There’s an old saying in hockey that goes like this: if you can win most of your home games and stay .500 on the road, you’ll be in good shape to make the playoffs. (Lightning coach Jon Cooper has said he’d like his team to be above .500 on the road, but that’s understandable. He’s the head coach, after all, and expects more than .500 road play from his club).
The Lightning’s home record has been excellent all season – currently, they are 12-3-1 through 16 games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Heading into Tuesday’s game in Long Island, the Lightning are 7-8-2 on the road. At one point this year, the Lightning were 6-3-0 on the road, but then endured an 0-5-2 road skid. They snapped that streak on Sunday in Detroit.
Looking at those marks, one might deduce that the Lightning have played better hockey at home than on the road. But each game is its own individual entity. Tampa Bay has played well and poorly in different games, both at home and on the road. In fact, I believe that three of the Lightning’s best performances so far this season have taken place on the road – and two of them occurred after the Stamkos injury.
November 9: Lightning 3 Detroit 2 – OT. Part of the significance of this game was how the Lightning players seemed unaffected by the franchise’s previous struggles at Joe Louis Arena. Tampa Bay had recorded only one victory ever in Detroit – and that came in January of 1994. So the victory – and the way they won it – served as an emphatic turning of the historical page.
Tampa Bay had three gut-check moments in this game and they passed all three with flying colors. First, they yielded an early goal to Henrik Zetterberg. But instead of allowing Detroit to build off that momentum, the Lightning pushed back – and tied the game shortly thereafter with a Ryan Malone goal. Second, the Lightning got into penalty trouble in the second period and were shorthanded for nearly eight consecutive minutes. Detroit even had a brief five-on-three. But not only did the Lightning kill off all those penalties, they grabbed the lead a few seconds after the final infraction ended when Stamkos roofed a shot from the right circle over Jimmy Howard’s shoulder. Third, after Zetterberg tied the game late in the third, the Lightning charged back, controlling the remaining minutes in regulation and then winning the game in overtime.
But what made this game so impressive wasn’t only the team’s resiliency. It was how they outplayed the Red Wings, particularly in five-on-five play. The Wings had trouble with the Lightning’s team speed and the Bolts helped themselves get out of their own zone by playing a north-south game. Tampa Bay outshot Detroit, 13-7, in the first. And in describing the third period, here’s what I wrote following the game for Extra Shift:
The Lightning put on a five-on-five clinic in the final period. They had numerous chances to score an insurance goal, but Howard turned aside some of those scoring chances and others missed the net. Here’s just a sample of the third period looks they had when it was still a 2-1 game: Stamkos fired a shot off the post, Tyler Johnson was denied on a breakaway and put another shot just wide, Richard Panik roofed one over the net and Ondrej Palat cranked a shot wide of a partially open net. For the game, the Lightning had 16 shot attempts that missed the net and many of those came in the third period. While it’s preferable to have shots on net and not wide or high of the net, that stat is an indication of how the Lightning controlled play at both ends of the ice. With under four and a half minutes left, the Red Wings had recorded only three third period shots. But the fourth went in, when Zetterburg tied the game with a beautifully-placed shot over Bishop’s shoulder. As the Lightning have done throughout this season, though, they didn’t allow an opposition surge to snowball. They pushed back immediately and nearly won the game in the final minute of regulation when Johnson stole a puck in the Detroit zone and zipped a shot over the net.
Of course, they ended up winning in overtime, but the above passage shows how dangerous the Lightning can be when they use their team speed, play a north-south game and look to shoot the puck (34 shots in all) at every opportunity.
December 12: Lightning 2 Montreal 1 – SO. This was the game immediately after the Stamkos injury in Boston. Sami Salo and Keith Aulie also got hurt against the Bruins. Right after that game, the Lightning boarded a plane to Montreal and played the Canadiens the next night.
The reality of how long Stamkos would be out would eventually sink in a few games later, but because this was only the next evening, there might have been a “Let’s win this one for Stammer” adrenaline element in this game that worked to the Lightning’s advantage. Still, the Lightning players deserve credit for putting forth what was likely their best overall game of the season. If not for Montreal goalie Carey Price, the Lightning could have easily scored seven or eight goals. Maybe more.
All season long, Cooper has been looking for his players to shoot when they have a chance to get the puck to the net. It hasn’t always happened, but on this night, the Lightning followed their coach’s direction perfectly. Price saw shot after shot. 45 of them through regulation and overtime. Not all were dangerous chances, but even a routine save often led to an ensuring faceoff in the Montreal zone. Plenty of others were terrific scoring chances. Price, however, only allowed Ryan Malone’s early deflection goal.
Within the first five minutes, the Lightning had a 1-0 lead and a 6-1 shot advantage. The Bolts hit double digits in shots in all three periods. They effectively killed off three first period Montreal power plays. They had a goal disallowed late in the second. And, as was the case in the November 9 Detroit game, the Lightning pushed back immediately after allowing a late third period tying goal.
The fact that the Lightning won it in a shootout meant that the team that deserved to win did win. But again, it was the way they carried play that was the significant takeaway from this game. Speed, north-south, shots, resiliency.
December 10: Washington 6 Lightning 5 – SO. Wait a minute. How can I include a loss in my list of three “best” road games? It’s true that the Lightning had some issues in this one, especially on the penalty kill, which went only 2-5. And they allowed four goals to Alex Ovechkin, who, in Cooper’s words, “didn’t have to break a sweat” to score those goals.
But in terms of five-on-five play, the game wasn’t even remotely close. The Capitals had no answer for the Lightning’s relentless attack. Tampa Bay did it with the same formula that worked in the other two aforementioned contests. First, they used their speed, which created chances off the rush and, when the Bolts didn’t have the puck, took away Washington’s time and space (and created numerous turnovers). Second, they played north-south, which helped them break out of their own zone seamlessly and repeatedly, allowing them to utilize that speed. And third, they fired the puck, racking up 42 shots on Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.
Similar to the other two games mentioned in this column, the Lightning showed great resiliency. After seeing their 3-0 lead sliced to 3-2 early in the second period, the Lightning retook control – and extended the lead with a Tyler Johnson goal. Then, following Richard Panik’s major boarding penalty, during which the Caps tied the score with a couple of power play goals, the Lightning picked up where they left off before the infraction and dominated the rest of the third period. They got the lead back with an Ondrej Palat goal and Washington didn’t have any appreciable zone time until Ovechkin scored the sixth-attacker goal to tie it.
The Caps got one goal directly off a faceoff win and scored the other four with an extra skater on the ice. Tampa Bay’s PK struggles shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Lightning, like in the Detroit and Montreal games, imposed their will on the Capitals. If the Lightning play five-on-five like they did against Washington, they’ll win nine out of every 10 games.
Speed. North-south. Shots. Resiliency. Coach Cooper would probably add “staying on the right side of pucks” and “playing good D”. They are the ingredients to the recipe the Lightning seek every night. Of course, it’s hard to do – there’s another team out there trying to execute its own game plan. But that’s the template for the Lightning, one that will bring them success, regardless of where the game is being played.
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