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Mishkin’s Musings – Breaking Down The Road Trip

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

What a difference a week can make.

Heading into last Saturday’s home game against the New York Rangers, the Tampa Bay Lightning were 6-1-0. They were averaging over five goals scored per game and had just netted eight goals in a blowout win over Winnipeg.

But the Bolts lost the final game on their homestand, 3-2, to the Rangers, the first of what is now a four-game losing skid.

The last three of those defeats came on the team’s recently-completed road trip, on which the team only managed four total goals. What went wrong for the Lightning in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York? Here are some of the factors that went into the 0-3-0 road trip.

Quality Of Opponent:

Many pundits picked the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup this year. The Devils are the defending Eastern Conference Champions. The Flyers have not gotten off to a great start this year – and they’ve got some injury issues, but they have one of the elite goaltenders in the game. In short, this was not an easy road trip.

In the first game, Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov was terrific in holding the Lightning to only one goal. In the first period of that game, he made two sensational stops on Cory Conacher and Steven Stamkos. The only shot to beat him was Benoit Pouliot’s perfectly-placed shot underneath the crossbar.

As I mentioned, the Flyers don’t have all their regulars in the lineup, but they played a hard, committed game last Tuesday. They remembered the 5-1 shellacking the Lightning laid on them earlier in the season and were focused on maintaining a high “compete-level”. Consequently, they didn’t yield as many scoring chances as in the first meeting. When they did surrender a chance, Bryzgalov – with the exception of the Pouliot goal – bailed them out.

Tampa Bay dropped to 1-4-0 on the road this season, but returns home this week to kick off a pair of games beginning Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where it has won all but one of its six games on the year.

The Devils, in general, don’t give the opposition time and space to make plays.

The Lightning had a hard time generating good looks on Martin Brodeur, who, like Bryzgalov on Tuesday, made some key saves at critical times. I was struck by how well the Devils defended in the third period, before they broke the game open with two five-on-three power play goals. The Lightning, down 2-1 at that point, had most of the puck possession in the frame, but couldn’t find any cracks in the Devils’ team defense.

I recall only two good chances for the Lightning in the third when it was still 2-1. The first was when Nate Thompson fired a tough shot from the slot during the opening shift, with the second coming on Stamkos’ missed open net on a rebound attempt.

The Rangers are also capable of shutting down the opposition, and on Sunday, they did that in the third period (the first and second were another story). But carrying a 3-1 lead into the final period, the Rangers defended as well as any team has against the Lightning in any game this year.

Missed Chances:

In racking up 37 goals in their first seven games, the Lightning efficiently capitalized on their chances. It’s unrealistic to expect that the team would continue to pump in goals at such a prolific rate. During the current skid, however, the Bolts have been a bit snake-bitten. Credit the opposing goalies with some critical saves, but also the Lightning have missed some glorious chances. Stamkos’ open net opportunity in New Jersey would have tied the game at 2-2. In the first period against the Rangers, the Lightning had, by my count, five separate odd-man rushes. None resulted in a goal. The Lightning power play, so hot early in the year, dried up on the trip. The Bolts didn’t convert one power play chance in the three games. Even one power play goal, particularly in the Philadelphia and New Jersey games, could have made a big difference. The Lightning didn’t cash in on their chances on this trip. The opposition did.

Mistakes At Critical Times:

In each of the three road games, the Lightning made critical mistakes at crucial times and got burned. In the Philly game, the Bolts yielded a three-on-two in the third period that resulted in the winning goal for the Flyers. Against the Devils, the Bolts committed a costly turnover while on the power play and Ilya Kovalchuk scored a shorthanded goal to give the Devils the lead for good. And on the road against the Rangers, while the Lightning were firing blanks on their odd-man rushes in the first period, the Bolts had two costly turnovers in the opening frame that the Rangers converted into a 2-0 lead.

It’s an understandable reaction, after a team loses four in a row, to feel as though the club’s entire game is in disarray. But, as Boucher has said many times, “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win. And you’re never as bad as you think you are when you lose.”

Boucher was quick to point out that the Lightning did do some good things on the trip.

Namely, they defended well, especially in the defensive zone. Their mistakes may have been crucial, but they were also relatively isolated. Like their opponents, the Bolts didn’t give up many scoring chances in these games. Against the Devils, Boucher said that the Lightning actually outchanced New Jersey at even strength. The Devils racked up some late scoring chances on their lengthy power plays opportunities. As for the missed chances, at some point the pendulum is going to swing back in the other direction for the Lightning. Maybe it’ll happen on Tuesday back at the friendly confines of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the Bolts have posted a 5-1 record so far this year.

But certainly, if the Lightning are going to be a successful team on the road this year, they’re going to have to find a way to overcome these obstacles. They’ll need to convert their chances and limit those ill-timed mistakes. And when they face a team playing great defense, like the Devils or Rangers, the Bolts must be, as Coach Boucher says, “patiently aggressive”.

Physically aggressive in pursuing pucks and taking away the opponent’s time and space, but mentally patient about the process of generating scoring chances. One of the reasons why the Rangers played such a crisp third period on Sunday was that the Lightning, according to Boucher, were trying too many “hope” plays; high-risk passes that have a low rate of success.

After the next two games at home, the Lightning visit Florida on Saturday afternoon.

We’ll see then if the Bolts can start to reverse their road fortunes.

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