

Since there is no need to rehash the series let's instead review the predictions I made a couple of weeks ago. Unlike other prognosticators that tend to never go back and review their “bold predictions” I own up to my often wildly inaccurate previews. Let's see how I did:

Winner – Lighting in 6

Well that didn't happen. So much for the Canadiens being the ideal match-up in the first round. The Lightning never really found the extra gear needed to be successful in the playoffs. The Canadiens seemed to win every battle for the puck, outskated the Lightning in all three zones and created their own lucky bounces.

Number of OT Games – 4

Only one game, the first game, went to overtime. Despite the fact that they were swept, it wasn't like the Canadiens blew them off the ice. Three of the four games were decided by one goal and had the Lightning been able to get one or two bounces to go their way (i.e. Alex Killorn's shot in overtime in Game One hits the post and goes in instead of bounding away harmlessly) this series plays out differently.

Longest OT - 3

Game One almost made it into the second overtime as Dale Weise banged home the winner at the 18:08 mark of overtime. Looking back, Montreal winning Game One was the turning point of the series. If the Lightning had managed to pull that game out, scoring 4 or 5 goals on less than 20 shots, the entire tone of the series changes. Weise bailed out Carey Price's sub-par performance in that game. To Price's credit he was almost invulnerable in the final three games. Plus the confidence factor for the young TampaCuse players would have been boosted. Instead, it felt like the Lightning were chasing their opponents for the next three games.

X Factor – PK Subban

Unfortunately for the Lightning, “Good” PK Subban showed up. He picked up five assists and was a force moving the puck through the neutral zone for the Canadiens. 

And his skating led to one of my favorite photos.

Leading Scorer Lightning – Stamkos

Hey, hey I got one right! Four points in four games for the Lightning captain was enough to lead the team in scoring. He was the best player on the ice for Tampa Bay, even after he took a knee to the skull in Game 3.

Leading Scorer Canadiens – Vanek

Thomas Vanek did have a decent series as he posted three points. However, the trio of Lars Eller, PK Subban and Brendan Gallagher all had five points. Almost all of Canadiens contributed offensively (only Francis Bouillon and Andrei Markov didn't register a point) and that depth was the biggest factor in their winning the series.

Number of Games Bishop Plays – 4

I really believed he was going to play in the series. At least I believed that until Game Three. Once he didn't come out in what was a must win for the Lightning I knew he was done for the playoffs. I guess a dislocated left elbow and a torn ligament in the right wrist is kind of hard to overcome.

Number of Games Gudlevskis Plays – 0 (please god let it be 0)

Unfortunately Kristers appeared in two games. He acquitted himself well, stopping 90% of the shots sent his way and keeping the Lightning close in Game Four. If they had pulled out a win in that game there is a good chance he might have started Game Five.

Number of Games BJ Crombeen Suits Up – 2

Nailed it!

(Three Points about Radko Gudas throwing hip checks)

As I mentioned in my post after Game Three I didn't get to see too much of the series thanks to my work schedule. Gudas played in three games and except for blowing a tire in Game One that led to a Montreal goal, played pretty well.

Role Player Who Will Have a Surprisingly Good Series – Tom Pyatt

Pyatt saw action in only one game. One of the few tactical mistakes that I think Coach Copper made was his reliance on Cedric Paquette. I know his rookies had come through for him all through the season, but to rely on a player that had only 2 games of experience with the team was asking too much. I'm not sure if the Lightning win the series if Pyatt is in, but I think he helps them shut down some of the secondary scoring that the Canadiens generated.

Will JT Brown Score a GoalYes

If it had gone six games I think he would have scored. With Pyatt not playing I'll name Brown as my role player who had a good series. He picked up two assists and was one of the more aggressive forecheckers the Lightning had during the match-up.

So yeah I got two right. As usual not even close to being .500. I don't even want to tell you how bad my bracket looks on Another successful bout of prognostication from the expert!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

In a Deep, Deep Hole. Can They Come Back?

Not what you want to see when the Lightning are trying to come back

Let's start with honesty. I have been a horrible Lightning fan. During the first two games of the post season I have seen a whopping 15 seconds of in-game action. Chalk it up to work obligations (Wednesday night) and familial obligations (Friday night). Also due to work restrictions I can't grow a playoff beard. Luckily, due to some last minute scheduling changes the streak was broken and I was able to catch most of game 3.

Still most of my opinion on how the series has been going is based on other people's coverage. From what I've read and digested how do I feel the first round is going for the Lightning?


Off-topic – I cannot tell you how much I loved this scene from Mad Men. Pete Campbell is 30 different kinds of awesome. Most of last season I zoned out on Don Draper's descent into his own personal hell but perked up whenever Vincent Kartheiser's receding hairline and kick-ass sideburns showed up on screen. The show itself plodded a long a bit, but I have a feeling it will rebound nicely in it's last season (although I think things end badly for Mr. Draper).

Back to hockey.

I did watch most of the third game, which I'm thinking is actually the best game the Lightning have played over all. Still they ended up on the short end of a 3-2 score. They fought hard and Matt Carle's slapper from the point silenced the Montreal crowd for about three seconds. A few last second scrambles made things interesting at the end, but it wasn't enough to pull off the comeback.

A lot will be written (and has been tweeted) about the lack of coherent officiating in the game. Sure, the refs disallowed a goal for the Lightning because Alex Killorn was run into by Carey Price three and a half minutes before the goal was actually scored. Was it a bad call? Of course. Did it swing the momentum of the game? Yes. But who's fault is that?

One of the things you see from experienced teams is the ability to overcome bad calls. The bad calls become forgotten footnotes in the overall story of the game. So far the Lightning haven't been able to do that in the postseason. They're getting a hard lesson in how playoff hockey ramps up to a new level.

That being said, I'm not ready to count the Lightning out yet. After all, haven't we made that mistake a few times already? At the beginning of the season, after Stamkos' injury, the post-Olympic fade when there was a danger of the Maple Leafs catching them for a playoff spot. In all these cases the team has found a way to bounce back and put a streak together. Now, of course, they need a four game winning streak to keep their season alive.

How can they do it? By beating the living shit out of the Canadiens. Sorry to be a bit vulgar, but the honest truth is that they need to ramp the physical play up. They need to hit them, wait for them to get up, hit them again, wait for them to get the puck and hit them a third time. Eliminate the time and space that Montreal has with the puck and I think you'll see them cough the puck up a little bit more.

That goes against everything I believe in. I like the beautiful game. I like three passes to set up a tap in goal. I like speed and putting the defense on their heels. Unfortunately, that isn't going to work against Montreal. Should the Lightning be unable to pull off the comeback and the Canadiens match up against the Bruins next round, watch what Boston does to them. 

Ondrej Palat's pratfall was way better than Radko Gudas' in game one.

Part two of the comeback plan involves convincing Anders Lindback that he is a mini version of Ben Bishop. He has to be the difference. That isn't to say he's been playing horrible. He has been playing....good. With Carey Price playing like he's in the Olympics instead of the NHL playoffs, “good isn't” enough. Case in point, the third Montreal goal on Sunday night. The Lightning were in the game, dictating most of the play when they got out-hustled in their own zone. Tomas Plekanec wrists a shot at the net and it finds a way past Lindback.

If he is to be the difference he has to make that save. It wasn't an easy save, there were two players screening him, but it's a save that has to be made. Those are the saves that Price is making, and that, not bad officiating, is why the Lightning are down 3-0 in the series.

I'm pretty sure Ben Bishop isn't leading the team through the tunnel anytime soon. I think if he was going to play, game 3 would have been the one for him to be between the pipes. Coach Cooper didn't want to see his team down three games to none, and a 85% Bishop is better than Lindback.

Since I just spent the last three paragraphs heaping blame on Lindback you would think I'm pinning this all on him. That's not the case. The Lightning didn't get to the playoffs by playing tight defensive games and winning low scoring games. They have to get the offense rolling. Even during game three where they took the play to Montreal there were times when they shot themselves in the foot with bad outlet passes and cross-ice attempts that were easily picked off by Montreal defenders.

Your shoulder pads are not made of gummi bears, Anders.

If they clean up their play with the puck and put pressure on Montreal they still have a shot. Is it a great shot? No, but maybe this team is young enough and inexperienced enough to not know that they are supposed to roll over and die. If they take one in Montreal they can build on it. One win builds the confidence, two wins puts some doubt in the Canadiens' minds and the next thing you know it's a series again.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Post Season Preview! Lightning Are Back in the Playoffs!

C'mon Stanley would order way more than that from room service!

I thought that I had a great beginning for this post. “THE LIGHTNING HAVE NEVER LOST A PLAYOFF SERIES TO A CANADIAN TEAM!” Sadly, five seconds of research reminded me that Tampa was bounced in five games by the Ottawa Senators in 2006. So with that idea blown I put my laptop away, fired up Netflix and watched three episodes of “Dawson's Creek”.

However, I can say that, “Despite their long and illustrious history, the Montreal Canadiens have NEVER WON A PLAYOFF GAME AGAINST TAMPA!” Granted they've only met once and it was on the Lighting's 2004 March to Glory, but I'm never one to let small details get in the way of my point of view.

With the regular season winding down it was known rather early on that barring a collapse of Toronto Maple Leaf-ian proportions the Lightning would be facing the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. I had no problem with that match up. As a matter of fact, among the Eastern Conference finalists they are most likely the ideal opponent for the Bolts.

Even though the Lightning took three of the four regular season games between the two clubs, only one of the games was decided by more than one goal (and that game featured an empty netter at the end) and three of the four meetings went to extra hockey. So look forward to some bonus hockey in this series!

The Lightning's strength (offense) matches up with Montreal's strength (keeping the puck out of the net) on both regular play and on special teams. While it's a stretch to say that the Lightning's power play is a “strength” it is better than their ability to kill penalties. Luckily for them, the Canadiens are almost as inept on the power play as the Lightning are on the penalty kill. Special teams should cancel each other out.

Tampa Bay's offense is deeper than Montreal's despite the deadline acquisition of Lightning-killer Thomas Vanek. The Lightning boost an offense with four 20 goal scorers and seven skaters with double digit goal totals. That's depth right there folks. Of course lingering in the background, kind of not being mentioned is the fact that two of those skaters – Valtteri Filppula and Ondrej Palat – are banged up. While both are scheduled to go in game one, if they were to miss any significant time it could be damaging to the team's playoff hopes.

While Ben Bishop won the team MVP race by 13 lengths, Filppula has been the glue that held the offense together while Stamkos was out of the lineup. His solid play kind of goes unnoticed from time to time until you look at the score sheet and see that he had two assists or a goal and an assist. His ability to move the puck in crowds also opens up the ice for Stamkos or Palat on the power play.

Palat went from “Oh yeah, he's a rookie, too” to “Legitimate Calder Hopeful” and two-time rookie of the month. He has an uncanny ability to be in the right place to score goals despite not being the biggest, fastest or best player on the ice. His injury has yet to be diagnosed beyond “upper body” but was most likely caused when he was trucked by Columbus' Jack Johnson last week.

Of course the six-foot-seven sized elephant in the room is Ben Bishop and his health. He has already been ruled out of the first game and is questionable for the rest of the series with his creaky left elbow. That means Anders Lindback will get the call when the puck is dropped at the Forum Wednesday night.

Or Gudas. He can play net. Look at that butterfly!

Even the most ardent Lightning supporter would have to give the edge in net to the Canadiens if Bishop is out for a long stretch. As the eternal optimist I've found a way for this to work to the Lightning's benefit. The weight of the Canadian (country not team) world is now on the shoulders of Carey Price. Remember, all of Canada must rally around the one franchise in the True North that has a chance to win the Cup. Price has come through for his country before.

For his professional team? Not so much. He's one of the best damn goaltenders in the league yet the furthest in the playoffs the storied franchise has found themselves with him in net is the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. And they got smoked 4-1 by the Flyers that match-up. Oh yeah, and Price only played in four games during the playoffs as he had lost his starting job to Jaroslav Halak.

Couple that with the Canadiens (team not country) 21st ranked 2.55 goals per game offense and Price NEEDS to be great for them to advance. Meanwhile, anything better than outright garbage from Lindback should be enough for the Lightning to advance to the next round in the NHL's Sweet Sixteen tournament. Of course, it would set up a nice plot line should Lindback play out of his mind against Montreal and Bishop declare himself healthy. What would Coach Cooper do? Stay with the hot goalie or the one that got you to the playoffs?

That's getting a bit ahead of ourselves though.

Let's break it down to the three things the Lightning need to do to win the series:
  1. Score goals. Simply put they need to use their strength, offense, to mask the deficiencies they have in the net. In his last 8 games Steven Stamkos has only found the back of the net twice. That's not good. I'm all for secondary scoring, but in the playoffs the best player on the ice has to be the best player on the ice. It doesn't matter if he's on the wing or at center, he has to find his scoring touch in order to make life easier for Tyler Johnson, Palat and Filppula.
  2. Stay out of the penalty box. Yes, Montreal's power play isn't on par with the Penguins or Bruins, but that doesn't mean the Lightning can have a steady stream of players going to the sin bin. Even if the other team isn't scoring, every penalty is two minutes that your team isn't on offense (although Tyler Johnson and his 5 shorties might beg to differ). Plus extended shorthand time tends to lead to more shots given up. The Lightning are best off minimizing the shots fired in Lindback's direction, not increasing them. Which leads to the final point.
  3. Block shots. Yes it leads to bruises and increases the risk of Ryan Callahan missing games, but they have to, have to, have to, have to cut down on the number of shots that get to Lindback. Or even Bishop should he come back in the series. They need to get in the way of shots, control the puck and set up their counter attack.
Try not to use your face to block shots, boys!

Prediction time! The only thing that I'm worse at doing than predictions is writing consistently. If even one of these comes true it will be a miracle.

Winner – Lightning in 6
Number of OT games – 4
Longest OT – 3
X Factor – PK Subban
Leading Scorer Lightning – Stamkos
Leading Scorer Canadiens – Vanek
Number of Games Bishop plays – 4
Number of Games Gudlevskis plays – 0 (please God let it be 0)
Lindback's GAA/SV% - 2.89/91.7
Number of games BJ Crombeen suits up - 2
Number of Radko Gudas hip-checks – 3
Number of Radko Gudas missed hip-checks – also 3
Number of times announcers say “old school hockey” when Gudas connects on a hip-check -13
Role Player who has surprisingly good series – Tom Pyatt
Will JT Brown score a goal – Yes

Good luck Lightning!