On a typical game day, Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher meets with the media in the morning following his team’s skate. It’s about eight hours before game time and he’ll discuss the particulars of that night’s game with a calm disposition. Sometimes he’ll crack some jokes, a wry smile spreading across his face.
Last Saturday in Sunrise, however, the game time was 3:00 PM and the team did not have a morning skate. Boucher talked to the media about 90 minutes before faceoff, just after he had held his pregame meeting with the team. He had his game face on and was fired up, bubbling with intensity. In my pregame interview, I asked him what things he was looking for from his team in the game. His response, which was likely a version of what he had just said to the players, was this:
“I’m looking for going from ‘working hard’ to ‘competing’. There’s a whole level beyond ‘working hard’. ‘Working hard’ is for losers. We need to compete.” Translation: the Bolts needed to be more committed to winning those one-on-one puck battles that are often the difference between victory and defeat.
My next question was whether he wanted his team to direct more pucks to the opposition net (the Lightning had been outshot in five straight games, even though in many of those, they’d created sufficient scoring chances to win). His answer:
“First of all, we got 12 Grade-A scoring chances last game (4-3 loss to Washington). That’s a lot of scoring chances. So it’s not about our scoring chances. We can shoot a lot more, so it’ll give us more (scoring chances), but it’ll mostly give us momentum. (But) it’s our turnovers that create our opponent’s offense and the number of shots they get.”
Lastly, when talking about the Bolts’ power play, which had produced just one goal in the previous five games, Boucher said: “Seventy-five percent of power play goals are scored on rebounds and tips. It’s about getting that puck inside the blue paint and fighting. Period.”
So heading into Saturday’s game, the Lightning were looking to accomplish three things: 1. Produce a higher “compete-level” in terms of winning puck battles. 2. Cut down on turnovers that surrender momentum and yield opposition chances. 3. Have a constant net presence, both on the power play and at even strength.
With his second period goal, Steven Stamkos has now scored a goal in seven straight games against the Panthers, tying Mario Lemieux for most all time.
Well, as Meatloaf once crooned, “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad.” The Lightning did a wonderful job throughout the game of competing for pucks. (This is reflected in their high hit total – 37 hits – illustrating that when a Florida player had the puck, the Lightning physically contested that possession.) In the first period, Vinny Lecavalier won a battle from Stephen Weiss and eventually fed Ben Pouliot in front for the Lightning’s first goal. Later in the first, a battle along the boards in the Panthers’ end allowed Matt Carle to hold in a Florida clearing attempt and set up Alex Killorn’s first NHL goal. In the second period, following a shift in which the Lightning were consistently ‘first on puck’, they worked the puck around until Eric Brewer set up Teddy Purcell for a point-blank chance. After a couple of rebounds, Steven Stamkos buried the Lightning’s third goal. And with the sixth attacker, the Lightning won repeated puck battles in the corners and behind the net, culminating in Stamkos’ feed to Purcell for the tying goal. These were just the plays that resulted in goals. There were plenty of other examples throughout the game that produced good scoring chances for the Lightning.
What about net presence? Both of Pouliot’s goals, Stamkos’ second period tally and Purcell’s tying goal all came from inside the hashmarks. (In fact, the Stamkos goal was the third of successive close-range shots from Purcell, Cory Conacher and Stamkos.) The Killorn goal was just outside the hashmarks. And while Stamkos’ power play goal was a top-corner blast from the circle, Lecavalier was in front for a rebound in case Florida goalie Jose Theodore somehow made a miraculous save.
The Bolts did continue to have issues with turnovers, particularly in their own zone. However, it was a disease that affected both teams on Saturday. In his pregame media session on Saturday, Boucher conceded that the lack of practice time throughout the league is a big reason why many teams are having consistency issues, the Lightning included. He said coaches around the league are looking for a balance between finding time to practice and giving players much-needed rest.
A final thought about Saturday’s game. While it wasn’t necessarily anything new to the Lightning’s game – or something that the players had to modify – the team’s resiliency was again on display. In the past three games, the Lightning have mounted third period comebacks. On Tuesday against Montreal, the Bolts scored three times in the final six minutes to force overtime. On Thursday, the rally fell short by one, but the Bolts did slice a 4-1 third period Washington lead to 4-3. And on Saturday, the Lightning battled back from being down 5-3 to tie the contest. This never-say-die attitude has been a hallmark of Boucher’s teams during his tenure as head coach.
Of course, the team would prefer to be leading, instead of trailing, in the third period. We’ll see if the Bolts can turn around that trend on Tuesday against the Maple Leafs.