Earlier today, when reflecting on the Lightning’s just-completed four-game homestand, I noted the parallels between those games and my last two columns. In early January, I wrote about how most of the league is battling inconsistent play. Those teams that can reach a level of consistency will be poised to quickly move up the standings. In the meantime, they hope to cobble together points during the games in which they are not at their best. The following week, after a 5-2 Lightning loss in Sunrise, I pointed out how well the Bolts had played in that game and that they were hoping to build on all of the good things they did that night, i.e.; get on the road to consistency.
So how did the four-game homestand relate? And more importantly, what did the homestand, in which the Lightning racked up seven of eight points, tell us about the Bolts?
The Lightning began the homestand still struggling to find a consistent groove. They weren’t at their best in the first half of the homestand. But the combination of a great goaltending performance and timely scoring can help a team overcome an off-night. That’s what happened against Toronto and especially, versus Atlanta.
In the game against the Maple Leafs, it felt as though the Lightning were defending most of the first two periods. Thanks to Antero Niittymaki, though, the Lightning trailed only 2-1 in the third. Then the team picked up its overall game and played an excellent final half of the third period. They rallied to win after Ryan Malone tied the score with a power play goal and Marty St. Louis netted an overtime power play tally. Goaltending and a couple of key offensive plays were the team’s winning formula.
Two nights later against Atlanta, the Lightning enjoyed a solid opening five minutes, but spent the rest of the night back on their heels. Again, success hinged on Niittymaki’s netminding and the team getting a two crucial offensive plays. After Nik Antropov gave the Thrashers a 1-0 lead in the first, the Lightning answered with a Steven Stamkos power play goal shortly thereafter. That was their first key offensive play. The Thrashers controlled the rest of the game, but due to Niittymaki, they couldn’t break the tie. Afterwards, Lightning coaches credited the Thrashers with 25 scoring chances for the game (which doesn’t include their five shootout attempts, all of which Niittymaki stopped). Then, in the fifth round of the shootout, Jeff Halpern beat Johan Hedberg with the winning goal. It, of course, was the team’s second important offensive play.
The Lightning car had reached its desired destination, but everyone in the organization acknowledged that not all was well under the hood. So the team spent the next several days practicing its defensive zone play. The hard work paid off against Montreal last Wednesday. The Lightning grabbed an early 1-0 lead and after a few shaky shifts in the first period, executed the game plan perfectly in the second and third. It reminded me of the aforementioned contest in Sunrise – the Bolts were dictating play and doing what they wanted to do, not reacting to what the opposition was doing. Oh, and Niittymaki was again superb in net, picking up his first shutout win of the season. It was a game that could be a stepping stone toward consistency.
Friday’s game against Anaheim was the team’s only loss in the homestand, but in many ways, it was the club’s most significant. This felt and was played like a playoff game. It featured two teams outside the top eight battling hard to move up the standings. Both teams played with a snarl – there were several altercations, both after and before whistles. And it was even, in virtually every sense of the word. The score stayed 1-1 through regulation and overtime, shots were 32-31, and both clubs surged at points during the game. The second period was Tampa Bay’s weakest – after a couple of early chances for the Lightning in the frame, the Ducks controlled the puck for most of the rest of the period – but despite the fact that they spent much of the second in their own zone, the Lightning didn’t yield too many scoring chances. Then they bounced back in the third, amped up their own intensity level and had several opportunities to win the game. It was good to see that after taking a proverbial punch from the Ducks in the second, the Lightning pushed back in the third and overtime.
Seven out of eight points is great. And it would have been even nicer had the Lightning picked up all eight. But the Anaheim game shows us that we can’t always just look at the final score. As we approach the Olympic Break and then the final sprint to the end of the regular season, the Lightning can expect more playoff-type contests like Friday’s. They’ll need to respond the way they did against the Ducks. The Lightning didn’t win Friday, but I believe they came out of it stronger than they were before it.
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