On The Road With Dave Mishkin
Tampa Bay Lightning
@ New Jersey Devils
Greetings from New Jersey, where the Lightning and Devils hook up tonight at the Prudential Center. It’s the fourth and final game in their regular season series; the Devils have taken two of the first three contests.
The Lightning are coming off a 3-2 loss last night in Philadelphia. The game was eerily similar to Tuesday’s contest against Pittsburgh – the Lightning surrendered the winning goal late in the third period. John Tortorella has stated that in the final month of the regular season it’s imperative for the Lightning to begin recreating a culture of winning. In other words, Tampa Bay needs to re-establish a belief that it is going to win, no matter what the circumstances might be in a game. Unfortunately, the tough losses against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia can make it difficult to regain that mindset. Still, in both those games, the Lightning did a number of things quite well. Against the Pens, Tampa Bay generated 19 scoring chances. Versus Philadelphia, the Lightning limited the Flyers to only 10 chances. In both games, the Lightning gave the opposition all it could handle and were very difficult to play against. These are encouraging signs. Still, it seems that the Bolts are finding ways to lose games, especially in the third period. If they are going to build themselves back up and lay the foundation of a winning culture, they need to find ways to win these close contests.
Despite the outcome, there were other positive developments from last night. Once again, the Lightning got solid performances from their newcomers. Mike Smith had another good game, not allowing a bad goal and continuing to impress with his deft stickhandling. Jussi Jokinen posted his first goal as a member of the Lightning and added an assist. Alex Picard played strong defensive hockey and was named the game’s second star. It’s nice to see how well and quickly the recently-added players (including the three aforementioned guys as well as Jeff Halpern and Junior Lessard) are fitting in.
After a slow start to the season, the Devils are back near the top of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings. A nine-game winning streak from mid-November through early-December helped New Jersey in that regard. In many ways, despite the arrival of new head coach Brent Sutter, the 2007-08 Devils are following the recipe for success of their predecessors. Again, it starts with Marty Brodeur. He ranks among the goaltender leaders in GAA, wins, save percentage and shutouts. As a team, New Jersey has yielded only 154 goals in 67 games, good for a 2.27 team goals-against average. Only Detroit owns a lower average.
But as is usually the case with New Jersey, the Devils are not lighting the lamp with great regularity. They have only one player with more than 50 points – Zach Parise – and their 172 goals scored are second-fewest in the Conference. What this means is that the Devils are much more comfortable and effective playing with the lead than having to rally from a deficit. So it will be a key tonight for the Bolts to score first.
Avoiding turnovers will also be critical. The Devils feast on neutral zone giveaways, so the Lightning must be smart and patient with the puck as they travel up-ice. Generating scoring chances is not always easy against the stingy Devils and often when you do, Brodeur denies that chance. So tonight, when the Bolts do have an opportunity to bury one on Brodeur, they need to convert.