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!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hockey. Live Hockey. Me. I'm Going to See Live Hockey.

The first thing I put in the suitcase was my Chinese knockoff-get-it-for-$30 Steven Stamkos jersey.  Probably not the most efficient way to pack (The Duchess prefers starting with shoes) but I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget it.  After all, one can’t make a glorious return to the Ice Palace without wearing the home colors, right?

The Stamkos is the latest in a mediocre line of jerseys that I’ve owned over the last 15 years or so. As with the others it isn’t exactly what one would call “authentic”.  Through the years I have owned:

Old “Screaming Eagle” Washington Capitals jersey (no name) - one of my favorite jersey designs.  Pretty sure Link gave that to me. Which meant he had to buy a Capitals jersey, which means it probably killed him just a little.

Knock-off original Lightning road jersey (no name) that was given to me at Christmas by an ex-girlfriend’s family.  It held up pretty well and allowed me to wear an actual jersey to the games as opposed to a t-shirt.

Black Washington Capitals third jersey (no name) - picked that one up in Toronto for $60 Canadian.  Which at the time was about 55 cents American I think.

Lightning “Rain” third jersey (no name) - my favorite jersey ever.  I picked this one up really cheap when the Lightning announced they weren’t using it any longer. I would say that this jersey has seen the bulk of game action over the years.

“Bolts” third jersey (Lecavalier) - the most expensive jersey I’ve ever bought.  It was the Reebok replica version and I bought it on a whim driving to a game one night.  I may have been unemployed at the time (thanks state of Florida unemployment checks!).  This was retired when Vinny signed it right before I moved up to Chicago.

Chinese Knock-off Current home jersey (Stamkos) -  a friend was ordering some Blackhawks jerseys off a website that posted cheap prices.  I was unemployed at the time and the price was right. It actually looks pretty legit (with fight strap!) but the fit is a bit snug.  Stacked up to an authentic jersey one might be able to spot the differences, but in Chicago I don’t run into too many authentic Lightning jerseys.

So as you can see it was important to make sure the jersey made it into the bag first.  Can’t go to my first home game in years without a jersey!

I hadn’t planned on making any trips to Hockey Bay, USA, but when Link told me that he was being honored at our alma mater I knew I had to be there.  And like any good hockey fan, the first thing I did once I had the dates in my hand was check the Lightning home schedule.  It so happened that they would be in town and that there would be a game. It was, however, on the same night that Link was being feted so that was out.

So I did the reasonable thing.  I extended my trip by a day.  Not sure my boss was happy about it, but it’s been a solid four months since I’ve taken any vacation so she let it slide (although I did promise to check my email at least once a day).  Link wouldn’t be down until the next day so I called up friend/frequent travel partner/former tenant Chris to see if was down for some hockey.  He was and after a quick StubHub purchase I had two tickets to the April 1st game against Montreal.  OK, I had a piece of paper with seat information on it.  StubHub should offer an option where they send you a replica ticket after you attend an event.  I would totally pay an extra $10 for that.

At the time I booked it (right around the Olympics) the match-up wasn’t that important.  Things have changed a bit in the standings and now we‘re looking at a first round preview.  The Lightning and Canadians are pretty much locked into the 2nd and 3rd seeds which means, under the new playoff structure, they will face each other to begin the march to Lord Stanley’s Cup.  The only thing left to be decided would be who gets the home-ice advantage.

The energy for a home playoff game is going to be off the charts.  While Tampa fans take a lot of shots for being fair weather fans, they do show up big for important games.  When it’s full and the crowd is into it, the Ice Palace is a LOUD building.  Not sure if it’s the loudest, but it has to be close.

Holy crap, I just realized that this will be the first time I get to see the Tesla coils in action, in person.  I’m kind of surprised at how happy that makes me.  Wheeee electricity.  Back to the post now.

In the pre-Cup years games against Montreal were like games against Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia - 70% opposing fans.  Which, while annoying, made sense.  Florida is a state made up of people from other places. Those people have allegiances to the teams they grew up with.  Without those types of fans hockey in Florida probably would not have survived.

Now that they’re 20 years into existence the Lightning have had a chance to develop their own fan base.  The kids that were 7 or 8 when the Lightning were playing at the State Fairgrounds or the Thunderdome are now in their late 20s and have grown up with the team.  They don’t have to share their father’s favorites any longer.

I would hope that the split will be more along the lines of 50/50.  The Ice Palace will never be like the United Center in Chicago where 99% of the crowd is there for the home team. The snowbird factor in Tampa is just too great.  Plus there is always the part of the crowd that is on vacation, because why not go see some hockey in Florida in March/April when the weather is still unreasonably cold in your home town?

Other than rooting on the Lightning I’ll be interested to see how the experience has changed since they’ve opened up the concourses during the latest renovations. Also, I’ll be playing a game of “Find the Oldest Jersey/ Biggest Jersey Fail” while wandering about.  I’m putting my money on someone wearing a Rob Zaumner jersey.

No matter what happens it’ll just be fun being back in the building where I became a hockey fan.  The building where I’ve seen bad games and great games. Where I saw losing teams and Stanley Cup champions.  Where vuvuzelas were annoying people long before the World Cup.

Oh and going to a hockey game in sandals and shorts doesn’t suck.