Last Saturday, during my pregame interview with Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher, he spoke about the caliber of the New York Rangers, his team’s opponent for the night: “According to most people, they’re the best team in the Conference. They’re big, they drive hard, they’re well-coached, they’ve got an unbelievable goaltender, they’re one of the top teams in the league with their defensemen. I think it’s our biggest test of the year up to now.”
What the Lightning saw on Saturday confirmed Coach Boucher’s statements. The Rangers are a terrific team. Their aggressive forecheck creates problems for teams attempting to break out of their own zone. In my opinion, in terms of exiting the defensive zone, the Lightning had more difficulty than in any other game so far this year. And in the third period, once the Rangers got the lead, they defended the Bolts very well. Their players were in proper position and the Lightning, prior to Steven Stamkos’ sixth-attacker goal with 21 seconds left, didn’t get very many open looks in the offensive zone.
Despite losing the game, 3-2, however, the Lightning passed Coach Boucher’s “test”. It was a very close game that could have gone either way. It’s true that the Rangers’ forecheck forced some turnovers in the Lightning end, but the Bolts also solved that forecheck many times. On three occasions in the second period, the Lightning broke out of their own zone so quickly and efficiently that they generated a two-on-one rush. Unfortunately, none of those odd-man rushes yielded a goal. Still, had one of those chances gone in, the game’s outcome might have been different. In short, the Rangers won because they made one more play than the Lightning.
Lightning players weren’t intimidated by this challenge – rather, they enjoyed the game. “We like those games. They’re fun to play,” Marty St. Louis told Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune afterwards. “The blowouts, yeah, they’re great and guys get on the scoresheet and everything, but it’s not as intense as this game was tonight. It was like a playoff game.”
The Lightning fans should expect similar types of games on this four-game road trip. Philadelphia is just 3-6 this year, but the Flyers are coming off a home win against Carolina and will be looking to exact revenge on the Bolts for Tampa Bay’s 5-1 victory on January 27.
What about the rest of the trip? The New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins and Rangers have some similar characteristics – namely, they defend extremely well and are capable of shutting down an opponent’s explosive offensive attack.
Look for all four teams to follow the Rangers’ blueprint of staying out of the penalty box. New York gave the Lightning only one power play chance on Saturday (and the Bolts scored on it). Tampa Bay’s other goal, as I referenced, was a sixth-attacker goal. The Lightning have scored at least one power play goal in seven of eight games this year and they netted nine power play markers during the five-game homestand. Lightning opponents know that the best way to contain this prolific power play is to avoid penalties altogether.
So unlike many of their high-scoring victories this year, the Lightning must be ready to win games on this trip in a different manner altogether. Scoring four or more goals a night may be tough to do. These figure to be hard, physical, grinding games. Each one will be a challenge. But such challenges also provide the Lightning with opportunities; chances to see how they can perform against some of the league’s best clubs.
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