|Tampa Bay Lightning @ Florida Panthers
The two heroes in Lightning’s 2-1 win over Florida last Wednesday were Johan Holmqvist, who was sensational in holding to Panthers to only one goal, and Chris Gratton, who accounted for the two Lightning tallies. That those players were the heroes is both significant and encouraging for the Bolts, who are intent on getting consistent goaltending and a balanced scoring attack this year. The Lightning did not win a game last year in which it scored fewer than three goals – it already has one win in that statistical category three games into this season. In other words, there are going to be games throughout the season in which Tampa Bay’s top guns – Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards, Prospal, Boyle – will be kept off the score sheet. For the Lightning to win those games, it will have to rely on the goaltender to keep the score low and other skaters to provide the offense.
There is no guarantee that tonight’s game will mirror Wednesday’s contest, but one has to credit the Panthers for how well they have played in the last couple of years against the Lightning. In the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, Tampa Bay won only five of 16 games against its cross-state rivals, despite finishing with a much higher overall point total in both those years. If not for Holmqvist and Gratton, Wednesday’s game might have followed a similar script to many of those other recent games between the clubs.
John Tortorella often says that “your best players have to be your best players.” So for tonight’s game, the Lightning will again look to its stars. In their first two wins this year, the Lightning’s top line of Lecavalier, St. Louis and Prospal accounted for six goals and 13 points. Rarely last year did that unit fail to record a point in back-to-back games (in fact, Lecavalier only once went pointless in back-to-back games). Lecavalier certainly had his chances on Wednesday night – he recorded a team-high seven shots and got loose for two breakaway chances. Production from that line will be a key tonight.
In meeting with the media this morning, Tortorella indicated that his team needs to play a quick, high-tempo game tonight. He felt that the Lightning committed too many turnovers on Wednesday (although he also said that the Lightning forced plenty of turnovers as well). So it will be important tonight for the Bolts to skate well and protect the puck.
A big reason why the Panthers enjoyed success last year against the Lightning was the play of captain Olli Jokinen and right wing Nathan Horton. Both players recorded 12 points in eight games during the 2006-2007 season series, with Horton netting nine of his 31 goals versus Tampa Bay. Again on Wednesday, Jokinen and Horton made their presence known – Jokinen had an assist, played over 23 minutes (second on the team only to defenseman Jay Bouwmeester) and won 17 of 28 faceoffs. Horton had a couple of glorious scoring opportunities early in the game – Holmqvist stopped one slot shot and later forced a Horton breakaway shot wide of the net. Tampa Bay must find a way to limit the chances for these two dangerous Florida players.
Special teams play, as it usually does, should factor in tonight’s outcome as well. Gratton’s game-winner on Wednesday was a power-play goal and the Lightning penalty killers held the Panthers off the board. If the Bolts can again capture the special teams battle, they will give themselves an excellent opportunity to win the game.
There will be a few lineup changes from Wednesday night’s game. In net for the Panthers, Tomas Vokoun, whom Florida acquired during the offseason, will get the start tonight. He didn’t play on Wednesday – the Panthers were beginning a back-to-back set of games and Vokoun, who had gone 0-2 in his first two starts of the year, played the second game. He rebounded in that Thursday game, posting a 3-0 shutout against the Devils. It will be his first appearance against the Lightning since February 5, 2004. Also, Florida defenseman Noah Welch, who played Thursday against the Devils, will stay in the lineup and Branislav Mezei will be a healthy scratch. For the Lightning, Matt Smaby will take Doug Janik’s spot on the blue line.