Those of you who read my column from last week may be wondering if I am ready to eat crow. I described how the Lightning’s game “was rounding into form” and that the team was playing some of its best hockey of the year. At the time, the Lightning were one game into their current four-game losing skid and had gone 3-2-0 in their previous five contests. The team was playing with a high compete-level and relentlessness, I wrote. Tampa Bay was using its speed game to keep opponents back on their heels. And Head Coach Guy Boucher had found four line combinations that had chemistry.
So was I just dead wrong? Misread the tea leaves? How else could a team that was purported to be “rounding into form” lose four games in a row?
Well, I stand by last week’s premise. I trace the turnaround back to the team’s win at Florida on February 16, a span of eight games. There was one notable exception – last Thursday’s loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. In that game, the Lightning didn’t compete at a high level and, at least for the first half of the contest, were totally overwhelmed. They didn’t deserve to win that night. But in the seven other games, the Lightning have played well enough to win. That’s what makes the four losses in those seven games so hard to take.
Why the losses, then? If there has been one common denominator, it’s been that the Lightning have committed costly mistakes at inopportune times. The games have not been littered with Lightning miscues. But the opposition has been able to capitalize on these isolated mistakes. Last Sunday in Pittsburgh, a key Lightning turnover at the offensive blue line with under a minute left in the first period gave the Pens a three-on-two rush. Pittsburgh converted the chance to build a 3-0 advantage. On Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Buffalo Sabres only generated seven total scoring chances (the Lightning had 19). But two of those chances, following Lightning turnovers at the defensive blue line, resulted in Buffalo goals. They were the difference in the Sabres’ 2-1 win. And on Saturday afternoon in Boston, the Lightning gambled on a three-on-two shorthanded rush late in the third and a shot that missed the net ultimately yielded a two-on-one for the Bruins. Brad Marchand netted the winning goal on that play.
There have been other factors, depending on the game. In Pittsburgh, goaltender Anders Lindback did not have a good first period and the Lightning fell behind early. Tampa Bay’s comeback effort fell just short in the 5-3 loss (Pittsburgh tallied a late empty-net goal). Two nights later, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller played a spectacular game in net for the Sabres, holding the Lightning to just one goal.
There has been a bit of bad luck, too. Baseball isn’t the only “game of inches”. Hockey can be as well. Lately, the Lightning have been on the wrong side of the “inch factor”. Tampa Bay scored an early goal against Buffalo on Tuesday and had a 1-0 lead against a team that had lost four consecutive games and had been booed out of its home building in the previous contest. Later in the period, Ben Pouliot got a feed at the side of the net and had a chance to extend the lead. Miller was down and sliding across, so Pouliot put his shot up. It rang off both the post and crossbar and came out. If that goes in and the struggling Sabres are staring at a 2-0 hole, my sense is that the game ends differently that how it did. (Remember, the Sabres only generated seven scoring chances for the entire game.) Instead, Buffalo tied the score in the first when the puck caromed into the Lightning net off Lightning defenseman Sami Salo. The visitors eventually eked out a 2-1 triumph – and have used that win to right their ship; the Sabres followed up with victories over the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils, then got a point last night with a shootout loss to the Rangers.
Even in Thursday’s game at New York, as badly as the Bolts played at the start, they were only down, 2-1, late in the second period. While killing a penalty, Marty St. Louis appeared to be in position to finish the kill with a clear from the defensive zone. However, instead of going down the ice, his hard slapper hit the linesman at center ice and stopped there, giving the Rangers a final chance on the man advantage. They countered before the Lightning could change their tired players and ended up scoring an important insurance goal.
Then there was Saturday’s excruciating loss in Boston. With the score tied at two, the Lightning were killing a four-minute penalty late in the third period. For the first three and a half minutes, the Lightning did a magnificent job of taking away Boston’s time and space. With about 40 seconds left in the penalty, the Bruins’ Marchand collected the puck at the right circle. Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer knocked Marchand over and stole the puck. That began the three-on-two rush for the Lightning. After getting up, Marchand, instead of skating back hard to his defensive zone, complained to the referee about being knocked over. Consequently, he was in the perfect position to score the winning goal when the puck conveniently ricocheted back to center ice. Many things were happening on that play in a short amount of time – and the Lightning must absorb most of the blame for how it turned out. As Coach Boucher pointed out afterwards, in that situation a) if there’s a shot, it must hit the net and b) given the possibility of a missed shot and an odd-man rush the other way, the defenseman doesn’t need to join the rush. But the Bruins – and Marchand in particular – got lucky. Essentially, he got rewarded for giving up on a play. In hockey, that’s extremely rare.
Contrarians might point out that if a team commits costly mistakes, then maybe it’s not really playing all that well. My response would be that hockey is a game of mistakes; it’s nearly impossible to play a mistake-free game and in these four aforementioned losses, the Lightning’s opponents have also made mistakes. Those errors just haven’t been as damaging.
So what makes me reaffirm my premise from the earlier column? What I have seen from the Lightning over the past two weeks (again, with the exception of the game against the Rangers) is a team winning the majority of puck battles, forcing turnovers from the opposition in the defensive zone, possessing the puck for the majority of the game, generating more scoring chances than the opposition and using its speed to keep the other side off-balance. There has been a physical component, too. While the Lightning may not be known as a bruising team, they played such a game Saturday in Boston. The Bruins got out-hit at home, 20-13, a statistical anomaly that doesn’t happen very often. (Honestly, I don’t like the subjective nature of the “hit” stat, but I concur with what the total from Saturday’s game illustrated – that the Lightning met the physical challenge of playing the Bruins in Boston.)
It may seem counter-intuitive when the team is in the midst of a losing streak, but the Lightning don’t need to change much in their game. Cut down even more on those turnovers, yes, but the rest should stay the same. Sometimes in hockey, a team plays well and loses. More often than not, however, a team playing well gets rewarded. Hopefully, the guys begin seeing the benefits tonight in Pittsburgh.
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