Tampa Bay continues to pace the Eastern Conference after back-to-back tests against the West at Amalie Arena over the weekend.
The Lightning saw a 10-game home victory streak stopped by the Los Angeles Kings -- winners of two of the last three Stanley Cups – in a 4-2 loss Saturday. The Bolts rebounded with an impressive 5-3 triumph over the Anaheim Ducks, who entered Sunday’s game as, points-wise, the top team in the NHL.
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Lightning this week with a date against the Predators in Nashville on Tuesday before Thursday’s home rematch versus the St. Louis Blues. As the week begins, the Predators are first in the NHL with 76 points, and the Blues beat the Lightning in overtime 2-1 in one of the better performances the Bolts have turned in this season.
Sunday’s statement win over the Ducks gives Bolts fans confidence, though, as a grueling February continues. What else did it tell us? Let’s take a look.
1. BOILER ROOM, PART II
Three days ago, I wrote in this space about Brian Boyle’s versatility following a stint as an emergency defenseman when Jason Garrison went down in the road win over Dallas.
On Sunday, Boyle continued to prove his invaluableness to the Lighting with two goals and 13-plus minutes of high-quality play in multiple situations to lift the Bolts past one of the NHL’s best teams.
Boyle kills penalties. He wins faceoffs. He’s always on the ice in end-game situations. And he can alternate between center and defenseman, as he proved once again against Anaheim when Luke Witkowski was sidelined briefly in the second penalty.
“I can’t say enough about what Brian’s done for us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He wins us big draws. He’ll block that big shot for you. We’ve run a little thin on the D corps and you can put him back there and he seems to make plays all over the ice for us…It’s not sitting here saying, ‘Brian Boyle’s a 20-minute player.’ He plays his 13, 14, but it’s an effective 13, 14.”
Following the game, Cooper was asked if it’s unfathomable to think Boyle could end up with 20 goals considering all the other facets he brings to the team.
Boyle has 12 in 55 games following his pair on Sunday.
“That’d be unreal if he did,” Cooper answered. “We needed that type of player in our lineup, and he’s just got that big-game experience.”
2. PASSING GAME ON POINT
Tampa Bay’s passing was perhaps the best it’s been all season in Sunday’s 5-3 victory against Anaheim.
Nikita Kucherov’s third goal in three goals is a perfect illustration.
Late in the first period with the Bolts already up 2-0 and looking for more, Tyler Johnson took a short pass from Kucherov and skated down the ice along the left wing. Kucherov broke off toward the far post, creating a 2-on-2 scenario. Johnson lined up a wrister as if to shoot, but sent the puck ahead for Kucherov on the doorstep at the last moment.
Kucherov had Ducks’ defenseman Cam Fowler on his back and the goal approaching quickly. Johnson’s pass was perfectly-placed, just far enough so only Kucherov could reach it with a backhanded stretch. Once Kucherov got a stick to the puck, all he had to do was redirect it into the open net.
Tampa Bay is already maybe the fastest team in the NHL. If the Lightning can continue passing as well as they did Sunday, their speed can become even more effective.
As in five goals against the best team in the West effective.
3. WITKOWSKI BRINGS THE BOOM
Luke Witkowski has played a valuable role for the Lightning in his six games, stepping up from the AHL and into major minutes on the Bolts blue line with injuries to Matt Carle (torn adductors in lower abdomen), Radko Gudas (knee surgery) and now Jason Garrison (short-term lower-body injury).
Witkowski brings a much-needed physical presence to the Bolts, which he displayed during a 50-second long bout against the Ducks’ Patrick Maroon, a known fighter in the NHL.
At one point midway into it, Witkowski went down to a knee, and it appeared the fight was over. The Holland, Mich., native wasn’t about to give up so easily though and got back up to keep brawling for another 20 seconds.
Maroon definitely won the decision -- all three judges scoring the fight ruling in favor of the 26-year-old -- but Witkowski earned Maroon’s respect, which he showed by tapping the Lightning rookie on the helmet after the refs broke the two up.
It was a big step for Witkowski, his first NHL fight. And he acquitted himself well.
He’ll need to continue bringing the boom for the Bolts as the regular season progresses.