Losing stinks. Especially when it happens twice to a division rival in a home-and-home series. The two Lightning defeats at the hands of the Florida Panthers last week were a kick in the stomach to the Bolts, who were coming off wins against division leaders New Jersey and Washington.
But when looking at Saturday’s 5-2 loss in Sunrise, the final result can’t be the whole story. The Lightning fired a season-high 49 shots on goal and according to Sun Sports’ statisticians, outchanced the Panthers, 22-11. The team forechecked effectively, created turnovers and had possession of the puck for the majority of the game, including nearly all of the first and third periods. In short, the Lightning executed their game plan to a tee and the way the club played Saturday is the way it wants to play each and every night.
So if that’s the case, how and why did they lose by three goals? First, goaltending is hockey’s great equalizer and Tomas Vokoun single-handedly backstopped the Panthers to the victory. What happened in the Lightning defensive zone is less cut and dried. Clearly, goalie Antero Niittymaki was not at the top of his game, but none of the five goals allowed was a blatantly “bad goal”; i.e., the kind of play that should result in a routine save, not a goal. Still, Niittymaki blamed himself after the game – he felt he should have made those saves, even though they weren’t necessarily routine. It’s also true that the Lightning had a couple of untimely breakdowns in front of Niittymaki and lost a few puck battles that preceded Panther goals, but that’s hockey. All teams have occasional breakdowns – the Panthers had them aplenty on Saturday – but it seemed that nearly every Tampa Bay miscue ended up in the Lightning net. So the loss resulted from a combination of Vokoun’s phenomenal goaltending and the Panthers’ ability to opportunistically and efficiently capitalize on their chances.
Still, it’s critical that the Lightning take the positives out of what happened on Saturday and build upon them. The 49 shots were the fifth-highest total in regular season franchise history. In addition, the Lightning had 19 others blocked and 17 more missed the net (a number that includes three shots off goalposts). So over the course of 60 minutes, the Lightning attempted 85 shots. The shot attempts were made possible because the Lightning skated in cohesive five-man units and put forth a buzzing forecheck. When we see the Bolts play so dominantly, it gives us a glimpse of what they can accomplish. We’ve witnessed it in wins this year over San Jose, the Rangers, Boston, Pittsburgh and last week’s Washington’s contest. The challenge now for the Lightning is to duplicate the effort on Monday in Carolina. Then again Tuesday in New York. And again during the four-game homestand that starts Thursday against Toronto. It’s tough to stay the course when a team is not rewarded for all of the good work it did in a game, but despite Saturday’s outcome, the Lightning cannot allow themselves to deviate from the way they need to play. If they maintain Saturday’s level, the wins will follow. And presumably so will their ascension up the Eastern Conference Standings.
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