On The Road With Dave Mishkin
Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Nashville Predators
Greetings from Nashville, where the Lightning take on the Predators tonight. As was the case two nights ago in St. Louis, the Bolts haven’t visited this city since the 2003-04 season. In fact, it’s been nearly four years to the day since the Lightning last played in the Music City. On February 5, 2004, the Lightning beat the Preds, 5-2. The most recent meeting between the clubs took place on December 10, 2005, at the St. Pete Times Forum, a game that the Lightning won, 4-3.
The Lightning are coming off a curious 5-4 victory in St. Louis on Tuesday. It was a game that the Lightning, on the strength of three goals in the first 14:55 of the third period, had well in hand. Yet the Blues scored twice in the final 4:56 to close the gap. The final five minutes prompted John Tortorella to tell the media after the game that “there’s no pride in the details of the game, there’s no pride in the goals against. You can’t even enjoy a win.”
But thanks to their play in the first 15 minutes of that period, the Lightning did win their fifth straight road game and got solid contributions throughout the contest from several different players. In particular, Craig MacDonald enjoyed an especially strong game: he posted an assist, won six of seven face-offs, produced a key block in the final few seconds and his line, with Chris Gratton and Nick Tarnasky, provided energy on each and every shift. Andreas Karlsson was solid defensively and won nine of 12 face-offs. His line, with Jason Ward and Mathieu Darche, also popped in the third-period goal that gave the Lightning the lead for good. Paul Ranger recorded his first regular season two-goal game. Tampa Bay’s big line of Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Marty St. Louis, despite being on the ice for those final two St. Louis goals, was on the ice as one unit for one even strength and one power-play goal (Vinny and Marty teamed up with Tarnasky for another goal while Vinny and Brad were on the ice for Ranger’s second goal). St. Louis finished with a goal and two assists and Lecavalier was credited with two assists (and may have a third added, pending a video review by the league offices).
But the Lightning’s struggles in closing out games are a point of concern and can be traced to a subject Tortorella discussed with the media on Tuesday morning: situational play. It’s about understanding where you are in a game and determining how you should react in that particular situation. Or “the details of the game,” as Torts put it. For example, it’s a common axiom in hockey that the shift after a goal is scored is very important for both teams. The club that scored the goal wants to build on that momentum, while the team that allowed it hopes to answer with a good shift to curb any potential opposition momentum. Twice on Tuesday, the Lightning surrendered a goal on the shift after they themselves had scored. Tortorella summed it up succinctly on Tuesday morning, stating that when the Lightning have been solid in their situational play, they have had success – and vice versa. He tabbed the Lightning’s troubles with their situational play as one of the main culprits for the team’s lack of consistency this year. Still, a win is a win and hopefully, the Lightning, now just eight points out of first place in the Southeast Division, can improve in that area during the final 28 regular season games.
Certainly, in tonight’s game against Nashville, the Lightning will try to use the formula that helped them build a 5-2 lead in the first 55-plus minutes on Tuesday. As referenced above, the Lightning got contributions from not only their top scorers, but also players like MacDonald, Tarnasky, Gratton, Karlsson, Ward and Darche. This is starting to happen with some regularity during the past few games and will need to continue tonight. Also, Tuesday featured an unheralded, but nonetheless solid performance by Johan Holmqvist, who made several key saves at key times, to prevent the Lightning from ever trailing in the game. Again, goaltending will be a key this evening.
The Preds helped out the Lightning by shutting out Carolina, 1-0, on Tuesday. The Predators have made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, yet many pundits felt the Predators had lost too many regulars off of last year’s team to compete for a postseason berth this year. Gone are Kimmo Timmonen, Scott Hartnell, Peter Forsburg, Paul Kariya, Scottie Upshall (who went to Philly in exchange for Forsburg last spring) and Tomas Vokoun. But with two months left in the regular season, Nashville occupies the eighth seed in the West and is just four points behind fourth-seeded San Jose. So how have the Predators proved the supposed experts wrong? First, Chris Mason and Dan Ellis have given them solid goaltending – with a team GAA of 2.58, Nashville is one of the top 10 defensive clubs in the league. Thanks to Tuesday’s whitewashing, they’ve combined to post eight shutouts, tied with Columbus and the Rangers for the most in the league. The Preds have gone 11-3-3 since New Year’s Eve and have the NHL’s best team GAA during that span. Second, their top line of Jason Arnott, Alexander Radulov and J.P. Dumont has accounted for 47 goals and is a combined plus-42. So for the Lightning, if they can produce offense against either Mason or Ellis, while keeping Nashville’s top line at bay, they’ll put themselves in a good position to win their sixth consecutive road game.