Saturday, October 31, 2015

Game 9 - A Return To The Windy City

Yes, I know I'm a week behind.  The good news is that the only game I still have to watch is the St. Louis games.  When the Lightning play on a national channel it really screws with my time line as I have to wait 48 hours to watch the replay - the downfall of being a cord-cutter.

Game: 9
Opponent: at Chicago
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Don't You Live in Chicago?: Yup
Why Didn't You Just Go To The Game?: Games are crazy expensive up here. I'm going to use that money to go to another Lightning road game
Which One?: It's a surprise
Really?: Yup.
Did I watch on replay?:Yes I did. Eventually
Three Stars: 3. Jonathan Toews 2. Corey Crawford 1. Kristers Gudlevskis
Worst Play: Every time Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley tried to say Gudlevskis

Matt Carle is not impressed with Andrew Shaw's air guitar solo.


They honestly didn't play too bad. Sure they lost 1-0 in overtime, but the Lightning managed to pick up a point against a good team on the road while playing the second game of a back-to-back. So yeah, I'll take it.

The first period was actually a pretty good period for the Lightning. They dictated the play, forced penalties by skating hard and then just couldn't convert (they would go 0-4 on the power play for the game, but you probably guessed that since they got shut out).

About five minutes into the second period, their long travel seemed to catch up to them. The Blackhawks started to drive possession and held the Lightning to only 4 shots. Gudlevskis, in his season debut, held down the fort. He made several key stops (10 in all that period) to keep the defending Stanley Cup champs off the scoreboard. The Latvian netminder looked much, much better than he did in training camp.

Sadly it wasn't enough (much like his performance for Latvia in the Olympics a few years ago) and Johnathan Toews,who is way to serious for all of that end-to-end nonsense we've seen in overtime so far, knocked in his own rebound less than a minute into the extra session.

The Lightning's struggles continue in the Windy City, luckily they don't have to make another stop there this season.

Jo or Johnny:

Drouin was held off the score sheet once again and is now riding a four-game scoreless streak. He didn't play bad, but his entire line was quite ineffective against the Blackhawks. He might benefit the most on the team once The Triplets get rolling. If they find their groove, teams might pull the top defensive pairings off of the Stamkos line and Drouin might see some more open ice. Meanwhile Gaudreau keeps rolling along, picking up two more points against the Red Wings.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Recap Game 8: Getting Caught Up

Game: 8
Opponent: @ Winnipeg
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?: Date night with the Duchess
Where did you go? HB Bistro
Was it good? As always
What did you have? Sweet Potato Gnocchi. It was delightful
Did I watch on replay?: Eventually
Three Stars: 3. Nikolaj Ehlers 2. Ondrej Palat 1. Victor Hedman
Worst Play: Ben Bishop whiffing on the clear which led to the shorthanded goal by Blake Wheeler.
The Lightning have a young fast team. The Jets have a young fast team. That led to this being quite the entertaining match up. As the road trip winds through the Central Division the Lightning seem to be finding their game. It was nice to see them swarm Winnipeg in the offensive zone, stalling their breakouts and generating turnovers.

When Tampa is active in the offensive and neutral zone it helps their offense so much. For the first time this year they seemed to be playing that kind of game. Even without the big man Brian Boyle, the 4th line played another great game. Vlad Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette and Erik Condra were put together and they generated some offense with Paquette and Namestnikov picking up important goals (Vladdy's was extra special huge as he scored 20 seconds after Drew Stafford had tied the game).

I think it's time we stop referring to them at the “4th line”. That has such negative connotations. For years we've come to believe that forth lines are thrown on the ice for 10 minutes a game solely to protect the puck and not give up goals. No matter what combination has played on that line – they've contributed on the scoreboard.
  • Brian Boyle: 2 goals, 2 assists
  • Erik Condra: 2 goals, 2assists
  • Vlad Namestnikov: 3 goals, 1 assist
Your Number 1 source for JT Brown Highlights (on the ice or on his head)

They've been picking up the slack while “The Triplets” find their game. It's getting harder and harder for other teams (not named the Blackhawks) to keep the Lightning off of the scoreboard. Once the Johnson line figures things out, and they seem to be headed in that direction, Tampa will be able to roll four lines that can score. Depth is nice.

Overall it was a nice back-and-forth game between two young teams. There were a few defensive lapses that lead to goals (Strafford's and Nikolaj Ehlers – who played on a line with Jonathan Drouin in juniors, that must have been fun to watch), but the win was vintage 2014-15 Lightning. Having a solid offense can always bail out mistakes on defense, at least in the regular season.

Jo or Johnny:
The scoreless streak hit 3 games and he finished with a -2 (Thanks Ben Bishop!). Winnipeg did a pretty good job of keeping this line off of the score sheet overall. Through 8 games he is still sitting at 6 points (1 goal, 5 assists). Taking on Detroit, Johnny Gaudeau had his second consecutive 2 assist night. On a regressing Flames team he is emerging as a bright spot. Through Friday's games he had 8 points (1 goal, 7 assists) and is starting to put some distance between the two.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hockey Season is Here - why not get some new cards

There are days that I wish I could live a little closer to Target so that I can fulfill those daily urges for more cards. Most days I'm glad that I don't. It helps keep me from flinging money away on blasters and packs of cards that end up in the back of the closet. Laziness trumps collecting desire 99 percent of the time.

However, there are times when I really, really want some cards and I don't feel like buying an entire box or organizing a trade. So I journey out to COMC (check out my cards) and put a personalized “blaster” together. Keeping the total (without shipping) to somewhere around $20 I pick and choose some cards that I need. Here is the latest “blaster” I put together:

Heritage needs:

I'm probably never going to complete either the 2009 or 2012 sets, but it's always nice to plug away. Rizzo and Posey pretty much finish off the non-short print needs. I ended up picking up only one 2009 Heritage and it's another Cub – Ryan Theriot. For some reason, scores of women in their young to mid-twenties wear Theriot jerseys to Wrigley even up to this season despite the fact he hasn't sported the pinstripes since 2010.

1983 Topps:

The Cal Ripken, Jr. was the first card to go into the shopping cart. Love the orange and white uniform collection (along with the no belt look). The Wade Boggs rookie card is one of the bigger priced cards in the set. Since I'm not looking for huge value I settled with an off-center version with a really good price.

Vinny Lecavalier Personal Collection:

Through six games this season, Vincent has yet to make the line-up in Philadelphia. It's beginning to look like his career in the NHL is almost over (although you wonder if his old coach/nemesis John Tortorella might be able to find a use for him in Columbus).

I went with a theme for these three – Stanley Cup. It's always nice to see your favorite player's name associated with the Holy Grail.

The Russian Rookies:

One shiny Namestnikov, a retro of MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV and a Young Guns of the recently suspended Nikita Nesterov. The Lightning kind of shot the wad with rookies over the last few years. This year, it's probably just going to be Slater Koekkoek and Jonathan Marchessault.

The autograph hit:

JT Brown Artifacts Auto Facts. Whenever you can get a fourth-liner's autograph for around a dollar you gotta do it!

The memorabilia hit:

2014-15 Jonathan Drouin Trilogy Tryptics.

A very nice card from Jo Drouin's rookie year. It's numbered to 400 and is a two-color swatch. Can't really get much better than that!

So there ya go. Fourteen cards, all killer – no filler!

Game 7 Recap - No Joy (but a point) in Nashville

Game: 7
Opponent: at Nashville
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?: work
Did I watch on replay?: Yup
Three Stars: 3. Erik Condra 2. Erik Condra 1. Jimmy Neal
Worst Play: Ben Bishop whiffing on covering the puck on the first Nashville goal
Sometimes you just end up on the losing end of an entertaining game. Such was the case Tuesday night when the Lightning traveled to Nashville (no wins for the Bolts since 2008!). Despite the 5-4 shoot-out loss they did walk away with some positives along with their Bettman point.

For the first time all year there were long stretches where they looked like the Lightning of last year. Crisp passing, speed in the neutral zone and shots from the point getting through to goal. They did get a few lucky breaks with the pucks bouncing the right way in the second period, but luck is often a byproduct of hard work and the Lightning were working hard all night.

Unfortunately for them, Nashville was with them step for step. Their first line of Mike Fisher, Filip Forsberg and James Neal was sharp. I'm pretty sure Neal ended up with 45 shots on net by the end of the game.

Erik Condra found himself back in the lineup and it looks like he didn't want to spend any more time in the press box. He rang a shot off the post in the first period and then briefly gave the Lightning the lead in the 3rd with a quick snapshot off a beautiful feed from Brian Boyle. It will be interesting to see how Coach Cooper juggles his extra forward to keep Condra, Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown fresh.

The overtime period wasn't quite as chaotic as opening night. There was a lot more circling with the puck and focus on puck possession. Still several opportunities presented themselves, including an Anton Stralman breakaway.

For all the talent they have, the shootout remains a bit of an Achilles Heel for the team. Ryan Callahan, Jonathan Drouin and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV all were denied in the skills session. With all of the breakaways the Boyle has had on the season, I'm a bit surprised he wasn't in the line up.

Jo or Johnny:
Jonathan Drouin found himself back on the top line with Stamkos and Callahan and it looked like the benching paid off. He was extremely strong on the puck in the offensive zone and responsible in the defensive zone. In the overtime he used his hands to pick the pocket of a Nashville player leading to a good chance for the Lightning. He was held pointless (although he set a nice screen on Callahan's goal) and remains at 6 points (1 goal, 5 assists).

The Flames got shellacked by Washington on Tuesday, but Johnny Hockey did assist on both of Calgary's goals. With a game in hand, he takes the lead with 7 points (1 goal, six assists).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Game 6 - Bishop Bails out Lightning against Buffalo

Game: 6
Opponent: Buffalo
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?: Cubs playoff/Date with the Duchess
Did I watch on replay?: Yup
Three Stars: 3. Ramus Ristolainen 2. Alex Killorn 1. Ben Bishop
Worst Play: The entire first period
The biggest question coming into the game involved how the Lightning would play with two of their defensemen on the sidelines. Victor Hedman (skull bounced off the glass) is the heart and soul of the defense while Nikita Nesterov (suspended) is proving to be an offensive spark. Luckily for Tampa Bay, their replacements (Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr) played pretty well. And when they didn't they had Ben Bishop to bail them out.

Bishop bounced back from two straight losses with his strongest outing of the season. Unlike in Dallas, the rebounds were limited and the ones that he did allow didn't drift out into dangerous areas. The Lightning needed him to be on his game as they were outplayed for all of the first period and portions of the third by the Sabres. Despite the lackluster/uninterested/lackadaisical/uninspired play the Lightning managed to pull of the 2-1 win with goals by Vlad Namestnikov and Alex Killorn (on the power play!).

Along with the strong play by Bishop, the special teams were actually one of the areas the Lightning were successful. They didn't score until their fourth power play, but at least the first three didn't kill the little momentum they had built up during the game. On the other side, whatever tweaks they made to the penalty kill paid off as they kept Buffalo off of the scoreboard while they had the man advantage.

With the win, Bishop surpasses Nikolai Khabibulin as the goaltender with the most wins in franchise history with 84.  I guess that makes Bishop the best goalie in Tampa history, right?  Or the goalie that's had the best teammates?  Whatever it means, congratulations to Big Ben.

While the defense was the question going into the game, after the game, the offense was the story coming out. After watching his team generate just 3 shots in the first period and score their only goal on a breakaway in the second, Coach Cooper through his player's name in the blender and mixed up the lines. The third period saw Stamkos skating with Valterri Filppula and Ondrej Palat while Alex Killorn moved up to a line with Tyler Johnson and Ryan Callahan. The third Triplet, Nikita Kucherov found himself paired with Vlad Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette.

Noticeably absent from those line combinations was Johnathan Drouin. The second year winger did not enjoy his best game of the season. He looked a little tired and out of step for most of the game committing several turnovers and taking a bad penalty in the second period. Perhaps a little time on the bench will be a wake up call for him.

The Lightning have a few days off before staring a road trip that takes them through the Central Division with games against Nashville, Winnipeg, Chicago and St. Louis. This will not be an easy trip as three of the four teams sport winning records and the one that doesn't is the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Lightning cannot afford to play the 40 minute hockey games that they have been prone to through the first two weeks of the season.

Jo or Johnny:
The Flames are starting to actually play games so Gaudreau's games played are starting to catch up. Unfortunately he's not scoring as he's been shut out the last two times on the ice. Through five he has 5 points (1 goal and 4 assists). Jonathan Drouin saw his 3-game point streak snapped as he logged only 12 minutes of ice time – his lowest total of the season. He still leads Gaudreau by one point (1 goal and 5 assists).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Game 5 - Stamkos Scores Twice, But Stars Score More

Game: 5
Opponent: Dallas
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?: Work
Did I watch on replay?: Yup
Three Stars: 3. Brian Boyle 2. Jonathan Drouin 1. Jason Spezza
Worst Play:
Fifteen minutes into the second period and the Lightning were looking pretty good. They were in a stretch were they were dominating play and racking up shots. Victor Hedman had the puck along the boards and looked down for a few seconds before making his pass. It was just long enough for Jamie Benn to put his shoulder into Hedman's chest. Unfortunately that led to the big Swede's head snapping into the glass. He did not return.


It's weird. When you see a team give up five goals you think they had a bad game. I won't say that Thursday night's 5-3 loss to the Stars was a great game, but the Lightning didn't play horribly. They got off to a great start with Steven Stamkos scoring two minutes into the game and Tyler Johnson ringing one off the post a few minutes later. Throughout most of the game they dictated play at even strength.

However, their special teams let them down again. They had two power plays and weren't able to get a shot off on either one of them. Heck on the second power play they didn't even get in position to attempt a shot. The good news on the penalty kill is that they actually spent two minutes shorthanded without giving up a goal. Unfortunately they were trying to kill a five-minute major and the Stars scored about halfway through it.

Ben Bishop didn't have his strongest game in net. For the first time all season he seemed to be fighting the puck and leaving rebounds around his net. On the other end Kari Lehtonen came through when his team needed him most – stopping all fifteen shots the Lightning threw at him in the second period. He let in a couple of soft ones in the third that allowed Tampa to get back into the game, but came up with a game-saving stop on Ryan Callahan right at the goal line.

If Hedman is out of any significant time it will be interesting to see what the organization does. Do they roll with Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov in the line up or do they make their first call up from Syracuse?

Speaking of Nesterov – I have no problem with the refs giving him the boot in the game. Yes McKenzie was turning as Nesterov approached him, but even if he wasn't, it would have been a dangerous his along the boards. Brian Boyle picked up the third star with his strong play as an emergency defenseman for a period and a half. I'm sure you'll see some Boyle > Sustr comments on Twitter over the next few days.

The Lightning have dropped their last two games to potential playoff bound teams. Not quite a long enough stretch to panic, but they do need to make a good showing against Nashville next Tuesday. The good news is that the team has a pretty light schedule over the next week (Buffalo on Saturday, Nashville and then the Jets on Friday). Hopefully that will give their walking wounded a chance to heal up a bit and some practice time to fix whatever is broken on the penalty kill.

Jo or Johnny:
Johnathan Drouin had a heck of a game against Dallas. He set up both of Stamkos' goals and was a force in the offensive zone all night long. He is really gaining confidence on the ice. The two helpers put him at a team-leading 6 points (1 goal and 5 assists). Meanwhile in Alberta, Johnny Hockey has still only played 3 games so he still sits at 5 points (1 goal and 4 assists).

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Game 4 - Can't Win Em All

Game: 4
Opponent: at Detroit
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?:'s weird blackout rules
Did I watch on replay?: Only the condensed version.
Three Stars: I'll take a pass on this one.
Worst Play: Again, I should pass, but I did see Matt Carle in the penalty box, so I'll go with that.

So I haven't watched this entire game yet, but from what I've seen and read the 3-1 loss wasn't a horrible result. The Lightning were playing their third game in four nights and were on the second part of back-to-back road games.

They played pretty solid, but just couldn't get on the board early (highlighted by Steven Stamkos ringing a shot off the post in the second period). Sometimes the other team just plays better. Luckily for the Lightning it doesn't happen that often. If they grab four of six points on all of their three game road trips this year then it's going to be a good year.

That being said, I was kind of disappointed that they faced Detroit a little shorthanded. The Red Wings were the first team they played that had true playoff aspirations so you could say that they were the first “good” team that they faced this season. They would be a good measuring stick for the Lightning.

Do we know how good the Lightning are, yet? They've disposed of three teams that had not won a game until a couple of days ago. Their penalty kill is a disparaging 58.3% and they are winning less than 50% of their face-offs. They are 3-1 on the season, but there are some underlying trends that need to be fixed soon.

Jo or Johnny:

Johnny Hockey is still a game behind, but he's riding a three game point streak. He sits at 5 points with 1 goal and 4 helpers. Jo Drouin has a modest two game streak to bring his total up to 4 points (1 goal and 3 helpers). Against Detroit he picked up his assist on a nice one-time pass to Ryan Callahan who banged it home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Game 3 - It's Brian Boyle's World, We're All Merely Paying Rent

Game: 3
Opponent: at Boston
Did I watch Live?: Most of it
What Do You Mean Most of it? : I missed the first five minutes because I was still watching game 2.
Slacker: Thanks

Three Stars: 3. Steven Stamkos 2. Brian Boyle 1. Torey Krug

Worst Play: Matt Carle's high-sticking penalty at 11.01 of the second. Carle was battling in the corner, a Bruins player's stick got under his and lifted it up. Unfortunately the blade of Carle's stick caught Matt Belesky in the face and the ref's arm went up. Kind of unfortunate for Carle. Even more unfortunate the Bruins scored on the ensuing power play and tied the score.

It's a little early in the season to try and find season long trends in a hockey team. The Lightning through three games have showed a certain tendency and it's not a good one. Tampa Bay started slow against Buffalo and Philadelphia but were able to get on the board first.

However, early on Monday, in their own personal hell that is the TD Garden in Boston they found themselves two goals behind less than halfway into the first period. The same TD Garden where they had not won in the regular season since March of 2010. Had they dug themselves too deep of a hole against a desperate Boston team looking for their first win?

Apparently not. Four minutes later the fourth line came through with a nifty goal. Vladimir Namestnikov brought the puck across the line, dropped it off to Victor Hedman who found an open Brian Boyle between the slots. Like the sniper he is Boyle snapped a shot over Tuukka Rask's shoulder for the first Lightning goal.

Momentum swung the Lightning's way and they scored five of the next six goals. Boyle would add a second goal in the second period as he broke up a Bruins pass with his skate and scored on a breakaway. It wasn't like he got open with his blazing speed. Instead he used his size to shake David Pastrnak off the way a hurricane shakes off a palm tree and then slid a little backhander under Rask's pads.

Steven Stamkos would score his first goal of his season, which was also the 500th point of his career, on a signature one-timer from the left circle. In the third, Jonathan Drouin scored his first goal of the season with a hesitating slap/wrist shot that completely fooled Rask. Valterri Filppula used his skate to deflect in a pass from Alex Killorn to cap off the scoring. Filppula has two points on the season, he hasn't used his stick for either one.

Three games in and three slow starts. Hopefully that ends on Tuesday against Detroit. The Red Wings have scored 8 goals in their first two games this season. They also have a bit of a chip on their shoulder after the Lightning bounced them from the playoffs this season.

Jo or Johnny:
Johnny Hockey had the day off so Jonathan Drouin was able to chip away at this lead with his first goal of the season. Gaudreau leads 4-3 with a game in hand.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Game Recap 2 - Steven Stamkos Scores in Buffalo (and the sun rises in the east)

Game: 2
Opponent: At Buffalo
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?: Beer and Bacon Classic at Soldier Field
Did I watch on replay?: Yup.
Three Stars: 3. Valteri Filppula 2. JT Brown 1. Steven Stamkos
Worst Player: Andrej Sustr (sorry, but when you trip over your own skates on your first shift it's going to be a tough day.)


The first period was a little ho hum. Buffalo dominated the first few minutes with the Lightning getting few chances in the offensive zone. A lot of the same sloppy play from the game against Philadelphia prevented Tampa Bay from getting into an offensive groove. Through two games it appears teams are focusing on shutting down the cross-ice passes that generates a lot of their offense.

The Lightning broke the scoreless tie when newcomer Erik Condra flung a wrist shot from the point that somehow evaded all of the bodies in front and ended up in the back of the net. At this point (and thanks to a power play) the Lightning were pretty much controlling the action.

However, this isn't a Buffalo team that is tanking for a top draft choice. They fought back and Nick Deslauries slid a puck past Ben Bishop with about 5 minutes left in the period. I'm pretty sure that Coach Cooper has put Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr (the defensive pair on the ice when the goal was scored) together just to piss me off.

In the end, the Lightning were just a little too talented for the up-and-coming Buffalo team. MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV added a goal on the final minute of the 2nd period. Steven Stamkos got on the scoreboard in the 3rd as did JT Brown. Buffalo has a lot of great young talent on the team, but they seem to be about a year away from putting it all together.

The Lightning were able to ease into the year playing two teams that aren't likely to make the playoffs. Their mistakes haven't been magnified yet. Hopefully they can iron out some of the wrinkles before they play some of their tougher competition.

Jo or Johnny:

Jonathan Drouin's modest one game point streak came to an end. He did come close to an assist when he set up Valteri Filppula on a power play at the end of the 2nd period. Filpulla's shot rang off the post. Johnny Hockey did score a game winning goal while adding two assists in his contest. So through 2 games Johnny Hockey has a 4-2 edge.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Game 1 Recap - Mr. Garrison - Overtime Hero

A new feature for The Hopeful Chase where I will offer my thoughts on all 82 regular season games. I am attempting to watch all of the games either live or the next day.  We'll see how it turns out.

Game: 1
Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers
Result: 3-2 win (OT)
Did I watch Live?: Why yes I did!
Three Stars: 3. Jonathan Drouin 2. Ben Bishop 1. Jason Garrison
Worst Player: Andrej Sustr

Pretty sure the main talking point of this game is going to be the overtime. After a rather sluggish 60 minutes of regulation time left the game knotted at 2, the Lightning and the Flyers engaged in the first 3 on 3 overtime in regular season history. And that shit was bananas! Up and down the ice, breakaways, dynamite saves, penalty shots and pretty much chaos – all in under two-and-a-half minutes.

In the end it wasn't one of The Triplets or Steven Stamkos that won the game in overtime, it was Jason Garrison. On a breakaway. A breakaway that was set up nicely by Valteri Filppula's soccer-style skate pass and juuuust a bit of interference by Alex Killorn that allowed Garrison to get clear.

There was a lot of positive to take out of the game along with the outcome. Ben Bishop looked solid (it's always nice when it doesn't take your goalie 10 seconds to stand up after a save). The Drouin/Stamkos/Callahan line was productive. Brian Boyle's crash line brought a lot of energy to the game. I thought, despite not getting on the scoreboard JT Brown looked pretty good.

The Triplets themselves were ok. Perhaps we've become used to them always connecting on passes so on a night where several attempts went wayward it just looked weird. That being said, they did have their chances. They were a bit unlucky that the Philadelphia goaltender, Steve Mason, saved his best for them.

As for Mr. Sustr, he didn't have a horrible game, but there were times on the ice where he was noticeably caught out of position or between actions. I try and remind myself that he is only 24 and only has a 138 games of professional experience total. However, I really wonder how long his leash will be this year with Nikita Nesterov on the roster and Slater Koekkoek just a phone call away.

Overall, they were a bit sloppy in the first half of the game, but really started to come together as the night progressed. The “W”is in the books and it's onward to Buffalo Saturday night.

Jo or Johnny: Through one game – Drouin leads 2 points to 1.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Five Questions I Made Up About the 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning

Here it is, mere hours before the puck is dropped on the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2015-16 season, and I haven't written a proper season preview. Well guess what, I'm still not going to write a “proper” preview, because there are plenty already out there for you to read. Besides, I'm horrible at predictions. Let's say the Lightning are going to finish somewhere in the top 8 in the Eastern Conference and they will be eliminated in the second round of the playoffs.

Now that we got that out of the way, he is what I'm going to give to you, my loyal readers. A bunch of questions that I am literally thinking up as I'm typing. See you don't have to do outlines or actually think of layout and all of that stuff to be a writer. Just make it up as you go along. Let's get started:

Will a member of the Lightning win a major award?

Not bloody likely. I think Victor Hedman (Norris) and Steven Stamkos (Rocket Richard) have the best shots, but I wouldn't lay money on either one of them. Hedman is always going to be an underdog as long as Duncan Keith (traditional defenseman) is playing 45 minutes a game and Erik Karlson (high-scoring defenseman) is leading Ottawa in scoring. Also, Hedman (did you know Olof is one of his middle names?) has that annoying habit of getting hurt just as he's starting to find he groove. I do think he will win one in the future (after all he's only 24 years old).

Speaking of people still in their mid-20s, Steven Stamkos is in a contract year. Not sure if you've heard about that or not. Superstar players in their contract years have a tendency of producing, at least they did before teams got into the annoying habit of signing their stars to long term deals well before they had a chance to test the free agent market.

Stamkos scored 43 goals last season. In every season that's he's played 82 games he's scored at least 40 goals with the 60 he scored in 2011-12 being his high water mark. Based on what we've seen in the pre-season it looks like he will have to adjust to a new linemate. Luckily that linemate seems to be pretty talented at passing the puck. Having fully recovered from the broken leg suffered a few seasons ago in Boston, look for the former Sarnia Sting forward to challenge the 50 goal mark this season.

With no rookies starting the season on the active roster, it appears Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel don't have to worry about anyone from Tampa challenging them for the Calder.

Will Jonathan Drouin score more points than Johnny Gaudreau?

Remember that talented linemate for Stamkos that I just mentioned. His name is Jonathan (call him Jo) Drouin. Drouin spent most of last season mired on Brian Boyle's line as he learned the boring art of two-way hockey. Even though most of his13 minutes spent on the ice every game was spent not being amazing he managed to rack up a respectable 32 points.

This season it looks like he's going to get the chance to skate with Stamkos and either Alex Killorn (15 goals) or Ryan Callahan (24 goals). That is going to give him a tremendous opportunity to pile up the points, defense be damned. Well, ok, not damned. Because if that happens he's back on the bench, Coach Cooper does demand a bit of responsibility on the ice. Still, if there was an award for best 2nd year player I'd lay my money on Drouin.

He's already made a lot of the “breakout stars” lists that have been floating around the internet. Which is much better to read than, “Are the Lightning going to trade Drouin?” Whatever was the fatal flaw that kept him out of playoff games last season seems to have been corrected based on his playing time so far in the pre-season. Of course, Coach Cooper could have just been messing with us and Drouin will start game one with Boyle and Erik Condra (per Erik Erlendsson Drouin was skating with Stamkos and Callahan). Which would still be an improvement over Boyle and the skating corpse of Brenden Morrow.

By the way, when I started typing this question I really thought Gaudreau or Filip Forsberg won the Calder trophy last year. Totally forgot that it was Aaron Ekblad. As for “Johnny Hockey” I think he's primed for a bit of regression as the league gets wise to Calgary this season.

Will Kevin Poulin get more wins in a Lightning uniform than Evgeni Nabokov?

Sweet Jesus I hope not. Nabokov, signed as a veteran influence and back up goalie, appeared in 11 games and won 3 of them before being put on waivers and traded for future considerations to San Jose in February. Part of the reason he was let go was because it was obvious he just couldn't cut it as a NHL goalie at that stage in his life. Also, there was a young prospect by the name of Andrei Vasilevskiy waiting in the wings.

Vasya proved that he could hold down the net on a part time basis over the second half of the year. So I'm sure it was with great relief that General Manager Steve Yzerman started the off-season without having to look through the bargain bin sales for a back-up goalie. Unfortunately in August, Vasilevskiy's blood cells got too chummy with each other and he had to have surgery to remove blood clots in his shoulder. That procedure has him sidelined until at least early November.

Mr. Yzerman went into scramble mode and signed Ray Emery to a camp tryout, where he didn't actually play that bad from what I read. However, instead of signing the veteran, Mr. Yzerman cut him and traded for Poulin. Now the former New York Islander (who once beat the Lightning 2-1 in a shootout back in 2014) will back up Ben Bishop as the season gets under way.

Bishop is a bit of a workhorse having played in 63 and 62 games in each of the two seasons he's been the starter for the Lightning. The Lightning do have two back-to-back games schedule in October (12th and 13th and 23rd and 24th) so look for Poulin to have at least two starts this month. Should Vasya continue to heal in an appropriate manner, the most starts I could see Poulin getting would be 4-5.

Of course, this is assuming Bishop stays healthy. The big netminder (who is only 4 wins away from taking over the all-time franchise lead) suffered through an injury during the Stanley Cup Finals last spring. If he were to re-injure his groin, or suffer a new malady, things could go off the rails quickly for the Lightning. If that were to happen, Poulin would probably split time with Kristers Gudlevskis until Vasilevskiy is healthy.

Will anyone other than Bishop take over the all-time franchise lead in any major stat category?

There is a decent chance that at the end of the season Bishop will be able to lay claim to the title of Greatest Goalie in Lightning history as he has a shot at the wins, shut-outs, goals against and save percentage categories. On the offensive side, it looks like Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis are safe.

Stamkos trails Lecavalier by 107 goals and 455 points so I don't think he's nicking those leads anytime soon. A strong season on the power play may get him on top of that chart as he only trails Vinny by 8 power play goals.

Will The Triplets spend the entire season together as a line?

The knee-jerk reactions to this is, “Of course not. Are you high?” Let me tell you that I am not under the influence of anything stronger than beer (my one and only Southern Tier Pumking of the year. I tend to like the Christmasy beers more than the pumpkin beers).

In all likelihood Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV! will stay together as much as possible for the season. However, should the offense struggle at any point during the season I wouldn't be surprised to see Coach Cooper shuffle things around. With Drouin looking to take on a bigger role with the offense that drops some very talented people down to the “third” line.

Per Erik Erlendsson Alex Killorn is skating with Valteri Filppula and newcomer Erik Condra in the pre-game rushes for Thursday. Killorn spent most of last season on Stamkos' line and Filppula has the talent to skate on the top two lines as well. That's a lot of pieces to shuffle around.

Should something stagnate or MBNK doesn't score on 15% of his shots, would Coach Cooper be tempted to try Drouin with Johnson or Filppula with Palat to shake things up? Long time Lightning fans might remember the endless flip-flopping of St. Louis between Lecavalier's line and Brad Richards line or between Lecavalier and Stamkos despite the success Lecavalier had with Marty.

And let's not forget to factor in the injury situation. Tyler Johnson played a good portion of the Finals with a broken wrist. While he claims to be 100% ready to go, wrist injuries (along with back and foot) tend to linger a bit longer. Again for an example see Vincent Lecavalier. If he is bothered by the wrist and needs to miss anytime then does Coach Cooper blow the whole line up or just slot Filppula or Vlad Namestnikov* into his place?

So, there are five things I'll be watching over the next six months. Who knows, at the end of the season I might even come back and revisit some of these questions to see what actually happened.

Other predictions:

I think Montreal win the Eastern Conference and loses to Anaheim in the Finals.

Conner McDavid wins the Calder and keeps Edmonton in contention for a playoff spot until late in the season.

Phil Kessel scores 35 goals, finds chemistry with Evgeni Malkin forcing the Penguins to find yet another winger for Sidney Crosby. At the deadline they trade their first round pick to Arizona for Shane Doan.

Buffalo and Florida fight for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs with Buffalo edging out the Panthers on the last day of the season.

Patrick Kane settles out of court and is eventually suspended for 4 games for unspecified conduct that is “detrimental to the team/league”. The Hawks make it to the Western Conference finals.

Las Vegas is awarded an NHL franchise. It is announced at the Winter Classic. The Panthers, despite their success, are bought by Quebecor and moved to Quebec.

Some friends' predictions:

Link -

Washington beats Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Pittsburgh, Nashville and St. Louis all miss the playoffs (for a Penguins fan he never thinks they're good – and that includes the year they won the Stanley Cup)

P.K. Subban wins the Norris and Ryan Johanssen is league MVP.

Superstar Sean –

Hawks will be better than people think (he's having trouble focusing on hockey with the Cubs still in the playoffs. If he survives the postseason we may check back with him)

Scotty -

Ducks vs. Penguins in Stanley Cup Finals. He is also living the Cubs dream.

Anyone else care to make some predictions?

* One of the most annoying things about typing on a new computer is that all of the spellings of names that I have saved to the dictionary have disappeared. Less Russians and more John Smiths please Mr. Yzerman.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

It's a Wrap! The 2015 Baltimore Orioles

In a 162-game season it’s easy to pick 4 or 5 games that a team “should” have won.  For the 2015 Baltimore Orioles, who are on pace to lose more than they won for the first time since 2011, there are quite a few moments where it’s obviously that the bus went over the cliff.  However, there is definitely a moment to point to where the bus hit the ground and burst into flames.

On August 19th the O’s beat the Mets 5-4 to move games over .500. They were 5 games behind Yankees in the AL East and only 1 game behind the Angels for the second wild card spot.  They were heading on the road to face a Twins team that was struggling, a Royals team that they had motivation to beat and a Rangers team that was already looking to 2016.  It was an excellent time to make up some ground.

They did not.  On the 20th they got shellacked by the Twins 15-2. They would lose the next five and then stagger home with a 1-10 road trip. While not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs they were all but finished.

So what went wrong?  Pretty much everything.  Even in the off-season, when the pundits were picking them to win the AL East again, there was trouble. Pending free agents left, potential free agents never signed and General Manager Dan Duquette seemed to be doing his job with one foot out the door. For most of the brutal Maryland winter reports and rumors hounded the organization that Toronto was pursuing Duquette, who is under contract with Baltimore until 2018, with the intention of making him their club president.

A deal never materialized, mainly due to a high asking price from the Orioles, but you would have to wonder how it affected Duquette’s ability to negotiate with potential free agents.  Hoping that a full season of Manny Machado and Matt Wieters would offset the loss of Nelson Cruz Duquette merely tinkered with the roster as he traded for Travis Snider. Cruz has signed a one-year deal with O’s in hoping to boost his worth.  He did that.  Seattle signed him to a 4 year $57 million deal.  That isn’t an astronomical sum, especially for a Baltimore club that does actually have money to spend. His 44 homeruns would have looked nice next to Chris Davis’ 40+, wouldn’t they?

Duquette was probably a little more chuffed watching the Blue Jays celebrate their AL East title on Camden Yards’ grass on Wednesday. Not only did it keep the O’s from having a winning season it also closed a door for him.  With the success Toronto has had this season it‘s highly unlikely that they‘ll be courting him this winter.

As actual baseball got underway things didn’t get much better.  Players bounced around the disabled list and the team could never get a serious winning streak together. The off-season pickups didn’t work out (quick name one positive thing Everth Cabrera or Wesley Wright did for the team). One week Adam Jones would be hot and the next it would be Chris Davis.  Unfortunately the whole line up could never get on the same page and the team hovered around .500 for most of the year.

Photo proof that Cabrera played for the Orioles.

There was the debacle that was Bud Norris as a starting pitcher. The right-hander has won 15 games for the 2014 team and provided a steady innings eater from the back part of the rotation.  In 2015 he was a dumpster fire, posting a 1-9 record before being cut from the roster at the end of July.

Roughly 326 players played left-field. Even Brady Anderson got a start in left (he went 1-4 with a bunt single).  Actually, it was 10 different players occupied the spot through the season. Unfortunately no one was able to duplicate the offensive or even the defensive accomplishments of the departed Nelson Cruz.

Caught between being buyers and sellers at the trade deadline the team only made a couple of minor transactions adding Gerardo Parra (-1.1 WAR since the trade!). They also sent Big Game Tommy Hunter to the Cubs for Junior Lake (a younger, less angry Delmon Young!), Expect Hunter to win 20 games next season.

Speaking of O’s/ Cubs trades, another popular past time this summer has been bitching about Jake Arrieta. Look, I watched Jake Arrieta with the O’s and I know watch him in Chicago.  He is not the same pitcher.  I don’t know if it’s the coaching or if the trade was a wake up call, but Chicago Arrieta is a strike-throwing, WHIP-lowering, out machine. If he had stayed in Baltimore I don’t know if he would be putting up the numbers he is in the Windy City. Besides Steve Clevenger hit .303!

There was other good news despite the lost season.  Chris Davis regained his focus on hitting and hit 45 homeruns (and counting) while driving in 112 runs.  Manny Machado stayed healthy, hitting .284 with 30 homeruns and 30 doubles while playing his typical solid defense at 3rd (with a couple of guest spots at shortstop).

Chris Davis realizing how much dip he can buy with the contract he's going to sign.

Caleb Joseph filled in for the once again oft-injured Matt Wieters and played respectably. Joseph’s play opened up the possibility that re-signing Wieters might not be as high priority as it has been in the past.  For as much talent as Wieters possess, if he can’t stay on the field he isn’t worth a long-term, high money deal. Two years ago it would have been unfathomable that the O’s would let him walk, but now, as reality looms closer maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

How much would you pay for an oft-injured, .250 hitting catcher? 

Wieters, Davis, Wei-Yin Chen (Taiwanese for Solid Six Inning Start), Darren O’Day and Parra are the big pending free agents this off-season.  It will be interesting to see how many of them are back with the club next season.  Hopefully, a dedicated Duquette can focus on keeping the team together.  Should a majority leave, it will be a tough sell for 2016.

While the year will go down as a disappointment due to the pre-season hype, it’s still a year where the O’s were competitive (barely, but still) for most of the season.  They go into the last week of the season fighting for a .500 record and not to avoid 100 losses. So that’s a step up from the pre-2012 years.