Thursday, March 24, 2016

Game 73: The One That Got Them To First

Game: 73
Opponent: Detroit
Score: 6-2 W

Well, that is one way to answer the bell. In what could be described as their first real test of the season, the Lightning used a combination of skill, luck and some Detroit bungling to hammer the Red Wings by a score of 6-2. The win propelled Tampa Bay back into the top spot in the Atlantic division.

As discussed the last time we met here, the Lightning were kicking off a six-game homestand with the three most important games on the schedule. Detroit came in fighting for their playoff lives, but as one of the hotter teams in Eastern Conference. In their previous game they had come back from two goals down to beat the Florida Panthers.

Early on it looked like they were going to try and best that comeback by getting down by three goals to the Lightning. Each goal had it's own little flavor to it. The first goal was the result of the Detroit defense getting a little lackadaisical and allowing Brian Boyle to hit Ondrej Palat on a long stretch pass. That led to Palat and Erik Condra attacking 2-on-1. Palat fed Condra a nice pass and the Michigan native roofed it just under the bar for his first goal since December 5th.

Condra was in the game, along with Jonathan Marchessault due to injuries to Valteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan. He only played about 10 minutes, but played them like he didn't want to go back to the bench. Marchessault didn't register a point, but was his usual pesky self.

Goal number two was the result of J.T. Brown (who had a good game) working hard to generate a shot on net. Jimmy Howard couldn't find the puck which was sitting right between his legs. Vlad Namestnikov happened to be in the right spot and slammed it between the goalie's wickets for his career best 13th goal.

Goal three was just bad luck for the Red Wings. Steven Stamkos steamed down the right hand side and looked to pass it back to Alex Killorn who was open in front of the net. Unfortunately for Killorn it never made it through the defense. Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson did a great job of blocking the pass with his skate. He didn't do a great job of controlling where the puck went. It hit his skate and ricocheted past Howard and into the back of the net. Stamkos got credit for his 34th goal – hey, they can't all be blistering slapshots.

The game seemed in hand for the Lightning. A three goal lead, Detroit looked a step off and weren't putting any pressure on Ben Bishop. Most of the shots they attempted were blocked. Of course, because the Lightning can't do anything easy, they let Detroit back into the game. Justin Abdelkader scored on the power play and then Darren Helm got the Wings within one seven minutes later.

Darren Helm doesn't need his skates on the ground to score. Photo by Scott Audette NHLI/Getty

Shades of the Winnipeg game were rearing its ugly head. Were they going keel over or could they hold off the desperate Wings? Two minutes after Helm's goal the Lightning got a bit of a break. While already on the power play Abdelkader kind of skated into MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV with his stick out. He made contact with MBNK's back and pushed him into the boards. The ref's hand went up and the Lightning suddenly had a 5-on-3 power play.

One does not get away with gently pushing Kucherov to the ice. Shortly into the two-man advantage Tyler Johnson fired a pass across the crease to MBNK who was all alone at the side of the net and he slammed the puck into the gaping wide net. It was the 28th goal for the restricted free agent and probably jacked his next contract up a couple of hundred thousand dollars. The goal broke the Red Wings back and the Lightning would tack two more goals on in the third to complete the rout.

Hey, just hanging by the post. Mind if I slide this puck into the net. Scott Audette NHLI/Getty

The Lightning were tested and they passed. They outplayed the Red Wings for the vast majority of the game and didn't let the momentum get the best of them during the second period. Their passes were crisp and the blocked a ton of shots (14 by the official count). For once, Bishop didn't have to stand on his head to win a game. In fact I can't really remember him having to make any difficult saves.

The win not only put them in first place but also knocked the Red Wings out of the playoffs for the moment. Their next game is against the Islanders in, what is a nice quirk with the playoff seedings, could be a preview of a first round match-up.

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

Sadly our hero did not log a point despite the offensive explosion. Coach Cooper went with an 11 forward / 7 defensemen lineup with Carle suiting up as the 7th defennseman. He was only on the ice for 11:41 but did manage to finish as a solid +2. After his 3 points in 4 game explosion back in February Carle has now gone 10 points without a point.

I'm sure its been hard for him to adjust to his new role after a career as a point-generating top pairing blueliner. However, he has done it professionally and quietly. So credit to him for being a team player.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

This Week Looms Large For The Lightning

Saying that a game is a “must win” when it doesn't involve a team being eliminated is a bit of an overstatement. Kind of like me telling myself that I “must” post something every day. It would be nice, but life goes on with a win or another day without a poorly-edited post about hockey cards. That being said, it would be really, really nice if the Lightning win all three of their next games.

With Saturday's 2-0 shutout of Max Domi's Coyotes the Lightning wrapped up the Western Conference portion of their schedule. From here on out it's all Eastern Conference opponents. Half of those opponents are in the playoff hunt. Ten games left, five are against teams that are currently in the playoffs (if the Devils get hot, then that number moves to 7 and makes the game on April 2nd more important than my return to Amilie Arena).

The first three games are kind of important for the Lightning's playoff positioning (sadly I will be working during all of them – no witty Twitter remarks for you guys!). The Red Wings, Islanders and Panthers are all within four points of the Lightning. Tuesday's game against the Red Wings is the proverbial 4 point game. A win widens the gap to six points while a loss would narrow it to two and bump the Lightning closer to a wild card spot.

Detroit, like most of the Atlantic division, has been mostly treading water lately having gone 5-5 in their last 10 games. They are fighting for their playoff lives as the hard-charging Flyers are only a point behind them with a game in hand. They did the Lightning a favor in their last game by beating the Panthers 5-3 on the 19th.

Tampa Bay has scuffled along over the past week on their four game road trip. They beat two teams they should have in Arizona and Columbus. They lost to one team they should have beat (Toronto) and lost a 50/50 game to Dallas. The Dallas game hurt a bit as the Lightning had a lead going into the third period and were unable to put them away. If they had been able to win in Dallas (or Toronto) they would be sitting in first place (ahead of Florida due to having fewer games played).

At this point the Lightning can't worry about points left behind they have to focus on the 20 points left available to them. It would be a decent time to put another win streak together to bump up their standings. At the very least, picking up the lion's share of points over the next week will vastly improve their chances of having more home games in April.

With the jumble that is the Atlantic Division it's still too early to figure out who is going to play who in the playoffs. Thinking about who would be the the “best” team to play is a bit foolish, best to focus on just clinching a spot at this point. The Lightning have actually been pretty even when it comes to wins on the road and at home. They have 21 wins at home and 20 on the road. Granted they have played three fewer games at home, but it's still a pretty even split.

There is one match-up that I don't want to see. The Lightning versus Boston with the Bruins having home-ice. Boston has been a house of horrors for the Lightning from the 2011 Eastern Conference (Game 7, 1-0 loss) to Steve Stamkos breaking his leg in 2013 to the 10-game regular season losing streak from 2010 to 2015. Boston has had a weird season in the sense that they have a losing record at home (16 wins in 37 games) but have dominated on the road picking up 23wins in 36 games. Still I don't want anything to do with a Game 7 in TD Garden. Stamkos is running out of bones to break in that building.

Another subplot to the end of the season will be how much Coach Cooper plays Ben Bishop. The Lightning have two sets of back-to-back games left. For most of the season Coach Cooper has alternated between Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy for back-to-back games with the youngster getting the start against the weaker of the two opponents (Vasy has not started against a playoff team since the 5-4 overtime win against the Penguins on January 15th)
However, that plan might be thrown out the window since all of the teams in the back-to-back games are in the playoffs. The coach might just ride Bishop in those consecutive games and let Vasilevskiy start against Toronto on the 28th which would give Bishop a four-day rest between games. There is a fine line to play between burning out your MVP (make absolutely no mistake about him being the most important player to the team this year, it's not even close) and putting yourself in the best position to win the Stanley Cup.

Bishop is on pace to play between 62 and 64 games this season which has been his normal workload during his Lightning career.  Except for the occasional stick to the face it has been a healthy season for him (knock on wood, cross my fingers). That doesn't mean the coach should run him out there for every game left in the season. Tampa Bay would be flirting with disaster if they played him more than absolutely necessary. 

The Lightning only have to look back to 2014 to see what can happen. With four games to go in the season and playoff positioning pretty much decided, Bishop made a save and fell awkwardly injuring his elbow. He missed the rest of the season and the Lightning had to depend on Anders Lindback in their first round match-up against Montreal. It did not go well and Tampa was swept.

Oh 'Ders, you let in another playoff goal.

Granted, this season is a little different since there is much to be decided with only 10 games to go. The Lightning could pretty much finish in any spot from 2-8 (no one is catching the Caps for the number one spot) and could technically still miss the playoffs. So riding Bishop for the next week or so makes sense. But should the playoff picture crystallize and spots get locked in, it might not be a bad idea to have him sit out a game or two.

That's a worry for the future. For now Bishop and the Lightning need to focus on the next three games. While they can't clinch the Atlantic with three wins, they can make their lives a lot easier.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Game 67: The One With All of the Shots and No Goals

Game: 67
Opponent: Boston
Score: 1-0 OT Loss
Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. And sometimes Jonas Gustavsson makes 42 saves. Boston, along with Philadelphia and Florida, is one of the teams that it seems to hurt a little more when you lose to them. It's nowhere near an actual rivalry, but losing to them just sticks in your craw a little more. Especially when they get outplayed.

The Lightning bounced back from the horrible outing against Philadelphia (who attempted 90+ shots against them) to take on the Bruins who were lurking one point behind them in the standings. Tampa Bay, with solid goaltending by Ben Bishop, was the better team on the ice, especially during the second period when they fired 22 shots at Gusavsson. Unfortunately he was equal to the task and turned aside everything thrown at him.

Boston did what Boston does, breaking up passes and blocking shots (17) and generally frustrating the Lightning in the offensive zone while countering their attacks to generate their own offense. Bishop was just as solid in net, limiting rebounds and not giving Boston second chances.

A good sign that the Lightning were playing at their best was the lack of penalties. In fact they only had one, an offsetting roughing call on Brian Boyle when he dumped Jimmy Hayes into the Boston bench. They were able to pick up four power plays of their own.

The first power play was probably the most interesting. Zdeno Chara was standing in front of his net and casually brought his stick up to his waist level. Unfortunately for him he is 7' tall and waist level is equal to Jonathan Marchessault's face and the big giant took a high-sticking penalty. A few moments into the power play, Victor Hedman guesses wrong and Brad Marchand is off to the races on a short handed breakaway. Bishop is equal to the task and makes the save.

About a minute later MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV is skating through the neutral zone and gets decked by John-Michael Liles' forearm/elbow. I don't think it was intentional. I don't think it was malicious. I do however think it was a shot to the head and it should have been a penalty. Mr. Liles did get a phone call from the league but was not subject to supplemental discipline. I'm sure his clean career helped with that.

Not a penalty.  

What I really did not like was Boston announcer Jack Edwards' reaction to the play. Look, we all know Edwards' game. He is the super-homer play-by-play man. But to ignore the fact that a Boston player led a hit with his forearm/elbow and targeted his opponents head is egregious. Then to lay blame on Kucherov of “ducking” into it is not cool at all – especially after watching the replay.

His argument that the play was “horizontal” is ludicrous as well. So I can level you as long as I do it on the same plane as your head? Look. I get it. He's a Boston announcer. However, this is the stuff the league supposedly wants to get rid of. Admit that Liles made a bad play. There is no reason for his arm to be where it is. That doesn't mean you aren't supporting the team.

The good news is that Kucherov wasn't hurt badly and returned to the game. Sadly it wasn't enough to win the game. I will say one thing about the Lightning. If they get to overtime tied 0-0 they don't waste anyone's time losing the game. In October the Lightning and Blackhawks were scoreless in until overtime and then Jonathan Toews scored 17 seconds into the extra session. Brad Marchand bested that scoring 10 seconds into OT on Tuesday night.

Ah well. The Lightning get a few nights off now. Which is needed with the blue line a little banged up. Hopefully the time off will get their offense a chance to reset and find its scoring touch. Once they're back on the ice they do have favorable match-ups with Philadelphia, Columbus and Toronto on the schedule.

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

No. No one got a point. Despite 15 minutes of ice time Mr. Carle remains 37th all-time in points for the Lightning - tied with Danton Cole and Ben Clymer. How about Coach Cooper rolling the dice and pairing Carle with rookie Slater Koekkoek? That's enough to take a few years off of my life.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Game 66: The One With The Ghost Bear

Game: 66
Opponent: Philadelphia
Score: 4-2 Loss

When a team wins nine games in a row it's really hard to get upset over one loss. However, man did they get their asses kicked on Monday night. The final score is truly not indicative at how outplayed they were for 60 minutes. It was amazing that they had a shot to tie it at the end before Wayne Simmonds buried the empty netter with 30 seconds to go.

Andrei Vasilevskiy also saw his personal winning streak end, but there should be an asterisk by the loss. He was phenomenal in the game, especially in the second period when the Lightning were outshot 22-6. I did chuckle when the Lightning challenged Shane Gostisbehere's (a.ka. the Ghost Bear) goal at the 16:51 mark. The ref should have just announced the goal was good because when you're getting outshot 30-6 you don't get to challenge calls.

Why yes, he did get a penalty on this.  Photo credit to Bruce Bennet Getty Images

Despite the lopsided ice they were playing on, there were some good spots to point out. Well two. Vasilevskiy and Tyler Johnson. TJ picked up another two points to continue his late-season resurgence. That makes three of the last four games where he's scored more than one point. Having him at full strength keeps that second line strong and opens up the ice for Steven Stamkos and his line.

When the Lightning weren't getting outskated they still couldn't get the bounces.  Rebounds jumped over sticks, Flyer goalie Steve Mason would get just enough of a puck to deflect it wide.  Not to say that the Lightning weren't unlucky, they deserved to lose this game, it's just when you're on a winning streak sometimes you get outplayed and still manage to win.  This was not one of those games.

Other than that it was a bad game so there is no need to dwell on it. With Boston coming to town next the Lightning definitely need to put the game out of their mind and move on. Sometimes having back-to-back games isn't a bad thing. Despite winning 9 in a row, they only have a one-point lead over Boston and Florida. They do have a game in hand over the Bruins, but the race is still too close to take the foot off of the gas.

They did manage to gain some separation from the bottom of the pack (7 points over Detroit for 8th and 11 over Philly for 9th). At this point I'm not sure it matters for the Lightning. They do have a better record at home, but their road record isn't shabby at 18-13-2. I'd rather they have home ice for the playoffs, but I'm not sure it's going to matter where they play if they get to the conference finals.

Having conversations about playoff seeding is fun if just for the fact it delays talking about off-season issues. Especially since Mr. Vinik could use a few home playoff games to generate some more income. He's going to have a heck of a big check to write coming up.

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?
Nope. But he was a +2! He was on the ice for both of the Lightning goals! That's not bad. He picked up another 20 minute ice time game and saw almost 3 minutes of shorthanded time. He's played pretty well as an injury fill-in over the last two weeks. It'll be interesting to see what happens when Andrej Sustr comes back. Does Carle go back to the bench or will it be one of the young kids.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Time For Some New Cards

Here it is March and I still haven't bought any new boxes of cards.  Not sure why, I should really have at least picked up a box of Upper Deck Hockey by now, but I haven't.  That doesn't mean I haven't picked up anything new.  Time for another COMC "Blaster Box".  For roughly $20 I picked up some cards I need....well...want is probably a better word.  No autographs or relics in this batch.

On a side note, I would like to thank the US Postal Service for forwarding this package to me.  See, despite graduating with honors I am kind of an idiot.  I actually mailed these to my old address in Chicago.  After not seeing them for a month I had actually given up on seeing these and was going to reorder them.  And then boom - here they are.

So what did my four Abraham Lincoln's get me?

Some Heritage needs.  Hey 2016 Heritage is out!  I'm still working on 2009 and 2012.  I've been putting 2009 together for 7 years?  Crap, I'm never going to finish this damn set.

A couple of Vinny cards for my personal collection.  Any card of Vinny in a "rain" jersey I will buy without even looking at the price.

Have you ever traded away a card you actually needed to complete a set?  Yeah, I've done it a few times.  This Bergeron completes my 2013-14 Upper deck set.  Well at least the non-Young Guns part of it.

Just a random card of two of the greatest players in Lightning history.  I really, really like the Chemistry on Canvas set.

Speaking of canvas - how about some Upper Deck Canvas?  What a nice memory of Jonathan Drouin in a Lightning uniform.

Sometimes I just start adding random Lightning cards.  All of these were under a dollar.  So, at least one of those "Hot Prospects" has panned out for Tampa Bay.  Gudas is currently in Philadelphia trying to figure out how many match penalties he can get before getting suspended.  Korobov is back in the KHL as far as I can tell.  The lesson?  You can't have too many prospects.

Some Young Guns for the collection. A former Lightning prospect, a current Lightning prospect, a Duck who as kind of rumored to be a future Lightning player and Jesper Fast.

Yea new cards.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Game 63 Recap: The One With All of the Callups

Game: 63
Opponent:  at Toronto
Score: 2-1 Win

Welcome back to the recaps!  My god, it has been awhile hasn’t it?  The last time posted a recap I believe the Lightning were clinging to a playoff spot and now they’re looking down from atop the Atlantic Division.  It’s been so long that even Matt Carle has scored!

I apologize for abandoning this project for a month.  Life, as it tends to do, got in the way a bit.  A little bit of traveling, a couple of “sleep studies” and various changes in work hours have gotten in the way of watching and recapping the games. Luckily, things are slowing down a bit so more time for me, yea!

Monday night found the Lightning in Toronto riding a six-game winning streak that has given them some separation from the bottom of the pack of Eastern Conference playoff race. Wins against Pittsburgh and New Jersey, two teams chasing a wild card spot, really, really helped the cause.

For once this season, the storyline against Toronto wasn’t revolving around Steven Stamkos future employer.  It was, instead, about the debut of the next generation of homegrown Toronto talent.  Four players were making their NHL debut, among them highly touted rookies William Nylander (son of former Lightning forward Michael Nylander), Kasperi Kapanen (son of former NHL’er Sami Kapanen who scored 9 goals against the Lightning in his career) and Nikita Soshnikov  (who was scouted by Evgeny Namestnikov, father of current Lightning forward, Vlad).

The Maple Leafs have spent the last year burning their team down to the ground, digging a hole and burning it some more, taking the ashes and then throwing them in an incinerator.  As Lightning fans, we’ve been through this process and it is painful.  However, the Leafs are at the point where it begins to turn.  Instead of watching retreads like Roman Polak and Rich Clune lose games they now get to see prospect like Nylander and Kapanen lose games.  Trust me, there is a difference.

Remember when the Lightning did their mass call up from Syracuse at the end of the 2012-13 season and we got to see a glimpse of Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat at the NHL level?  Wasn’t that fun?  That’s what Leaf fans get to enjoy for the next month - hope.

As for the game, to be honest, whether it was all of the youthful exuberance in the line up or the fact that the Lightning had played in Boston the night before, the Leafs outplayed them for most of the game.  With exception to the first period, where the play was pretty even, most of the game belonged to the Leafs. They just couldn’t put one past Andrei Vasilevskiy until late in the game.

The Lightning did get two goals from a stitched-up Tyler Johnson (perhaps taking a puck to the face reminded him that he is, indeed, good at hockey), but the number one star for them was Vasilevskiy.  The young goaltender was sharp in gaining his 11th win of the year.  The 22 points the Lightning have picked up in his starts can’t be understated.  Being able to give Ben Bishop a rest and still have a better than 50% chance to win is a tremendous advantage in a close playoff race.

It was obvious as the game went on that the Leafs had the quicker legs. They were first to loose pucks, dominated the neutral zone and limited the Lightning to occasional forays into the offensive zone.  However, along with Vasy’s excellent play, Tampa Bay as a team did a great job of clearing rebounds and keeping most of the threats to the perimeter.

Early on in the game the Lightning dominated. They pressed the Marlies Leafs in the zone and unloaded 15 shots on goal (and another three that found iron). If it wasn’t for Garret Sparks and his awesome leg pads, the game could have gotten out of hand early.  Perhaps Sparks’ best save came on Valtteri Filppula who was looking at an empty net after collecting a rebound.  Unfortunately for the blond Finn, Sparks was able to get enough of his stick on it to deflect it wide.  Sparks would also stop Filppula on a breakaway later in the game.

Sparks is not getting a Christmas card from Flip this year.

There was a feeling that if the Lightning could get one goal things would fall apart for Toronto.  They didn’t get that goal until the second period when Tyler Johnson, using a nifty pick by Brayden Coburn on a Leafs defenseman (that’s why he got the big bucks) roofed a shot over Sparks’ shoulder.  Things did not fall apart. Johnson scored 11 minutes later when he was able to trickle a shot through Sparks’ pads. It was a soft goal that the rookie net minder should not have allowed. Surely, now the Leafs, who had had been pressuring the Lightning for most of the ten minutes between the two goals would collapse.  Nope, and don’t call me “Shirley”.  In fact they increased the pressure and held the Lightning to only 5 shots on net.

Of the young players Kapanen seemed to be the most dangerous. He seemed to always have the puck on his stick in front of the net and of his 5 shots that were directed at the net at least three of them were close enough that I breathed a sigh of relief when they didn’t go in.

The Lightning won a game that, on paper, they should have won. They also won a game that, on ice, they shouldn’t have won.  The future is bright for the Leafs.  God help us all if they add Auston Matthews and a certain high-priced free agent center.

Those things are so awesome. Best pads in the league!

Did Matt Carle Score a Point:

Sadly, he did not.  Everyone’s favorite beleaguered defenseman was on the ice for a season-high 21 minutes (probably due to Andrej Sustr leaving the game with an injury) and recorded one shot on net.  He wasn’t bad, more like back to his invisible self.  There was at least one, “puck turned over by Carle” comment from announcer Rick Peckham, but other than that a solid game.

Carle has been playing decently since his return to the lineup. He has 3 points on the season now and has proved valuable in the absence of Jason Garrison. If Sustr is out for any length of time, Carle should be able to fill the spot adequately.