ON THE ROAD WITH DAVE MISHKIN
|Tampa Bay Lightning @ Atlanta Thrashers
The Lightning’s recipe for success during the club’s five-game winning streak has been multi-faceted. Production from top players. Excellent special teams play. Commitment to a defense-first philosophy (from which offensive chances have been generated). And last, but certainly not least, outstanding goaltending from Johan Holmqvist.
Vinny Lecavalier leads the NHL with 32 points. Nineteen of those points have come in the last seven games and he has recorded eight points in the last two. The Bolts have scored 24 goals during the winning streak and Lecavalier has been involved in 14 of them. Marty St. Louis is also on a seven-game points streak (5g-9a-14p) while Brad Richards (1g-5a-6p) and Vinny Prospal (3g-5a-8p) have also provided offense. John Tortorella has often said that in order to win games consistently, “your best players have to be your best players.” Certainly, that has been the case during the past five games, but the Lightning’s top guns have not been the only ones to contribute. The defense corps has chipped in as well – during the winning streak, the Bolts have received three goals from Paul Ranger and two tallies each from Filip Kuba and Shane O’Brien.
The Lightning’s power play and penalty kill units have been impressive. During the streak, Tampa Bay has scored five power-play goals and surrendered only one goal while shorthanded.
For the most part, Lightning players have played sound defense – the team has blocked lots of shots (including 25 in Friday’s win over Washington) – which has resulted in an increased number of offensive chances. A good example of their transition game occurred in that Friday night Washington game. Late in the second period, Paul Ranger blocked a Shaone Morrisonn shot and countered on a three-on-two. Off that rush, Ranger snapped a wrist shot past Brent Johnson to give the Lightning a 4-2 lead. Still, John Tortorella stated this morning that the Caps outchanced the Lightning, 19-12, on Saturday and stressed that his club must recommit itself to tightening up its game tonight.
Holmqvist’s play has been both solid and spectacular. He has yielded only seven goals in the past five games – he has made all the routine saves as well as the nine-bell stops. He was particularly good in the Washington game, helping the Lightning overcome the afore-mentioned chance differential.
All of these components will need to be in place again tonight against the surging Atlanta Thrashers. Since starting the season with six consecutive losses, the Thrashers have gone 9-4-0. Much of that turnaround can be attributed to the play of stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marion Hossa. Kovalchuk, who has been Atlanta’s best player from the beginning of the season, leads the NHL with 16 goals. Hossa got off to a terrible start, netting just two goals in his first 10 games. Since being placed on a line with Kovalchuk and Todd White, however, Hossa has tallied seven goals in six games. The Kovalchuk-White-Hossa line has accounted for 19 of Atlanta’s 25 goals during those six games (of which Atlanta has won five).
So in addition to the keys outlined above, the Lightning need to limit the damage from Kovalchuk and Hossa. That didn’t happen, incidentally, in the last meeting between the clubs, when the Thrashers rallied from a 4-1 deficit to post a 6-4 win on November 3. Kovalchuk posted a hat trick in that game while Hossa scored a big goal late in the second period to pull Atlanta to within a 4-3 score. Lightning coaches calculated that Tampa Bay outchanced the Thrashers, 20-9, in that last game; the fact that Atlanta scored so many goals on so few chances is a testament to how dangerous Kovalchuk and Hossa can be.
Since their three earlier meeting against the Lightning, the Thrashers have shored up their defensive play as well. In fact, their best defensive effort came in their most recent game, a 3-0 road win at Carolina. Atlanta blocked 27 Hurricane shots in that game and Johan Hedberg earned the shutout. Hedberg struggled in two appearances against the Lightning this year, but he is 4-0 in his past five starts and seemingly on top of his game. So tonight’s game will be a clash of two teams both heading in the right direction for many of the same reasons.