In my opinion, the Lightning, as a whole, have not played as well in the three road games as they did in their opening four at home. They’ve struggled to generate shots, recording no more than 24 in any of the three games. Generally, they haven’t gotten enough traffic to the opposition net, so the other goalie can often see, stop and hold onto the initial shot. (Admittedly, this was a problem at times during the opening homestand, too, but it has seemed to be more of a frequent issue since the team left home). They have not been able to dictate play as often. Also, while their team defense was solid in Vancouver and Calgary, it wasn’t sharp in Edmonton, where the Oilers generated several dangerous odd-man rushes.
There are reasonable explanations for why this has happened. First, the Bolts have played much of the trip without four of their regulars: Radko Gudas, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan. That’s a huge chunk of the lineup missing – and those players are significant contributors. Second, the opposition has played quite well (more on that in a later section). Third, this trip is a reminder of how hard it is to win on the road. The home side usually carries play for at least a portion of an NHL game. It’s rare for a road team to roll into town and completely dominate a game.
So if they aren’t going to carry play as much as they might when they’re at home, road clubs often have to different ways to win. They lean on their goalie to make key saves. An important play is made at a crucial time. Maybe there’s a little puck-luck. If a club is going to have a successful season, it needs to find those ways to win on the road.
To that end, the Lightning are 2-1-0 through the first three games on the trip. They haven’t necessarily been “Picassos”, as Jon Cooper has stated, but banking four out of six points so far is quite good. Last year, Cooper often spoke of, on longer trips, bringing home more points than games played (finishing above .500, in other words). Heading into the games this weekend in Winnipeg and Minnesota, the Bolts have put themselves in a position to meet that goal.
I’ve been calling Lightning games since 2002, so I’ve seen (live) a fair share of players making their NHL debut. Not as many as some – colleagues Rick Peckham and Bobby “The Chief” Taylor have witnessed far more – but enough so that I can put Jonathan Drouin’s first NHL game into some context.
His performance in Edmonton was, quite simply, the best NHL debut I’ve ever seen. Not only was he not out of place, he was able to impact play, especially when he had the puck on his stick. Afterwards, Cooper, when asked about Drouin, replied, “As advertised." Drouin’s vision and hockey sense, we had heard, are “off-the-charts high." He was able to display those talents against the Oilers, even though the pace was faster than in any other game he’d previously played. He was crafty and slippery with the puck – and was an effective puck hound when the Oilers were in possession. I’m not a big fan of the “takeaway” stat (too subjective), but I can remember several occasions when Drouin picked the pocket of an Oiler puck carrier.
The next night in Calgary, the Flames defended Drouin pretty well for most of the game. But not for the whole game. Late in the third, his backhand saucer pass to Jason Garrison began the sequence that led to Valtteri Filppula’s tying goal. And if not for an amazing Karri Ramo save, Drouin would have scored his first NHL goal in overtime.
Oilers And Flames – Playoff Bound?
Not too many pundits predicted that the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are going to force their way into playoff contention this year. They finished as two of the league’s bottom four teams in 2013-14.
I don’t know how the season will unfold, but I was very impressed with both Alberta clubs. It’s true that, heading into Monday’s game against the Lightning, the Oilers were 0-4-1. But the general consensus was that Edmonton had deserved a better fate in several of those games. And they earned the win against the Lightning. The Oilers’ biggest problem last year was team defense – they ranked last in GAA. But on Monday, they did a nice job of limiting the Lightning’s scoring chances. Skill is something the Oilers do not lack – and their top line of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle created dangerous looks throughout the night. It was the best game I’d ever seen from Nugent-Hopkins, who was the first overall pick in 2011. He netted the game-winner late in the third.
Also, defenseman Justin Schultz looks as though he’s evolving into an elite offensive defenseman. He jumped into plays effectively and hit an early post. Then in the second, he swerved in front and lifted a backhander into the Lightning net to tie the score at one. Later in the frame, his long outlet pass sprung Hall on a breakaway, which led to Hall’s penalty shot goal. Incidentally, Schultz and Nugent-Hopkins also scored against Washington on Wednesday in another Edmonton win. Through their first three games on their seven-game homestand, the Oilers have yielded only five goals (plus an empty-netter), helping lower their team GAA considerably.
The Flames look to play a sound, structured air-tight game. For nearly 58 minutes, they did that against the Lightning. Until Filppula’s tying tally, it seemed that the Lightning had no time or space to make plays in the offensive zone. Calgary may not have as many game-breakers as the Oilers, but they’ve upgraded their skill set with the addition of Mason Raymond, who has five goals through their first eight games. Last year’s Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau is also extremely skilled – he made a terrific play on Calgary’s lone goal versus Tampa Bay. Ultimately, though, Calgary is going to rely on defense and goaltending – and based on their start, which included a 4-2-0 road trip, they’re going to make it tough for the opposition to score.
The West has plenty of elite teams and, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t know where the Oilers and Flames will finish this season. What I do know is that, based on what I saw on this trip, both clubs are heading in the right direction.
Western Canada in October
Last year, the Lightning made this Western Canadian swing (plus Winnipeg) in January. The team was “treated” to -30 degree F temps in Edmonton and Winnipeg. How nice it has been to visit in October! Even early in the morning, the temps have rarely dipped below 40 degrees F – and by midday, the weather has climbed into the 60s! The weather is supposed to be similar through the rest of the week. We may be seeing some unseasonably warm October weather in this part of North America, but, regardless, an early-season visit is far preferable to one in January.
I don’t know if it’s possible for the NHL to schedule the Lightning’s Western Canadian trip in October every year, but I’d like to see it set in stone!