ON THE ROAD WITH DAVE MISHKIN
|Tampa Bay Lightning @ Carolina Hurricanes
How quickly things can change in a week. Entering tonight’s game at the RBC Center, Tampa Bay has dropped its last two (0-1-1), while the Hurricanes have lost three of four.
At least from the Lightning’s perspective, however, the team’s actual play on the ice has not appreciably dipped since the winning streak ended. In fact, Tampa Bay’s sloppiest game probably came in last Friday’s win against the Capitals, a game in which Johan Holmqvist helped the Lightning overcome a 19-12 “chance” differential. During the team’s next video session, Lightning coaches compiled examples of how the club deviated from Tampa Bay’s team concept. Lightning players responded with efforts against the Thrashers and Rangers that easily could have resulted in two more victories. But that’s hockey – sometimes, you play well enough to win and don’t (and vice versa). Against the Thrashers, the Lightning had a 3-1 lead in the third period, but three late penalties led to two Atlanta power-play goals and an overtime defeat. On Wednesday versus the Rangers, the Lightning managed only one goal because New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist played a sensational game.
Having written that, the Bolts do have room for improvement. Tampa Bay’s has gotten off to a slow start in each of its last four games and has trailed in the first period in three of those four games. The Lightning will need a better beginning tonight, especially because one would expect that the Hurricanes will be hungry to turn their own fortunes around.
In beating Carolina twice this year, the Lightning have outscored the Hurricanes, 11-2. But the lopsided finals belie how competitive those games have been. Both teams play an aggressive, attacking style and with a multitude of skilled players, can score goals in bunches. The Bolts are averaging 3.3 goals per game; Carolina is at 3.4 goals per contest. So each team’s objective tonight will be to spend as much time as possible in the offensive zone – for the Lightning, when they possess the puck in the Hurricanes end, then Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Justin Williams and the other Carolina forwards will have less of an opportunity to inflict damage on the Lightning.
But if the first two games are any indication, both clubs will enjoy stretches in which they carry the play, buzz around the offensive zone and generate scoring chances. What’s been the difference so far in the season series is that the Bolts, when they have had a momentum swing, have been able to turn those chances into goals. Carolina, on the other hand, has not been able to cash in when it has had the momentum. Holmqvist has played a large role in denying the Hurricanes during those stretches and the Lightning likely will have to rely on him again tonight. It would help if the Lightning avoided taking unnecessary penalties – Carolina owns one of the league’s most dangerous power plays. So it will be a key tonight for the Lightning to produce offense when they have the momentum and successfully weather the storm when Carolina surges.