Friday, April 29, 2016

Six Thoughts on a Not So Easy Night for The Lightning

Playoff losses used to be more difficult to take. The passions of youth I guess. It's either that or I've developed adequate coping mechanisms for normal playoff losses. Overtime losses....I'm not sure yet. So on Wednesday night, after the Lightning fell a bit short on their comeback in Game One I turned off my slightly, possibly less-than-legal video stream, started running all of my anti-malware programs and fired up the iTunes.

Music definitely helps sooth the angry, well slightly-disappointed, beast. Instead of firing off a bunch of angry comments I flipped around the play list and tried to organize my thoughts so I could write about something three days after it happened. Why not organize my thoughts based on an album? Everyone loves a themed post!

I think we can all agree that the team and the fans had themselves a rather hard night, right? So here you thoughts on Game One based on the Beatles third studio album – A Hard Days Night.

(ed note – I was originally going to come up with some thoughts for each track on the album, but then I got a little wordy so I made some cuts. Sorry all of you “Can't Buy Me Love” fans.)

If I Fell – Erik Condra

Condra's Game One experience is not one he's going to want to remember (if he even can). It lasted 57 seconds and he managed to dish out one hit before he was destroyed on a hit by Casey Cizikas. The bewildered look on his face and the fact he wasn't moving his lower body made things momentarily tense. Anytime one of your players is laid out on the ice with a blank look on his face you immediately think “Dirty Hit!”

In this case, it wasn't. Condra just managed to get caught in an awkward spot when Cizikas unloaded on him. He was also in a position where his head snapped pretty violently when he hit the ice. Hockey is a contact sport and hits like that happen. As of Friday it seems like Condra is doing better but is questionable for Game 2.

In the dictionary this is the picture posted next to "woozy".  Photo by Scott Audette NHLI/Getty

One of the major talking points of the game was that the hit “changed the momentum” of the game. After all the Lightning were leading before the hit and then the wheels came flying off after the hit. So it makes a nice tight story. I'm sure there may be a ring of truth to it. The Lightning were definitely controlling play up until that point. However, for me the turning point was Thomas Greiss' stop on Alex Killorn's breakaway.

If Killorn buries the puck on that play, the Lightning are up 2-0, the Amalie Arena is rocking and Greiss' confidence is a little shaken. The Islanders would be forced to play catch up and Tampa could take advantage of their aggressiveness.

Instead, the Islanders get a reprieve and then go down and score the equalizer and all of the momentum that the Lightning had earned in their first five minutes of play were washed away.

I’m Happy Just to Dance With You - Vlad Namestnikov/Johnathan Drouin/Ondrej Palat

Well, wasn’t this a fun line to watch? Namestnikov returned from his 4th line duties and replaced Val Filppula on the Lightning’s “Other” Line. For most of the night they were the best line on the ice for the Lightning. Drouin’s creativity and vision led to the opening goal as he pivoted along the boards and hit a streaking Palat in stride in a prime scoring area.

While his ornery streak wasn’t nearly as evident as it had been against Detroit, Drouin continued to play well in the offensive zone, building on the excellent play from the first series. Defensively, ehhh. Could he have back-checked harder on Shane Prince’s first goal? Probably. But the same could be said for the entire line that was on the ice.

In the past, being on the ice for a goahead goal probably would be enough to relegate him to the bench for the remainder of the game. But out of trust or necessity, Coach Cooper had to keep playing top line minutes. While his leash might be a bit longer than it has been in the past, Drouin should remember that defense is just as important as offense on a Cooper-led team.

It was nice to see three goals from three different lines (and some help from the blueline) on the scoresheet. Relying on one line is rarely successful in the playoffs and if the Drouin line continues to play well together, it’ll open up the ice for Tyler Johnson and his running mates.

Namestnikov looked rejuvenated early in the game when he was getting shifts with Drouin and Palat. He played with speed and confidence (kind of like earlier in the season when he was paired with Stamkos and Kucherov) and generated a number of chances. It was his puck handling across the blueline that led to Drouin’s nice play on the first goal.

So it was a little shocking when I looked at his final numbers and saw that he only had 9:43 of ice time. I remembered that Coach Cooper had reunited the Triplets during the 3rd period, but didn’t realize Vlad was the victim of the line shuffling. With Drouin skating with Killorn and Filppula, Namestnikov didn’t see the ice at all in the last 15 minutes of thegame.

This stop on Drouin late in the game was probably Greiss' best save.  Photo by Scott Audette NHLI/Getty

I’m thinking it was more of a numbers game then any knock on his performance or injury. Coach Cooper rolled the top two lines for most of the comeback attempt and Vlad just happened to be the odd man out. A quick check of Twitter and it doesn’t look like he was hurt. Hopefully he’s back out there again on Saturday.

And I Love Her Him – Nikita Kucherov

MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV! You really can’t stop him this year. He tapped in a nice cross-ice feed from Matt Carle to start the attempted comeback. It was his team leading 6th goal of the post season and will probably result in him playing for another team in the not too distant future. I’m sure every time he scores from here on out all Steve Yzerman hears is a cash register. Between Stamkos, Hedman, Bishop and Kucherov there has to be a point where they all can’t be signed. And what team wouldn’t want a 30 goal scorer who is in his mid-20s? If anyone is getting an offer sheet this summer, it will be him. Then the decision for Mr. Yzerman will be – match it and lose someone else or let him go and recoup future assets. Last year the compensation for signing away a restricted free agent was a 1st and 3rd if the average was between 3.6 and 5.4 million or a 1st, 2nd and 3rd for between 5.4 and 7.3

I don’t see the Lightning matching at over 3.5 million and I don’t see them letting him walk for less than that. Even though their record with number one picks under Mr. Yzerman has been a bit spotty, getting that kind of asset from a team could help in the long run.

Of course, that means I’d have to buy yet another jersey. Perhaps it’s throwback time. Lightning sleeve Zac Bierk, maybe?

Tell Me Why – Shane Prince’s Two Goals

I’m sure Shane Prince is a fine individual despite the fact that I had no idea who he was until about a week ago. And to give him credit, he had two opportunities to score and he took advantage of them. But both of his goals were more a result of defensive ineptitude than his individual effort.

I read a book once that explored why people do stupid things and one of the tangents was how things like plane crashes happen when so much of the process is automated and redundant. The explanation – it isn’t one thing that goes wrong. It’s usually a multitude. The plane didn’t crash because a computer relay broke. It’s because the relay broke, the pilot was at the end of a long day and there was bad weather on the approach.

If allowing a goal can be considered a disaster, it’s usually the result of many things going wrong, not just one. For instance, here is Prince’s first goal.

Of course, a guy named Brock should win a lot of battles

As the clip starts, Matt Carle loses a battle along the boards. That frees Brock Nelson to hit a wide open Ryan Strome with the puck. Breakdown 1.

Hedman is playing it pretty well. The stick is just on the wrong side.
Victor Hedman, who hustled back to support Carle, drops to a knee to block a pass but he puts his stick to the left and can’t bring it back in time to cover the open ice. Breakdown 2.

Even in a bad position look how much net Bishop covers.  Unreal.
Ben Bishop, the long-legged mack daddy, is usually pretty good at moving from post to post. In this case he’s a little slow to react and can’t square up on the wide open Prince. Breakdown 3.

Namestnikov is that guy on his belly. If the pass gets through it's one-on-one for the Islanders
Vlad Namestnikov comes zooming into the play 5 seconds too late to cover Prince. If you watch the top of the screen during the replay, you’ll see Vlad dive after the puck. It's actually a nice hustle play as he deflects the puck from getting to Prince in open ice. Unfortunately, it goes straight to an Islander and it takes the Russian awhile to get back on his skates and chase down the play. Sometimes good hustle leads to bad luck. Breakdown 4.

If just one of those breakdowns don’t happen, there is a good chance Prince doesn’t score. There was a central theme to all of the goals that the Lightning surrendered – being outworked. That is something that didn’t happen in round one and can’t happen in the rest of this series if they want to advance.

Things We Said Today – Ben Bishop

“I felt good. Just one of those nights where it wasn't really hitting me.” That's what Bishop had to say to the Tampa Bay Times following the game. Nice to know the Vezina-finalist has a complicated philosophy when it comes to goaltending.

Of the four goals that Bishop gave up in his half-hour of action, two of them were ones we're used to seeing him stop. The first goal, a wrister from Travis Harmonic seemed innocent enough. Bishop was square to him and there was only a minimal screen in front of him. It hit him yet trickled behind him and into the net.

The fourth goal, a power play goal by Jonathan Tavares, seemed similar. The Islanders captain just put the puck on net and somehow it made it up and over Bishop's shoulder. Which, seeing how he is a long individual, was not a good goal to let him.

The good news is that we've been down this road before. Remember that Bishop got lit up a couple of times against the Rangers last year and both times he bounced back. It is a reminder, however, how much the 2015-16 Lightning rely on their big netminder. He's managed to bail them out time and time again when they've forgotten how to play defense (see Shane Prince's two goals). And when he's been merely mortal, they've struggled.

Coach Cooper isn't about to panic. “Bish is Bish. The kid bounces back”. If he isn't concerned, why should we? Right?

You Can't Do That – Johnathan Marchessault

At the 8 minute mark of the second period, and the Lightning down 3-1, Marchessault was beat along the boards by Jonathan Tavares. Marchessault, in his first game of the playoffs, got his stick around the Islanders forward and impeded his progress. The ref's arm went up and Marchessault skated to the Shame Box for two minutes. Forty seconds later Tavares beat Bishop on a wrister and the game was all but over.

The hooking call was one of four penalties that the Lightning took as a team on Wednesday night. Unlike the Red Wings series where a lot of the penalties were of the bullying/roughing type, the ones against the Islanders were lazy penalties. Marchessault and Tyler Johnson picked up hooking penalties, Alex Killorn had a kneeing/interference/tackling penalty while Ryan Callahan added a holding penalty.

It's indicative of the lack of pace that they were playing with when they picked up those penalties. Their skates aren't moving and the Islanders were basically outworking them. It's not a surprise that all of the penalties happened in the first two periods, once the Lightning found their legs in the third all of that nonsense seemed to have disappeared.

Marchessault did not have his best game in a Lightning uniform. He may get a chance to redeem himself due to the Condra injury, but he is going to have step up his play quite a bit.

I'll Be Back – The Tampa Bay Lightning

No one likes losing Game One on home ice, especially with a sub-optimal performance. It is, however, only one game. The rust of a week-long layoff should be gone and the Lightning should be back in the playoff groove. If they win Game 2 then they just need to split in Brooklyn to recapture the home ice advantage. No one picked this series to be a sweep, so they just need to get over it and move on.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Some Thoughts on Round Two

You may have noticed that I never got around to a Game 5 review. Sorry about that, it's not like it hasn't been a week since it happened. You know how times is, ever elusive. Things just got away from me. Throw in a little minor surgery and a week goes by in a bit of a haze. Now that the painkillers have worn off enough that I can string a coherent thought or two together (well, as close to coherent as I normally get) it seems we've gone to far to go back now.

Moving forward, a little faster than anticipated, we are on to round two. After a week of relaxing, rehabbing and hopefully remembering how to score the New York Islanders come to town. With the Lightning wrapping up early, they were more than happy to see the Islanders slug it out with the Florida Panthers over 6 games, including two that went to double overtime.

I watched most of the Islanders Game 5 through a slight drug-induced haze. The one benefit of being confined to a hospital bed was double overtime hockey. It killed a bunch of hours. The nurses thought it was funny that I would doze off and then snap awake when the announcers voices hit that rising crescendo. The only regret was that the Lightning weren't involved, it would have been interesting to watch my vital signs spike and freak out the attendants.

Game 6 I managed to watch most of as well. And in the span of the 7 or 8-ish periods I saw, I really don't have a feel for them. I really don't know what to expect in this series. It's odd to watch a lot of hockey and not have a feel for a team. For instance, you knew going into the Detroit series that it was going to be a grind. They were going to check close, get in your way and make you skate through mud to score. If the Lightning advance and play Washington or Pittsburgh you know it's going to be fast moving and high scoring. Lots of pressure, lots of open ice.

With the Islanders....I just don't know. They're just kind of there. I recognize some of the names, others not so much. I know John Tavares is a stud and the Lightning should really, really do their best to keep him off of the puck. Looking at the numbers they did score 232 goals as a team (five more than the Lightning) and gave up 216 (15 more than the Lightning), but pretty comparable. I had no idea where they stood in either category. I know they were in a bit of a battle at the end of the season to make the playoffs and then get out of the final wild card spot, but finding out they had 100 point, wow.

Their scoring was more balanced as they boasted four 20+ goal scorers in Tavares (33), Brock Nelson (26), Kyle Okposo (22) and Franz Nielsen (20). Another four players scored at least 10 during the season. That makes things a little difficult to defend. They've continued to spread the scoring out in the playoffs as they've had 9 players combine for their 15 goals. Compare that to the Lightning who have 12 goals from five players. Shut down one line and the Lightning struggle. Shut down one Islanders line and another one might find a way to score.

The question mark for them in the series is going to be in the net. Thomas Greiss signed a nice little backup goalie deal at the beginning of the season. The Islanders agreed to pay him $3 million over two years to sit on the bench wearing pads and a baseball cap and every once in a while come in to give starter Jaroslav Halak a day off. That plan veered off the tracks in March when Halak blew out his groin and Greiss became the number one. He has responded well.

He finished the regular season with personal bests in almost all categories, picked up 23 wins in 38 starts and had a respectable 2.36 GAA and .925 save percentage. The German continued his hot run against the Panthers in the first round and gave up only 2 goals over the last two games despite facing 90 shots.

Can he hold it up against an offense that figures to put more pressure on him than Florida did? If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a rich man. Not that the regular season has anything to do with it, but he did beat the Lightning 2 out of 3 times in the regular season (got a bit roughed up in the one loss, though). From what I saw, he didn't look like a goalie riding a hot streak. He was in control, limited his rebounds and made pretty good reads. Heck, he even stopped a penalty shot in overtime. That' not something a career back up gets to do much of in the playoffs.

So I apologize for not being more helpful, but I really don't know what's going to happen. I'm inclined to think it's going to go six or seven games and be close. There could be a blowout, but momentum could be hard to maintain due to the erratic nature of the schedule. They start on Wednesday, have two days off. Play Saturday and have two days off. Play Tuesday and have two days off. (Seeing a theme here, yet?)

That kind of staggered schedule is beneficial to both teams. The Islanders who had a pretty good battle with the Panthers get to recharge a bit after a short rest before Game 1 and the Lightning's walking wounded get a little healthier. While it's not drawn out long enough to expect Steven Stamkos to return to action (hey, did you here he was on the ice today?), it might be enough to get JT Brown back and maybe even Anton Stralman.

Stralman's return could be huge for the back half of the match up as it would decrease the work load for Matt Carle and some of the other blueliners. For the record if Stralman does return I think it's Nikita Nesterov or Jason Garrison that gets benched before Carle. Hey, I've been hard on him all year, but he's played his Alaskan ass off in the playoffs. Still, I'd rather be cheering his 15 minutes of play rather than his 20 minutes of play.

If the Lightning don't find a way to support Tyler and his linemates then it's going to be a frustrating series. Having to hope for two goals then watch Ben Bishop make 35 saves is not good for my well being. The Ondrej Palat, Val Filppula and Jonathan Drouin have to start cashing in the chances they create during even strength. They've been having fun with the puck, now they got to make the other team pay.

So, gun to my head I say the Lightning win in 6.

How am I doing with my predictions so far:

Alex Killorn will score two big goals – He's scored two game winners. WINNER
Lighting win in six – They won in five. NOT A WINNER
Bishop with 2 shutouts – He got one, but it was a 1-0 shutout. PART TIME WINNER

Drouin will score more points in the postseason than the regular season – he's 40% of the way there!
Marchessault with Kucherov award – winning in five games kept Coach Cooper criticism's to a minimum. There is still a chance.
Will Stamkos play over/under Game 4 – didn't happen until the second round. NOT A WINNER

Series Predictions:

Panthers over Islanders in five – whoops
Washington over Philadelphia in four – took five, but got it
Pittsburgh over New York in seven – only took five, but got it

Dallas over Minnesota in five – took six, but got it
St. Louis over Chicago in seven – NAILED IT
Anaheim over Nashville in six – missed the six, still got a chance to pick the winner
Los Angeles over San Jose in seven – missed it.

Based on my history not too bad. As for the second round:

Caps over Pens in seven in the best series
San Jose over Anaheim/Nashville in six
Dallas over St. Louis in five

Thursday, April 21, 2016

One, Two, Three, FOUR - Now Go Win One More

Somewhere in the three or four posts that I’ve written about this series I’m sure I mentioned that it would be in the Lightning’s best interest to keep the game five-on-five as much as possible.  So what do they do?  Score all of their goals with the man advantage in a 3-2 victory that puts the Red Wings on the brink of elimination in the first round series.  As usual my prognostication skills are spot on!

Moving young Jonathan Drouin to the point on the first power play unit seems to have sparked the struggling unit as they converted on three of their five opportunities. Drouin picked up assists on all three goal. The Prodigal Son had his breakout game as he tied a post-season Lightning record with his 3 helpers and was dancing with the puck all night long.

Drouin was skating circles around red uniforms all night.  Photo by Greg Shamus Getty

Detroit’s Luke Glendening and his linemates did another stellar job of shutting down the Lightning’s top playmakers as Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn were shut out at even strength during both games at Joe Louis Arena. I’m sure Johnson (who did manage one assist in the game) will be glad to match up against someone other than Glendening when the series returns to Tampa and the Lightning get to change lines last.

Even though they might not have scored at even strength, the Lightning played much, much better than they did in Game 3.  They drove most of the action in the first period as they fired 14 shots on net in the first 20 minutes of the game.  Since they only managed 16 shots in total in the previous game, things were looking pretty positive - especially since they also had a 1-0 lead.

They added another 11 shots in the second (and another goal), mostly in the first half of the period.  Then, the wheels kind of came off for a bit.  Drouin stumbled on a check and allowed Luke Glendening to slip around him and set up Darren Helm for a goal that sliced the Lightning lead in half.  Detroit pressed the advantage for the rest of the period and you could feel the momentum swinging.

As the period started winding down, Gustav Nyquist made contact with Ben Bishop.  Bishop, who is a large individual went down like he got hit with a steel chair.  I’m not saying that he embellished, but somewhere in Montreal Carey Price applauded quietly as the refs called Nyquist for interference.  As ironclad proof that karma exists in sports, Nyquist bounded from the penalty box after his two minutes of reflection and scored the game tying goal with 10 seconds left in the period.

Joe Louis was rocking and all of the hard work that the Lightning had put forward in the first periods looked like it was coming undone.  It was probably for the best that the period ended at that point as Tampa Bay was on their heels.  Seventeen minutes in the locker room helped get them back on their feet and they came out battling in the third.

It was a tight period with both teams getting chances.  At the 7:29 point the game turned.  It’s possible that the series turned as well.  Dylan Larkin, the precocious young Detroit forward, made a great move in front of the net and lifted a backhand over Bishop’s shoulder and under the crossbar.  The announcer claimed it was a goal, all of the people in the stands thought it went in, the players on the ice thought it went in.  Basically everyone but the refs thought it went on and play continued for several disjointed moments.

So close young Mr. Larkin?  Photo by Dave Reginek/ NHLI Getty

Upon review the puck went off the underside of the bar, behind Bishop, out of the crease and just past Larkin. It clearly never went in and the game remained tied.  If Larkin scores, the lid blows off the joint, the Wings have ALL of the momentum and the Lightning have to start chasing a goal.  Instead it’s tied and seven minutes later Tampa Bay finds themselves with one last power play.

In a tied playoff game, the last five minutes of the third period might as well be the first five minutes of sudden death.  It certainly felt that way Tuesday night.  When Jonathan Ericsson slammed his stick into the back of Ondrej Palat and drew a crosscheck, there was the feeling that they really, really needed to score.  And they did.

With time winding down, Drouin found himself at the right hash mark with the puck and a semi-clear shot at the net. He drew back as if to shoot, but instead slid a pass to a surprisingly wide open Palat in front of the net.  All the Czech had to do was redirect into the net - he did.  And then there was joy on the Tampa bench.  The Lightning had the lead and they held on to it. Now they get to go back to Amalie with a chance to end the series.

Drouin’s play in this series makes his situation extremely unique.  He has answered the challenge presented by the coaching staff. He has stepped his game offensively and been the strongest player on the puck in the offensive zone.  Kucherov and Johnson might have all of the goals, but Drouin has been on the puck a lot during the first four games.

At the worst he’s increasing his trade value. At best he’s proving that he could fill the hole voided if Steven Stamkos does decide to bolt from the team.  Of course, he could have done this three months ago if he had accepted his punishment and just played his ass off in Syracuse.

It will be interesting to see how his play continues as the playoffs continue.  He has shown his elite talent in stretches before, but then seems to taper off and disappear.  Will he continue to play with the confidence and aggression that he has played with so far or will he relax and start coasting again?

If I was wrong about special teams, at least I got the Victor Hedman thing right. Despite only picking up 1 point in the first four games, The Big Swede has been logging a ton of ice time.  He has been over 26 minutes in every game except Game Two (where he did spend an inordinate amount of time in the penalty box) and logged a Duncan Keith-like 30 minutes in Game 4 despite Coach Cooper dressing 7 defensemen.

Matt Tamorina got the call as the extra blue liner, but was barely a footnote in the game as he played less than three minutes.  According to the CBC broadcasters one of the reasons he was dressed was because there was questions about Jason Garrison’s health after he took a slash at the end of Game 3.

Garrison played almost 17 minutes and picked up an assist, but looked slower than normal.  Several times some of the faster Detroit forwards were working him pretty hard, especially when he was killing penalties. Both Garrison and Braydon Coburn struggled at times with the speed Larkin, Tomas Totar and Andreas Athanasius (who I thought was one of Detroit’s best forwards) brought to the game. Anton Stralman’s absence was very noticeable during that stretch of 15 minutes or so when Detroit was pushing for the lead.

The Lightning survived and have a chance to move on.  With the Islanders and Panthers looking like they might be engaged in a pretty intense series, having a few extra days of rest would be most beneficial for Tampa Bay.

The Hopeful Chase 3 Stars:

3. Petr Mrazek - Without his play in the first period, the Wings are probably down by two or three goals.  He wasn’t the problem for the Wings as he made several great saves throughout the game.

2. Jonathan Drouin - Three assists and several close chances for the young guy.  It is fun watching him with the puck in tight spaces. His hands are incredible, but he has to make sure he doesn’t get too pass-happy.  Defenders are giving him space because they think he might shoot, if he takes that out of his arsenal, he might find a little less space to work with.

1. Nikita Kucherov - Two more goals and an assist for the Russian dynamo. Not only that, but he also fired 7 shots at the net.  Somehow he keeps finding himself open at the right circle and he hasn’t been missing from there.  The first goal was a one-timer on a pass that was in his skates. It was a remarkable job of adjusting his body in position to get a shot off.

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

Nope.  Drouin took all of the assists!  He was second on the defense with 19:39 of ice time including a whopping 4 minutes of short handed time.  That’s almost too much for my heart to take, but he was up to the task as he helped the team kill off four more Detroit power plays. He has quietly been the second best defenseman in this series.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Three the Hard Way

So another playoff game that I missed most of because of work, but from what I read online and Twitter (after the game, of course, because I would never check Twitter at work) it wasn't the finest hour for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Based on the final score of 2-0 for the other guys I would have to agree. Just because I didn't see most of the game doesn't mean I don't have opinions. Let's go over three thoughts from Game 3 of the first round.

  1. You didn't think it would be this easy did you?

What have the Lightning done the easy way this year? All year it's been a struggle. Whether it is trying to score a power play goal, sign the best goal scorer in their history, or ice an entirely healthy team everything has been harder than a fat man putting a wet suit on. So why would winning a playoff series be any easier?

When Coach Cooper had last change on home ice he was able to get a favorable matchup for Tyler and the Killer K's (damn it, I'm making this work!). However, in Detroit it was a different story. The hottest line for the Lightning was held without a shot and net and the rest of their teammates only mustered 16. Peter Mrazek made the start for the Red Wings and was rarely tested throughout the 60 minutes as Detroit managed to clog things up and keep the Lightning on the perimeter.

Hey, did you know his mask glows in the dark? Photo by Greg Shamus/ Getty

The Bolts didn't do themselves any favors with their endless march to the penalty to the penalty box. The Red Wings had another 7 power plays and even though they didn't score on any of them, it still interrupted the 5-on-5 play and kept the Lightning from finding any balance. According to Twitter it was a case of the refs calling a one-sided game which, having not watched the game, I can't really argue. The common beef seemed to be that the Red Wings got away with their typical brand of interference and holding while the Lightning were getting called for every infraction. Lets face it, power plays aren't helping the Lightning win, especially on the road (10% success during the regular season!)

They have to be betting Game 4 and stay out of the box. They are the better team at even strength and they need to play at that level as much as possible. Speaking of stooping to their level:

  1. Brian Boyle and the chicken dance.

Sigh. Should Justin Abdelkader dropped his mitts and fought Boyle? Probably. Should Boyle have challenged him earlier in the game? Probably. Do the Lightning need to knock this shit off? Definitely. Standing up for yourself and bullying the other team a bit isn't a bad thing, letting them get under your skin and off your game is another thing.

I think Boyle has the reach. Photo by Greg Shamus/ Getty

Boyle is there to be a impediment to the Red Wings especially in front of the net. Pierre McGuire adequately (hey, he can't be wrong ALL the time) dubbed him, “The Human Eclipse”. While he is equipped to put Abdelkader in his place, it doesn't mean he should be trying to do it at the end of the game. If you're going to defend Mike Blunden's honor, square off in the first period and get it out of the way.

The chicken act was pretty damn funny. And let's not forget that he has only one less goal than the trio of Dylan Larkin, Hank Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

  1. A team is not in trouble....

..until it loses a game on home ice. C'mon. I didn't watch the game. I have to throw one cliché in this article. However, just because something is cliché, doesn't mean it isn't true. The Lightning still hold the hammer in this series. If they remember to shoot the puck on net in Game 4 and score some goals (mark it down, Jason Garrison game-winner) they will go back to Tampa with the chance to close out the series.

It wasn't like the Red Wings whipped them up and down the ice. Did they generate a lot of chances? No, but they did still do a lot of little things well. They continued to block shots and despite the Red Wings having SEVEN power plays they only gave up 30 shots. I thought Jonathan Drouin had another good game, during the 10 minutes of play I did watch he was forchecking like a crazy man and generated 3 or 4 turnovers. Heck, if nothing else he is driving his trade value back up.

Game 3 was a do-or-die game for Detroit. If they had lost, they don't come back. For the Lightning it would have been a nice game to win, but it a loss also helps them remember that they can't just throw their sticks on the ice and win (“throw the sticks on the ice and win” is a registered trademark to the I Couldn't Stand Barry Melrose As Lightning Coach LLC and cannot be used without express written consent).

My favorite Cooper look, The "You're an idiot" look.  Photo by Dave Raginek NHLI/Getty

All throughout the season, when the Lightning didn't HAVE to win, they didn't. They usually played like crap. Game 4 is a little different. If they lose, that's a little more hope for the Red Wings, and as Andy Dufresne reminds us, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

Wait, what? No we don't want them to have any hope. Hope sucks. Die Hope Die!

Three Stars of the Game:

No idea. So let me give a little unsolicited advice to fans of both teams. Lightning fans: settle down, the refs don't have anything against the Lightning. They may be inept, but they are not bias. Stop that shit, conspiracy theories don't look good when you have a Stanley Cup banner in your closet.

Detroit fans: Stop acting like Abdelkader is some kind of victim in all of this. Even if he was “jumped” by two players at the end of Game 2, you don't keep throwing punches into the back of the head of a player who is on the ice – that's not cool, that's how people get hurt badly.

And what's the deal with Journey? Honestly, the song references “South Detroit” so you act like its some kind of geographical cornerstone to your very fandom? I admit it is damn fun to sing, but its one of those weird songs with a catchy tune that is kind of depressing when you think about the lyrics. Don't stop believing because your life kind of sucks. Steve Perry wants to hold onto this “feeling” because not much else is going right.

Oh and if you're shopping at Modell's I could use a new hoodie.

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

Nope. He was on the ice at the end of the game mixing it up with everyone else and picked up a slashing penalty. So at least he was in the scorebook.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Two Down, Two to Go - Lightning Brawl Their Way to a 2-0 Series Lead

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”

Play against a team that interferes, hooks, shoves, obstructs and bends the rules long enough and you might begin to pick up some of their habits. While the Lightning have too much talent to completely descend into Nietzche's abyss, after playing them 13 times in the last year (4 regular season games and 9 post season) they are definitely picking up some of the Red Wings' “bad” habits.

The good news for Bolts fans is that that style plays well in the post season. On Friday night, a night before Elton's good night for fighting, the Lightning bullied the Red Wings all over the ice, winning 5-2 and leaving Amalie Arena with a 2-0 lead in the series. As the game descended into chaos around him, Tyler Johnson continued to torture the Red Wings scoring 2 goals and pickinh up 2 assists. Through the first two games Detroit has yet to find a way to slow down Tyler and the Killer K's as Johnson, Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov have combined to score 15 points through the first two games.

The Red Wings literally can't keep Nikita out of the net. Photo by Mike Carlson Getty Images

However, the story of the game wasn't so much Johnson's performance, but the state of affairs between the two teams. It's not very cordial. Last year, the Lightning were frustrated by the way Detroit played hockey. They tried to continue to score pretty goals and were constantly taken aback by the borderline shiftiness that the Red Wings excel at. The after-the-whistle pushing and shoving, the borderline interference and obstruction, the elbows that got up a little higher than should be allowed.

This year the Lightning seem ready for it. Not only that, they are giving just as good as they get. They seemed inspired by the play of the Prodigal Son, Jonathan Drouin, who was just as surly in Game Two as he was in Game One. After getting bloodied by an elbow from Riley Sheahan midway through the second period, Drouin literally chased the young Red Wing around the ice trying to get him to fight. Sadly we were denied the opportunity of seeing how well the former number 3 overall pick could throw hands, but it was a prime example of how this team doesn't back down from anyone.

Drouin was involved in another example later in the game when he set Brian Boyle up for his goal (the only goal not scored by Tyler and the Killers so far this season). Boyle played pretty loose with the interference rules as he took Luke Glendening out of the play which freed up the puck to start Drouin on the offensive rush.

Hey, if Boyle hadn't shoved him, Glendening would never have even touched the puck!

I would like to see the Lightning win playing a hockey version of The Beautiful Game, but I would like to see them win the Stanley Cup more. In the playoffs you can get away with more than you would in the regular season and it looks like they are starting to realize that. They can still score goals with speed and talent (see Johnson's second goal where Kucherov blows by Alexey Marchenko and sets TJ up for the perfect one-timer) but they are now getting the ugly goals as well. Johnson scored the game winner by planting himself in front of three Red Wings and whacking at the puck while taking a shove in the back.

On defense they're doing the same thing. Detroit is getting time in the offensive zone, but they're having trouble getting shots through. When they do get a shot on net either Ben Bishop is soaking it up or whatever rebound is there is cleared by the Lightning. The Red Wings are frustrated, why else would former Lady Byng winner Brad Richards touch off a game-ending brawl with a viscous slash at Andrej Sustr's legs?

Things really escalated.  I think Brick killed a guy.  Photo by Scott Audette NHLI/Getty

There is a fine line between aggressive and reckless. So far the Lightning have toed it pretty well, but now that the line match-ups are going to favor the Red Wings they will have to be careful not to get caught out of position. Roughing and fighting penalties are one thing, but if they start picking up the hooking, holding and tripping penalties that indicate a player getting beat on a play then things could escalate in a bad way for them. At some point Detroit is going to start scoring with the man advantage.

The Lightning have done a great job of antagonizing the Red Wings through the first two games (speaking of antagonizing – props to the PA guy for playing “Separate Ways” during the official timeout after the brawl. That drove Detroit fans absolutely INSANE). Now that they have them on the ropes they have to make sure to finish them off. In tight, highly-charged series like this, giving the other team even a sense that they can come back could be disastrous.

The Hopeful Chase 3 Stars:

3 - Ryan Callahan – I know he didn't have a point, but he played 19 minutes of hard hockey. He was blocking shots and breaking up passes all night long. Also, you gotta get some credit when you dive on top of a scrum to pull players off.

Callahan has his "I'm gonna hit a rookie face" going. Photo by Scott Audette NHLI/Getty

2 - Ben Bishop – Another ho-hum 30 save game for Bish. While the Lightning dominated most of the game, the big netminder made saves when he needed to, including at the end of the first. He probably would have liked to have the Dylan Larkin goal back, but for the most part he has been the wall that the Lightning need him to be.

1 - Tyler Johnson - Two goals, two assists and another huge game for the Red Wing killer. I think it's safe to say there are no lingering effects from the hit he took in the last game of the season.

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

He did! His clearing attempt was picked up by Alex Killorn and the Harvard Man slid it into the empty net. Maybe a cheap way to pick up a point, but it still counts. Carle was on the ice for almost 20 minutes (mainly because Victor Hedman couldn't stay out of the penalty box) and it shows Coach Cooper's growing trust in him that he was on the ice at the end of the game. If Anton Stralman comes back, Carle might not be the automatic scratch (I'm looking at you, Nikita Nesterov).

Thursday, April 14, 2016

One is the Loveliest Number

Let me start by saying this is not a traditional recap.  After all, how can anyone recap a game without actually watching it.  I love my job, but it is highly inconvenient to watching playoff hockey.  And while there are others out there that have a slightly higher work ethic, even I know that streaming a hockey game in the middle of the lobby while there are still 300 people left to check-in isn’t the best way to get a raise.

Checking in on the score via in between grabbing luggage for guests and directing all the priests in Chicago to the parking garage is a much more feasible way to know what’s happening and keeping my job. So consider this more of my thoughts and observations of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in Game One.

It’s always nice to get the first win out of the way, especially when you have home-ice advantage in a series.  Now they aren’t chasing anything in Game Two, and the Red Wings might play a little more desperate in trying for the split. The Lightning won by the way the Lightning have won a lot of games this season.  Ben Bishop stopped enough pucks and Nikita Kucherov scored all of the goals.  Well not all of them, but enough to win.

The reconfigured Triplets…more of a Cousins…line with Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn played the role of top line to perfection.  They generated all three goals and looked dangerous throughout the entire game.  MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV continues his quest to jump several tax brackets by scoring two goals and chipping in an assist.  Killorn scored the game winner on a nifty deflection while Johnson, concussed or not, looked like the Tyler Johnson of last year’s playoffs which doesn’t bode well for the Red Wings.

Moving Killorn to that line allowed Coach Cooper to drop Ondrej Palat to a line with Valtteri Filppula Jonathan Drouin.  While they didn’t record a point, they did generate some opportunities and looked like a viable offensive alternative.  Palat is the best two-way forward on the team and his play allows Drouin and Filppula to be their creative selves.

Speaking of Drouin, let’s get this out of the way.  If the Drouin that played 17 minutes against the Red Wings had played that way all season long he would not have been sent to Syracuse and then banished to his couch for part of the season.  This Drouin was much more aggressive (as seen by his cross-checking penalty and the hit he threw on Justin Abdelkader right before Abdelkader scored his goal.

That is part of what was lacking in his game.  He had a tendency to coast a bit and play reactionary hockey as opposed to asserting himself on the ice.  He doesn’t need to go full Doug Glatt, but he does have to show that he isn’t going to be pushed around the ice.  As Coach Cooper said in the post game presser, he earned those minutes on the ice.

Solid game by the Prodigal Son. Photo by Getty Images

My favorite moment of his was in the second period where he blocked a pass in the defensive zone, found himself on the open side of the defenseman at the blue line and took off like he was shot out of a cannon on a partial breakaway. Instead of looking for a pass he hesitated, drew the puck back and snapped a shot just wide of the net.  It showed his skill, his speed and a desire to score instead of setting up a teammate.

I did manage to watch part of the game on my dinner break (part of watching sports while working second shift is knowing when to schedule your meals).  I managed to get about 15 minutes of the second period in so I saw both Detroit goals, Kucherov’s game-tying goal, the afore mentioned Drouin play, and the little dust up in front of the Red Wings’ goal that led to a few penalties.

These teams are starting to not like each other very much.  This is what the NHL was looking for when they restructured the playoff format.  The Lightning and the Red Wings have now met in consecutive playoff years.  Last years series went 7 games and they split the regular season this year.  Bad blood is starting to develop and started to boil up at the 11:42 mark of the second period.

After the embattled Jimmy Howard made a save, Killorn was cruising by the net when 19-year-old Dylan Larkin thought he was getting a little two close and went to shoulder him out of the way. The young Red Wing didn’t take into consideration Killorn being a Harvard Man.  Using his knowledge of leverage and force, the Lightning forward dumped the rookie on his ass. Larkin’s teammates took exception and a good ol’ fashion scrm broke out.  I’ve read recaps from both sides of the aisle, Red Wing fans thought it was dirty, Lightning fans through it was just hockey.  I tend to lean toward the Lightning side of this one.  It happens every game. Larkin just went flying off his skates and it looked worse than it was.

The dust eventually settled and no one was worse the wear for it. Braydon Coburn managed to pick up two roughing calls at the same time (one against Darren Helm and one against Danny DeKeyser) which is awesome hustle. All of the penalties off set and they skated five on five.  But for the rest of the game both teams were on edge.

It’s nice to see the Lightning play with some anger in their game, but to quote Forest Whitaker in Rouge One, “If you continue to fight, what…will…you…become?”  The Lightning do not want to turn this into a special team’s battle.  They will lose that match-up.  Frustrating the Red Wings is one thing (hell Detroit has been doing it for years), taking stupid penalties is another.  Give a team like them enough opportunities and they will make you pay.

BRAYDON SMASH!!! Solid game from #55 Photo by Getty

While it was a little discouraging to see the Lightning get outshot in the first and second periods by a combined 26-20, it was nice that Tampa Bay tightened things up in the third and for the most part carried the play.  They also bounced back from giving up two quick goals and having a go-ahead goal wiped out by an off-side review. (Let the record show that the Lightning scored the first 3-on-3 overtime goal this year AND had the first video replay in playoff history go against them)

This is how the Lightning are going to win the series. By scoring ugly goals (Kucherov’s second was a result of him standing in front of the net and banging away at a rebound) and getting 30+ saves from Ben Bishop.  It’s not good for anyone’s health, but that’s the way it has to be.

The Hopeful Chase’s Three Stars:

3. Victor Hedman - The Big Swede played 26 minutes, had a game-winning goal wiped out by replay and was his usual calm, smooth-skating self.  Damn he’s fun to watch.

2. Ben Bishop - Another day and another 34-save game.  His stop on Brad Richards with the Lightning down 2-1 in the second was my key play of the game. If he doesn’t lunge across the crease and stop that shot, the Lightning don’t win.

1. MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV - Two goals and an assist.  His cap hit this year was $711,666.  His cap hit next year will be quite larger.

My next contract is going to be this big! Photo by Getty Images

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

Nope.  He did dish out 3 hits and take one shot in his 16:17 of ice time.  That seems about right for him in the playoffs.  Coach Cooper did a pretty good job of balancing out his blue line.  Hedman and Jason Garrison were the only two that topped 20 minutes, but every one else was between 12 and 18 minutes.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Tampa Vs. Detroit: Round Two - Some Playoff Thoughts

That time has come.  Most of the snow is gone, baseball is on the T.V. and the best playoffs in sports is about to get underway.  For the third year in a row, the Tampa Bay Lightning have made it to the second season.  They somehow survived six months of regular season play (by the way, my favorite line in A Few Good Men is Tom Cruise saying, “Six months. It’s nothing. It’s a HOCKEY season!” to Sgt. Dawson)* .  Six months of injuries, contract squabbles, suspensions and slightly underwhelming offense have lead the Lightning exactly where they were last year - hosting a first-round playoff series against the Red Wings.

The beauty of the playoffs is that, for the 16 teams that make it, the slate is clear.  Records don’t matter.  Previous play doesn’t matter.  The Washington Capitals and their 120 points have to win the same amount of games (16) as the Red Wings and their 93 points to get to the promised land.  Home ice advantage is big in Game 1 and Game 7, that’s why it’s worth winning games in regulation during the regular season, but those middle five games are up in the air.

So what are the Tampa Bay Lightning’s chance in the playoffs?  Decidedly middle of the pack.  Vegas Insider has them at 18/1 which is 10th out of the 16 teams (Caps are the favorites at 7/2).  On paper that seems about right.  If the team was 100% injury-free I could see them closer to 8/1 or 9/1.  Alas they are not injury free.  For the first round they will be without Steven Stamkos  Anton Stralman and Mattias Ohlund for sure.  They may or may not have Tyler Johnson while Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman will probably start at less than optimal condition.

That being said.  I kind of like their chances.  If I was, or had a buddy in Vegas, I would slap down a $20 on them at 18/1. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important than a good goaltender in the playoffs.  A hot goalie can take a team the distance and a struggling goalie can sink even the best playoff teams (see any non-Cup winning Penguins playoff team).  Ben Bishop, healthy and rested, can put the team on his back and get them back to the finals.

Why yes, yes he will have to bend over backwards over to help them win. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

He is at worst the third best goaltender in the Eastern Conference.  Braden Holtby has had a heck of a season but a losing record in the playoffs. Henrik Lundqvist probably has the unofficial title of best current goaltender to not have won the Cup, but hasn’t been as invincible as he normally is.  The Lightning won’t have to worry about either one of them until the conference finals and I’ll take Bishop in a 7 game series over Roberto Luongo, Steve Mason, and whoever the Penguins and Islanders have filling the net (Thomas Greiss and Jeff Zatkoff, come on down!)

As much as losing Tyler Johnson in the Finals last year hurt the team, the fact that Bishop could barely stand after making a save was the biggest reason they didn’t get past Game 6.  In order to advance you need a goalie that can steal a game or three in a series.  Based on his season this year, Bishop is that guy.

Of course, the one thing he can’t do is score goals.  The Lighting are going to have to rely on the likes of Jonathan Marchessault, Erik Condra and Brian Boyle for offense way to much for my liking.  Look for their opponents to shut down the Triplets line at every opportunity.  That line will be drawing the top defensive pairing all playoffs long.

Bonus Caption Prediction - Alex Killorn scores at least 2 big goals

So does Coach Cooper keep them together or shift Kucherov onto a line with Jonathan Drouin in hopes of spreading out the coverage a bit?  Well, knowing him he will try both approaches, several times. Last year it took the Lightning a few games to get used to playoff hockey - this year it seems they’ve been playing it since day one.  They’ve been more of a grind it out team then the high-flying offense we aw a year ago.  While they haven’t totally broke off their love affair with the pretty goal, they have done much better at focusing on getting the puck on the net and scoring ugly goals (Brian Boyle on the power play as exhibit number one).

Before the season started I had the Lightning as a team that would bow out in the second round of the playoffs.  I still feel that way. I do think they are better than the Red Wings, mainly because of Bishop.  If they get to the second round, who knows, maybe Stamkos is back. The nice thing about a blood clot (if there can be such a thing) is that it isn’t an injury that the other team can focus on (unless they put blood thickeners in his Gatorade).

Even with Stamkos out I’m way more nervous about the defense than I am the offense.  The thought of Dylan Larkin turning Matt Carle into a pretzel isn’t quite keeping me up at night, but it’s not a soothing cup of warm milk either. If Hedman is indeed healthy then Coach Cooper needs to run him into the ice Duncan Keith-style (without the post-whistle stick work).

Cooper likes to balance things out and keep Hedman and Stralman at a nice even 20-ish minutes a game.  That’s ok for the regular season, but in the playoffs you need your horses on the ice as much as possible and your Matt Carle’s playing a nice 12 minutes or so a game.  The Big Swede is 25-years-old, one of the best defensemen in the league and a potential game changer.  While he still has the occasional boneheaded play, he is still the best skating, puck-handling blue liner on the team.  Hedman at 70% is better than Carle at 110%.

However, it shouldn’t be all on Hedman’s shoulders.  Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn are going to have to step up their production as well. Coburn scored 10 points in 80 games this season. That’s not good.  That’s not good at all. We all heaped a tremendous amount of shit on Carle this season and he ended up with 9 points in 16 less games.  I know Coburn isn’t the 20 goal scorer he once was with the Flyers and he is one of the few Lightning players that knows how to throw a check, but he’s got to chip in more.

Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov need to keep doing what they do.  Just contribute, don’t make mistakes and fire off the occasional shot.  It will be interesting to see how Sustr plays in the postseason.  He ended up with 21 points on the season by picking his spots to join in the rush.  Will he continue to be aggressive or will he be a little more conservative since more is on the line? Ah the fun of the playoffs!

So I guess I’m picking the Lightning to win in six.  Bishop picks up two shutouts (including a 1-0 double overtime win).

Some other predictions:

By the time the playoff dust settles Jonathan Drouin scores more points in the playoffs than he did in the regular season.  He solidifies himself as a member of the organization and this weird, wacky winter is forgotten.

Jonathan Marchessault wins the Nikita Kucherov Award for the most “Why is Cooper benching him again!!!!” Tweets generated.  (The award went to Drouin in 2015).

The “Stamkos is skating/will he play?” storyline starts around Game 4.

Vlad Namestnikov plays with no less than 7 different linemates in five games.

Heart attacks in the Tampa Bay Area increase by 264% the at the exact moment Carle and Nesterov end up on the ice together against the Larkin/ Henrik Zetterberg/ Justin Abdelkader line.

Darren Helm and Tomas Jurco will score an inordinate amount of goals against the Lightning.

The reason people want to shoot Pierre McGuire this year is his harping on Pavel Datsyuk going back to Russia after this season.

My boss complains about my playoff beard by Game 3.

Playoff Beard 2011 (yes I was unemployed at the time. Why do you ask?)

The other series:

Panthers over the Islanders in five
Washington over Philadelphia in four
Penguins over Rangers in seven

Dallas over Minnesota in five
Blues over Blackhawks in seven (upset special!)
Anaheim over Nashville in six
Kings over Sharks in seven (best series).

Feel free to do what everyone in my family does and bet the exact opposite and collect your winnings.

*That’s a lie.  My actual favorite line is the “You’re a lousy f*ckin’ softball player, Jack”.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Dear God - That's Jo Drouin's Music! Enigmatic Forward Returns to the Bolts

So Johnny D is back in the arena.  The Lightning, beset with injuries (someone make sure Nigel Kirwan hasn’t had a camera fall on him or something), succumbed to the inevitable and recalled their prodigal son.  Now can their former top prospect help them clinch home ice advantage and spark a little life into their moribund offense or will he find himself playing six minutes a game?

Drouin has done what Tampa Bay asked since he got off the couch, turned off the X-Box and returned to the organization.  He has scored nine times in his last nine games with Syracuse and has, from reports, been an exemplary teammate.  Except for one alarm clock-related mishap he has kept his name out of the gossip news and on the score sheet.

Now the questions is, will Coach Cooper truly #FreeDrouin?  Let’s face it, having him play on the fourth line and grind away ice time with Brian Boyle and JT Brown was not, is not, and will never be the way to use the former first round pick.  Whatever his deficiencies, real or imagined, might be defensively with the puck, he has to be given an opportunity to score or else Tampa Bay might as well have called up Joel Vermin or Yanni Gourde again.

Drouin isn’t being brought so that Jonathan Marchessault or Mike Blundin (and his 23% shooting percentage) can move up to the top line.  As stubborn as Coach Cooper is, he has to realize that the Lightning need offense right now with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan out of the line up.  That’s what Drouin can provide,  even if it comes with the occasional turn over.  Heck he’s watched Val Filppula do it all season, why not let the young kid do it as well?

2013- The last time both of them smiled at the same time

According to a tweet by the Tampa Tribune’s Erik Erlendsson, it does appear that Drouin will get a shot at some top line minutes.  In the morning skate he was taking rushes with Alex Killorn and Vlad Namestnikov, which, for lack of a better combination, is now the default number two line behind the reunited Triplets Line. How long that lasts is anybody’s guess, but hopefully it’s more than three or four shifts.

Drouin wasn’t the only one called up.  Also catching the short flight from Syracuse to New Jersey was Evan Oberg….I mean Matt Taormina.  It looks like Taormina will slot in for Slater Koekkoek who was sent back to Syracuse.  Kind of an odd move as I felt Koekkoek actually played fairly well against the Rangers in his last game.

If you thought the forward lines were a mess for the Lightning, the defensive pairings are a train wreck.  Coach Cooper looks like he will split his veterans with the young guys as Jason Garrison was skating with Andrej Sustr, Nikita Nesterov with Hopeful Chase favorite Matt Carle, Tamorina with Brayden Coburn and the injured Victor Hedman with Nikita Nesterov. I am thinking that the coach goes with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen to spread out the ice time for his mish-mashed defense unit.

Matt Carle tries to stick check an opponent.  Photo by Bruce Bennet/ Getty Images

That….that…is going to be an adventure to say the least.  I’m assuming Garrison/Sustr will get the most minutes, but if that’s the top pairing going into the playoffs then the 15/2 odds of the Lightning winning the Eastern Conference are not high enough.  Since Hedman was skating, that’s a good sign he’ll be back by the time the fun starts next week, but the Lightning defense as is, is not good.

Erlendsson also tweeted that Ben Bishop was first off the ice so it looks like he’s getting the start.  How much Bishop plays in the last two games came up over on Raw Charge where our dear leader John argued that he should be benched for the next two games in order to rest up for the playoffs.

Valid points were made (especially since injuries severely hampered the MVP in both of the last two playoff seasons) and Bishop’s workload over the last three years has been rather heavy.  However, the Lightning need to win one of these next two games to lock up home ice advantage in the first round.  This year more than ever I think they need it.  For whatever reason they are a completely different team on the road then they have been in years past.  And while their home record might not be as locked in as it was last year, I’ll still take the chance of playing four home games in the first round over playing four road games.

My thought was to play Andrei Vasilevskiy tonight against New Jersey and then, if they don’t win, start Bishop against Montreal in the season finale.  That still gives Bishop plenty of rest over the last two weeks of the season while also giving the Lightning the best chance to secure those final two points (lets face it, New Jersey is a better team than Montreal at this point).  However, it looks like Coach Cooper is pushing his chips to the table and looking to lock up the number 2 seed tonight.

Whatever happens, let’s remember that somehow, someway, the Lightning have stumbled to 45 wins this season.  If they win their two remaining games, the 47 wins will be the second most wins in a season in franchise history behind last season’s 50 wins.  They have had a good year.

Forty-some wins with the injuries they’ve suffered is almost impossible.  If you look at games played, Alex Killorn is their only forward who hasn’t missed a game, heck he’s their only player who hasn’t missed a game this season.  They’ve been without their top goal scorer (Stamkos), their top THREE defensemen (Hedman, Garrison and Anton Stralman), two-thirds of their second line (Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat) for significant periods of time and they are still looking at one of the top seeds in the playoffs.

God bless what Gerald Gallant has done in Florida, but this might be Coach Cooper’s best coaching since he’s been in the NHL. The Lightning coach has not only had to deal with injuries but also the Jonathan Drouin situation and the Stamkos contract issues.  Granted, his best move has been to put Ben Bishop between the pipes 59 times this season, but still he has jerry-rigged this team into the playoffs. That has to count for something when it comes to the coach of the year awards,

Two games are left for the Lightning and they are chasing two points to lock up the number two seed.  Hopefully number 27 helps them do that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Game 78: The Game I Went To, and Something Happened

Game: 78
Opponent: New Jersey Devils
Score: 3-1 Win

So, sometimes you get really, really excited about something like, I don't know, going to a hockey game in your favorite team's arena. Then you notice something. Hey, the team is missing someone. Then it's officially plastered across the screen – Tampa Bay Scratches: Steven Stamkos. You try and remember if you saw him in the pregame skate and can't remember because you were to busy staring at the Tesla Coils and entering text numbers to hopefully win a free jersey or a 7-Day cruise.

You rapidly try to refresh your twitter feed to find out why he's out and your phone isn't working (and it's almost out of juice because you spent all day taking stupid photos of food). The conspiracy part of your mind starts to wonder if Coach Cooper is a big enough dick to scratch Stamkos in what could be his final home start in a Lightning uniform.

Then the game starts and you get lost in the casual conversation with a friend you've been going to games with since college. You forget that Stamkos isn't on the ice, well except for that one power play where they set up Vlad Namestnikov for a one-timer in Stamkos' office and he totally whiffed on it. And the next 5 power plays that they didn't score on, where even with the Captain they might not have scored, but would have looked a little more effective.

Victor Hedman scores a pretty goal and the Triplets start weaving their magic a bit so you forget again. No one is really too concerned, in fact no one around you is talking about it. Heck you're just happy that Punisher guy is still going to games. Then you flip through the free yearbook and see Steven's profile and you remember again.

But on the ice Ben Bishop is doing Ben Bishop things by stopping almost all of the pucks that get fired at him. Brian Boyle gathers a rebound and slides a nifty backhand under Cory Schneider's pads to give the team the lead. Hey it was on the power play! Awesome.

YOUR BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV then gets a chance with an empty net and because he is an enigmatic Russian he roofs it under the bar, perhaps the prettiest empty net goal the Lighting have ever scored. The Lightning win. Everyone high-fives and the team is one-point from clinching a playoff team. You grab a Lightning Playoff Yard sign even though it won't fit in your luggage and you don't have a yard to begin with.

You get back to the hotel and pop up your email and the first thing you see is:

Now your said again. Luckily your wife and your friends have come back from the Duran Duran concert and now you have someone to commiserate with. They make you feel better until they remind you of the other email you received earlier in the week:

You're starting to develop an intense dislike of Fan 590 emails at this point. A Lightning team that was built to go deep in the playoffs was now missing its #2 defenseman and its leading goal scorer for the next couple of months. Holding on to home ice in the first round was looking tenuous at best and winning at least one round seems like it would be a success.

At no point are you angry. Depressed sure. Morose, maybe. Fatalistic, mostly. After all everyone else in the top six has been hurt at some point, so why not the captain. Plus, why not add some extra Drouin drama to the end of the season. General Manager Yzerman alluded to the possibility that the young forward might be in the mix to be called up, but then Drouin came up gimpy as well and missed his next game in Syracuse. As many bad decisions the former first round pick has made he has also suffered some untimely injuries as well. Just not his year I guess.

Did I have a good time? Of course. Did I miss the chance to get Filip Kuba's autograph. I did. Did I win a jersey off of a players back? No. Did I win the 50/50? No, but at least it's a $20 tax write off.

A win is a win. The Lightning are two points closer to making it to the playoffs for a third consecutive year. Matt Carle gets to play some more. As does Jonathan Marchessault (maybe).

Did Matt Carle Get a Point?

Nope, but I did start an official Matt Carle fan club with the lady that sat next to us. So he has that going for him. I'm not sure if we're going to print T-shirts or not. Might have to see how many people are interested. Look folks, Steve Yzerman is having enough trouble trying to move the rapidly aging defenseman. Let's make it look like he's actually worth something by whipping up some interest about him. You never know, it might work.