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by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning @ Toronto Maple Leafs

Following their back-to-back losses in Chicago and Detroit at the end of November, the Lightning began a four-game home stand hoping to regain their confidence and identity.  After picking up seven out of a possible eight points during those four games, the Lightning now head back on the road hoping to maintain their high level of play. 

The home stand featured tough, hard-fought wins over a pair of first-place teams (Ottawa and Carolina) as well as a well-coached Boston team that is one of the stingiest defensive clubs in the league.  In their overtime loss to the Islanders, the Bolts peppered Rick DiPietro with 34 shots and twice rallied in the third period from one-goal deficits.

Just as important as the outcome of these games, however, was how the Lightning played to earn those results.  Tampa Bay was solid defensively, possessed the puck for the majority of all four games, received outstanding goaltending, clicked on the power play and got production from its top players.  During the home stand John Tortorella conceded that his team is still having some difficulty dealing with opposition momentum surges (most notably against Ottawa, when the Senators netted two late goals to force overtime), but for the most part, he noted, Tampa Bay played quite well against all four teams.  In particular, the Lightning’s effort on Saturday against an Islander team that had been embarrassed in Sunrise the night before was telling.  Prior to that game, Tortorella was concerned that the Bolts might suffer a letdown – they had been at home for a week, had won three straight and were taking on a club that was on a 0-4-1 slide.  Instead, the Lightning came out ready to play versus a fired-up opponent and that mindset helped them gain one point in the standings.

Now, of course, the Lightning must take their act on the road, where they have won only two of 13 games.  Tortorella was repeatedly asked during the home stand if he could pinpoint the difference between the club’s play at home (where it is now 11-3-2) and on the road.  He cited the team’s confidence level, which has been considerably higher at home than on the road.  Also, he felt that Tampa Bay has had trouble getting off to a good start in many of those previous 13 road games and he said the solution was for the Lightning to dictate play, or “inflict … instead of being inflicted upon.”  So tonight against Toronto, the Lightning need to play with the energy, pizzazz and conviction that they have shown all season at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Tampa Bay will be facing a Maple Leafs club that has had its own share of ups and downs this year.  Toronto’s four-game winning streak ended Saturday with a 2-1 home loss to Boston – that positive streak came on the heels of a 0-3-1 skid.  At the start of the year, the Maple Leafs were scoring plenty of goals and allowing even more.  In recent games, however, Toronto has shored up its defensive play (thanks in large part to suddenly-hot goaltender Vesa Toskala).  What’s interesting about Toronto’s attack this year is how the Leafs have scored their goals.  In past seasons, Toronto sported a dangerous and prolific power play – their top unit of Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle regularly did damage while on the man-advantage.  But this year, the Toronto power play has struggled and head coach Paul Maurice stated that Sundin’s linemates, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarvosky, will replace Wellwood and Tucker on the number one unit.  Still, despite that PP ineffectiveness, the Leafs, with 91 goals in 30 games, are among the league’s top scoring offensive clubs.

The recipe for a Lightning win, then, is as follows: 

1.    Bring the same energy to the Air Canada Centre that they have displayed at the St. Pete Times Forum this year.
2.    Play another solid defensive game.  This will allow Tampa Bay to possess the puck and therefore limit Toronto’s scoring chances. 
3.    Win the special teams battle – the Lighting scored at least one power play goal in three of the four games during the home stand (and in the other game got a goal just as an Ottawa penalty expired).  Also, the Lightning know that regardless of Toronto’s power play percentage, the Leafs still have a lot of those afore-mentioned weapons when they are up a man. 
4.    Deal effectively with Toronto’s momentum surges.  The Air Canada Centre is not an easy place for visiting teams.  The “Leafs Nation” provides a lot of energy for the home team and when the Maple Leafs get on a roll, it can be difficult to slow them down.
5.    Goaltending.  The Lightning will again rely on Holmqvist to come up with the saves (both routine and remarkable) that he provided during the home stand.

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