Finally! That was the relieved expression from Lightning fans after the team produced a season-high six goals in Friday’s win at St. Louis. It had been a perplexing stretch of 11 games prior to Friday – the team had been shutout four times and had failed to eclipse two goals in eight of those games. With so much skill in the lineup, the offensive struggles were hard to comprehend.
On Friday, the Lightning were facing a team that was their mirror-image. Despite plenty of talented players on their own roster, the Blues were dead-last in the league in offense (the Lightning came in ranked next-to-last). Before the game, there was talk that one or both of the teams were due to break out of their goal-scoring slumps. Sure enough, the teams combined for nine goals – fortunately, the Lightning got six of them.
Marty St. Louis led the charge with three points and six others had two. Steven Stamkos and Jeff Halpern each netted two goals. But even more significant than the final statistics was the way in which the Lightning won the game.
In my previous column, I wrote about how getting key plays at key times was often the difference between winning and losing. Tampa Bay got those plays on Friday. After St. Louis’ first two goals, the Lightning answered on the very next shift. Brad Winchester scored a first period power play goal to give the Blues a 1-0 lead. But then Alex Tanguay made a play in the neutral zone to push the puck past St. Louis defenseman Barret Jackman and create a two-on-one. Tanguay fed Marty St. Louis, who deftly chipped the puck out of the air into the Blues’ net. The deficit had lasted only 33 seconds.
Early in the third period, T.J. Oshie sliced the Lightning lead to 3-2. On the ensuing shift, as the Blues attempted to exit their own zone, Tanguay again made a key play. He deflected the puck to Lecavalier, who maneuvered it into the St. Louis crease. It slid to the opposite post, where Halpern popped it in. The goal came 14 seconds after Oshie’s tally. Later in the third, Keith Tkachuk netted a power play goal and the Lightning lead was again down to one goal. Just over two minutes later, Ryan Malone made the key play in the offensive zone by winning a puck battle with St. Louis defenseman Roman Polak. He curled behind the net and swept the puck in front where Halpern scored his second of the period. The Blues would get no closer.
In addition to the quantity of key plays, there were other encouraging components to the win. Lightning head coach Rick Tocchet has commented throughout the year that the team has needed to get better at handling opposition “pushback”. In other words, when the opponent is enjoying a surge, the Lightning has had difficulty swinging momentum back on their side. The quick goals from the Lightning after the Blues had scored were the best responses the club has had all year.
Since he took over as head coach 16 games into last season, Tocchet has been preaching about the importance of getting to the net. On his first period goal, Marty St. Louis went there. So too did Halpern on both of his goals. Tocchet also stresses that his players need to have a quick release on their shots, so that goalies don’t have time to get set. On Stamkos’ second period goal, he ripped a one-timer into the net. A few minutes later, Kurtis Foster snapped a quick shot from the point past Chris Mason’s glove. The Bolts were following the game-plan and got rewarded.
And finally, the offensive outburst gave the Lightning margin for error. As I wrote in the previous piece, a lack of scoring magnifies the mistakes that are bound to occur over the course of a hockey game. Against the Blues, the Lightning did not play a mistake-free game. There were breakdowns on each of the three St. Louis goals. But unlike in many of the other contests during the 1-8-2 stretch that preceded Friday’s game, those mistakes did not cost the Lightning two points.
Let’s hope that the Lightning can build on these intangibles. Yes, it would be nice to score six goals every night, but that’s not realistic. The team can, however, draw on other aspects of this game. Not only withstand opposition pushback, but actually turn it 180 degrees. Get to the net on the regular basis. Shoot the puck quickly before the goalie can get set. And lastly, make those key plays at key times.