ON THE ROAD WITH DAVE MISHKIN
|Tampa Bay Lightning @ Florida Panthers
It was a tough loss for the Lightning on Saturday, as the team relinquished a 4-1 second-period lead and dropped a 6-4 decision to Atlanta. The Bolts have lost five consecutive games (one in overtime) and it might be easy for the players, coaches and fans to feel discouraged. But there has been a silver lining to Tampa Bay’s past two games; in both a 4-0 loss to the Islanders and the aforementioned Atlanta contest, the Lightning decisively out-chanced the opposition. Because of that fact, players and coaches are upbeat heading into tonight’s game against Florida.
Fans new to the sport of hockey may not be familiar with the “chance” concept. It’s not an official statistic and won’t appear anywhere in a hockey box score. Yet for coaches, it is one of the most important aspects of breaking down a game tape; more than shots on goal, the number of chances generally paint an accurate picture of how well (or poorly) a team played.
What is a chance? To an extent, it depends on the eye of the beholder (which is one reason why it’s not an official statistic). At its most basic level, a chance would be defined as a play in which a legitimate chance to score occurs. The word “legitimate”, naturally, allows for the interpretative component. For some coaches, a chance must include a shot on goal (by that standard, then, a breakaway in which the attacking player loses the puck off his stick before shooting is not a chance). Not all hockey people agree with that stipulation, of course. John Tortorella has stated that he and his coaches regularly have good-natured arguments about whether a certain play qualifies as a chance.
Although not everyone uses the same criteria, most coaches would agree that an unscreened shot from the point is not a chance, but a point-blank opportunity from the hash marks is a scoring chance. Tabulating chances for and against in a game, therefore, gives coaches a concrete idea of how frequently their team generated offense and suffered defensive breakdowns.
Naturally, as evidenced in the last two Lightning games, winning the “chance” battle does not ensure victory. A great goaltending performance can negate a team’s chance advantage – this happened on the Island, where Rick DiPietro shut out Tampa Bay, even though Lightning coaches counted 16 chances for and only 10 against. The opposition might convert on its chances at a higher percentage, which was certainly the case on Saturday, when the Lightning chances were in the high teens and Atlanta’s chances were only in single digits. The reason for those lopsided differentials is that Tampa Bay has shored up its defensive zone and neutral zone play, which has led to offensive zone opportunities.
The bottom line is about wins and losses, not chances, but Lightning players and coaches recognize how much better the team has played in the past two games (as opposed to the first two games on the New York trip, in which the Lightning were badly out-chanced). Since the Devils’ game, the Lightning are “playing the right way”, as John Tortorella puts it, and more often than not, the club that has the majority of chances does earn the victory. In commenting on the Atlanta game yesterday, Vinny Lecavalier told the St. Pete Times: “If we play like that again, we’ll win nine times out of 10.”
Not that it’s going to be an easy task against the Panthers, who have played very well against the Lightning during the past two years – especially in Sunrise. Tampa Bay has only one win in its last nine visits to the Bank Atlantic Center and dropped a 6-4 decision there on October 13. The Bolts must find a way to contain Olli Jokinen and Nathan Horton, who both scored goals in that earlier Panthers win this year. Also, Florida owns the sixth-best home power play percentage in the league, so a disciplined Lightning game will be in order tonight. Lastly, the Bolts will be without Dan Boyle, who stayed in Tampa so that he could get an MRI on his wrist. Therefore, as they did earlier in the season, the other defensemen will need to effectively eat up Boyle’s minutes. But all of this can be accomplished if the Lightning, as Vinny said, maintain their high level of play.