1. How good has Brayden Point been so far this season for the Lightning? It was great to see him get rewarded on Saturday when he scored his first NHL goal. But, as Jon Cooper stated in the postgame press conference, Point's value to the Lightning this year has not been accurately reflected in his stat line (1-4-5 through 12 games).
The most noticeable part of Point's game so far has been his ability to consistently generate scoring chances. Prior to his power play tally against New Jersey, he had had so many opportunities to score. But opposition goaltenders had repeatedly denied him. That's just one reason why everybody was so happy for him when he finally netted the first one. Based on the number of his previous chances, he was due. And deserving. The goal on Saturday came on his 29th shot of the season - only Steven Stamkos (45) and Jonathan Drouin (30) have posted more shots than Point so far this season.
But his outstanding play has not been limited to his work in producing scoring chances. He has been solid in every area of the game, in every area of the ice. When he gets the puck in the defensive zone, he makes a play to get out, either by passing it or carrying it. He's playing a north-south game, so that he's able to attack the offensive zone with speed. He's responsible defensively, so his positioning is sound when the Lightning don't have the puck. And he plays a hard game, usually winning 50-50 puck battles with the opposition. When he has the puck in the offensive zone, he's not only getting those aforementioned chances, he's also making plays to set up his teammates.
In its most simple form, hockey is a game of decisions. Each player on every shift is constantly making decisions about where to go and what to do. Adjusting to the NHL can be challenging for young players because those decisions must be made at a faster rate than what they were accustomed to in amateur hockey or the minor leagues. There's no stat to quantify the number of good decisions a player makes over the course of a game. But if there were, Point would be posting a very high percentage. That's why Cooper called Point "one of the best players on the ice" in a number of games this season. Here's hoping the goals will start to come in bunches now that the first one has gone in. And that, as the season progresses, he'll maintain the outstanding level he has set.
2. What are we to make of the Lightning's first period struggles? They've been held without a first period goal in nine of their opening 12 games. They've trailed after one period in six of those 12 contests, including in five of six home games. Four times they've spotted the opposition a 2-0 lead in the first - three of those have come at Amalie Arena. The fact that they've rallied to win (or at least post a point) in four of the six games that they've trailed after one period is impressive, but it's not a formula conducive to sustainable success.
I don't believe every one of these first periods has been identical. There have been some first periods in which the Lightning have not gotten rewarded for their solid play. The first periods in Ottawa on October 22 and in Montreal on October 27 come to mind. As I mentioned in a previous column, the Lightning's first period against Detroit on opening night ended with the Red Wings up 2-0, but the Lightning's overall game wasn't bad (and just got better and better in the second and third periods). Let's not forget that there have also been the two games in which the Lightning erupted for three first period goals - October 25 at Toronto and November 1 at the New York Islanders.
But there have also been some clunker first periods. The worst of the bunch came in both home games against New Jersey. The Bolts were behind 2-0 and 1-0 after 20 minutes in each of those games and had to rally. They also were flat in the early part of the first period on November 3 against Boston, another game in which they were down, 2-0. So two of their worst first period performances have come in the past two games. The Boston contest was the first game back home after a long road trip and teams do seem to struggle in those types of circumstances. But those circumstances didn't exist in their poor start against the Devils on Saturday.
It's just a guess on my part, but I wonder if some of the Lightning's first period troubles (which have been more pronounced at home than on the road this year) stem from the high standard they've set at Amalie Arena over the past few seasons. The Lightning have made Amalie Arena a tough place to play for visiting teams. So the opposition knows it must bring its "A" game when it plays the Lightning at Amalie. Through six home games so far this year, the Lightning have not seen a subpar performance from an opponent. The Lightning have to expect that trend will continue. It's the price that comes with having success. So if the opposition is going to be clicking on all cylinders at the start of a game, the Lightning have to match that level.
3. In last Thursday's game between the Lightning and Boston Bruins, the Bruins scored a first period power play goal to extend their lead to 2-0. Jon Cooper used his coach's challenge. The linesmen reviewed the play to see if Brad Marchand, who had accepted a pass as he skated in to the offensive zone, was offside.
It was a tricky replay because, based on the location of the main center ice camera, Marchand was along the near side boards. So the position of his skates wasn't visible from that camera. Eventually, the linesmen looked at a view from behind the Lightning goal. From that angle, it appeared that Marchand lifted his back state before the puck crossed the blue line onto his stick, then put his skate back on the ice after the puck was into the zone. His front skate was already across the line before the puck arrived.
I use the phrase "it appeared" because, in looking at our television in the radio booth, it did appear that his back skate was up, meaning that the play was offside. I don't know what it looked like to the linesmen, who were viewing the replay on an IPad. But they ruled that the replay was "inconclusive" and therefore, the play was onside and the goal would stand.
In his postgame press conference afterwards, Cooper simply stated, "the play was offside" and that he would challenge that call "100 times out of 100". To him, with the benefit of a big screen replay, there was nothing inconclusive about it.
Here's my take. First of all, I don't have an issue with the referees reviewing a coach's challenge for goalie interference. Some feel that an official who made an initial call shouldn't be the one determining whether that call will be overturned. I'm not in that camp. I think that an official making a call during live action is reacting to what he sees at that moment. If the replay confirms what he thought he saw, great. But if the replay shows him something different from what he thought he saw, he'll be empowered to overturn it. And ultimately, it should be his decision because goalie interference is an official's judgment call. The referee has to determine whether whatever contact occurred prevented the goalie from stopping the shot that went into the net. It's not black-and-white.
Offside is different. Offside is black-and-white. Similar to the question about the puck crossing the goal line (and those plays are reviewed in Toronto, where league officials have the benefit of big screen televisions to watch replays), an offside challenge asks which entered the offensive zone first. The puck or the player?
I suppose there could be an inconclusive call if every camera's view of the player and puck is shielded. But that wasn't the case with the Marchand play. It was just that the linesmen couldn't make the call based on what he saw on the IPad screen.
There are two potential solutions here. First, in such a circumstance, the linesmen can ask Toronto for help. The point here is to get the call right. Because offside is not a judgment call, league officials in Toronto looking a screen much larger than an IPad can provide assistance. (This is assuming that linesmen are still the ones reviewing the challenge and that this call doesn't become another Toronto review, which already include kicked-in pucks, pucks across the goal line and potential goals put in by a high stick.)
There's a second solution and this suggestion comes from hockey writer Erik Erlendsson. The NHL could amend the offside rule so that a player straddling the blue line is onside, even if his back skate is in the air. Think of the plane of the goal line in football. Under this standard, a player is only offside if his whole body is across the blue line before the puck.
What's interesting about Erik's thought is that it takes into account the real spirit of the offside challenge - and why the challenge was introduced in the first place. The league doesn't want a goal scored after an egregious offside call was missed. That's what happened a few years ago in a game between the Avalanche and Predators.
That's understandable. On the other hand, we're seeing goals taken away simply because an attacking player straddling the blue line thinks he's onside, but happens to lift his back skate at the wrong moment and barely throws himself offside. Technically offside, but not egregiously so.
Anyway, I thought Erik's suggestion made sense and wanted to pass it along. It seems as though the league easily could make such a change to the rule, but only time will tell.