On The Road With Dave Mishkin
Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Boston Bruins
Greetings from Boston, where the Lightning play the Bruins tonight at the TD Banknorth Garden. The Lightning have one win in three tries against Boston this year. Tonight’s game wraps up the four-game regular season series.
The Bolts have several objectives during the final month of the season. First and foremost, they want to win as many games as possible. I’ve written in previous entries how the Lightning want to recreate a culture of winning; it’s a long, difficult process but one that can begin now, especially if the team starts building a foundation of winning and feeling good about itself. Second, the team needs to make determinations on which players will earn contracts and/or potential playing time next year. This goal should dovetail with the first objective – players who make an impression will receive more ice time and the guys who fall into that category, because they’re playing well, should give the club a better opportunity to win games. Lastly, the Lightning coaches want to use this time to continue teaching the team system. Again, this will help the newer players become familiar with the system in advance of next year.
Since the trading deadline but prior to Tuesday’s game against the Islanders, the Lightning had been involved in a number of very close games. Excluding one game in Carolina (where the Hurricanes spent virtually the entire second period on the power play and broke open a 1-1 game), the Lightning had played six games in which the final margin of victory had been either one goal or one goal plus an empty-netter. The fact that the Lightning had lost all but one of those games – and most of them in excruciatingly late fashion – added to the club’s growing frustration. On Tuesday, though, the dam broke. The Lightning netted a season-high eight goals against the Islanders. They got contributions from all four lines, executed the team system and dominated play throughout. Just as importantly, for the first time in a while, the guys got a chance to feel good about themselves.
They’ll look to carry that good feeling into tonight’s game in Boston. Under new head coach Claude Julien, the Bruins have been one of the better defensive teams in the league this year. That team defense, coupled with the goaltending of Tim Thomas and Alexander Auld, has the Bruins in the Eastern Conference’s top eight. But they have struggled to score goals throughout the season and enter tonight’s game currently in a prolonged scoring slump, having netted only seven times in the past six games (1-3-2 record during that stretch).
What’s been odd about this 1-3-2 skid (which came on the heels of a six-game winning streak), is how helter-skelter state of their usually solid defense. On the one hand, the two overtime/shootout losses were 1-0. But they’ve dropped a 10-2 decision to Washington and an 8-2 game to Toronto. The Lightning will try to keep the good karma from Tuesday’s victory alive tonight and force Boston to play a leaky defensive game.
The Bolts will be helped by the absence of Zdeno Chara, who has missed the last couple of games with an upper body injury. The Lightning’s top line of Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Jussi Jokinen will have to exploit a matchup that won’t include Boston’s best defenseman. The Lightning themselves will need to defend well tonight. A team looking to break out of a scoring drought will make it a priority to get pucks and traffic to the net.
Finally, look for both goalies to play well tonight in rebound performances. Mike Smith is coming off a tough game in Columbus on Sunday while Tim Thomas has been pulled in each of his past two starts (the Washington and Toronto blowouts). Naturally, the goalie who outplays the other likely will be on the winning side this evening.