On The Road With Dave Mishkin
Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Buffalo Sabers
Greetings from frigid Buffalo (even the natives I’ve run into today are complaining about the cold weather), where the Lightning play the Sabres tonight at the HSBC Arena. Buffalo has beaten the Lightning twice at the St. Pete Times Forum this year, including one overtime triumph.
Despite last Saturday’s tough home loss to Washington, the Lightning remain in the thick of the Southeast Division race. Tampa Bay has stayed within striking distance of the division’s top spot thanks to an 8-4-1 stretch in its last 13 games. Furthermore, the Bolts have helped themselves with their terrific road play in 2008 – Tampa Bay is 7-0-2 away from home since a January 3 loss in Montreal.
The reasons for Tampa Bay’s improved overall (and road) record have been well-documented. The Lightning have gotten contributions from every player on the roster and seem to have found their team identity. The Lightning are playing a puck-possession game and that style has allowed the team to generate a high number of scoring chances every night. Not only are the top scorers producing points, so too are the depth players. Dan Boyle’s return has been a big factor, too; he plays typically 30 or more minutes a night and does so at a level only a few other NHLers can match. Also, both goaltenders are performing well and giving the team a chance to win every game.
The Lightning have been good in their recent wins, but they’ve also been impressive in their last three defeats. The common denominator in those losses – February 1 vs. Florida, February 9 in overtime at Atlanta and last Saturday against the Caps – has been how the opposing goalie stole the game for his team. I’m not implying that the Lightning played an error-free game in any of those contests. What I do believe, however, is that the Lightning, if not for an incredible goaltending effort against them, would have won all three of those games. A goaltender, of course, can single-handedly win or lose his team a game and I’m not implying that the Panthers, Thrashers and Caps didn’t deservedly reap the rewards from their goalie’s play. My point is that the Lightning have been playing well and, just as importantly, consistently over the last few weeks.
Tampa Bay will have to maintain that level of consistency tonight. The Sabres have been a tough opponent for the Lightning since the lockout ended; Tampa Bay has just one win in its past 10 games against Buffalo. Of course, the 2007-08 Sabres do not have all of the same players who helped them reach the Conference Finals in 2005-06 and win the President’s Trophy in 2006-07.
This year’s Buffalo team might be the streakiest club in the league. They’ve had separate five and six-game winning streaks that came after an early-season 1-5-1 skid. Then they went 1-7-5 (including an 0-5-5 streak) from late December until mid-January, but followed that up with an 8-0-2 stretch. Now they’ve lost two in a row and we’ll see if the Lightning can “help” Buffalo continue its current streak.
Due to those last two defeats, the Sabres have dropped into ninth place in the tight Eastern Conference standings, just two points behind the Bruins and Flyers, who are tied for the seventh and eighth spots. So both the Lightning and Sabres should compete tonight with playoff-type desperation, which hopefully will make for a very entertaining game.