Two games. Two days. Two completely different results. The way the Lightning played Monday afternoon in their 4-3 loss on Long Island was in stark contrast to Tuesday’s 4-1 triumph at Carolina.
In the front end of the back-to-back, the Lightning, according to Head Coach Guy Boucher, yielded 24 scoring chances to the Islanders. (By comparison, the Bolts allowed only 11 chances in their opening night win over the Capitals). Many of those 24 chances came on odd-man-rushes for the Islanders. All four New York goals were scored in such a fashion: two on breakaways and one each off a two-on-one and three-on-two. Afterwards, when asked about the play of goaltender Anders Lindback, who made 40 saves in the game, Boucher speculated that without Lindback’s stellar goaltending performance, the Isles might have scored eight or more goals.
The next night in Raleigh, the Lightning looked nothing like that leaky defensive team. When it ended, I couldn’t recall one single odd-man rush for the Hurricanes. It’s true that the ‘Canes fired 36 shots at Mathieu Garon, but the Bolts kept Carolina’s better scoring chances to a handful. Tampa Bay’s defensive structure was sound, evidenced by the team’s 23 blocked shots. That high number tells us that the Lightning defenders were rarely out of position on Tuesday.
Why the Jekyll-Hyde transformation? (Or I suppose in this case should it be Hyde-Jekyll?) According to Boucher, much of it has to do with the abbreviated training camp.
Strong defense and solid play by Garon in net on Tuesday night enabled the Lightning to recover from Monday's loss in New York.
In a full 82-game season, teams occasionally do alternate good and bad performances. All clubs are constantly striving for consistency, an elusive and fleeting goal. But this shortened season has brought additional challenges to that endeavor.
Before the season began, wondering about the effect of a shortened camp, I asked Boucher what he expected to see in the first few weeks, not only from the Lightning, but also around the league. He responded that while emotion and urgency levels will be high (as a by-product, he felt we’d see lots of penalties in the early days), execution of systems will be spotty. He stated throughout camp that, under typical circumstances, it can take three weeks to a month for new players to fully grasp the intricacies of a team’s system. Even those players familiar with a system often need a refresher course after an off-season. With the shortened season, of course, no team in the league has the luxury of that time frame.
So the unstructured game against the Islanders was one that Boucher felt might be coming. “I’m expecting that,” he said, during our pregame interview before the Carolina game. He conceded that “I was expecting that the first game.” Obviously, that didn’t happen in the last Saturday’s win against the Caps. But, he continued, “It’s going to go back and forth, (eventually) the ratio is going to be better and better. Without exhibition games, without three weeks of training camp, that’s the way it’s going to be some nights. But we have to stop the bleeding (when that happens).”
Specifically, the Lightning got too impatient on Monday. Too eager to score. The Islanders were more than happy to take advantage of the resulting holes in the Lightning’s team defense. During the three in-game interviews I did the following night in Carolina, Tom Pyatt, Assistant Coach Dan Lacroix and Keith Aulie all essentially stated the same thing: the Lightning have enough weapons to score and that if the team focuses on playing sound, structured hockey, the offense will naturally flow from its good defense. Unlike on Monday afternoon, the Bolts did that versus the ‘Canes and were rewarded.
Still, as Coach Boucher mentioned, the Lightning, along with the 29 other NHL clubs, will continue to face early season bumps in the road. It’s going to take time for execution to catch up to emotion and urgency. The clubs that can smooth out their bumps quickly will have a major advantage over those that don’t.