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

Greetings from snowy Toronto, where the Lightning open a four-game road trip tonight against the Maple Leafs.  I hope everybody enjoyed a Happy New Year!

Perhaps the arrival of 2008 has come at just the right time for Tampa Bay.  The Bolts are eager to close the book on 2007 and make a fresh start, so how appropriate is it that they get to play on January 1?

In meeting with reporters prior to last Saturday’s afternoon game against Philadelphia, John Tortorella was asked if he had ever been through anything like what the Lightning are experiencing.  He relayed the story of his first season coaching the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.  At Christmastime, the Americans ranked dead last in the entire league.  For the first half of the year, the team had kept a league standings board in the locker room.  Tortorella said: “You just get so tired of seeing yourself last that we decided to get rid of it and feel like we were starting fresh.”  As it turned out, the Americans got hot in the second half and went on to win the Calder Cup.

There is no guarantee that the Lightning will able to turn around their season like the 1995-96 Rochester Americans did, but the anecdote illustrates an important aspect of sports – how much the mind-set of a player or a team affects quality of play.  In other words, confidence is a critical intangible for athletes.  Teams on winning streaks develop a swagger that makes them tough to beat.  Struggling teams become unconfident, fragile clubs.  Right now, the Lightning fall into the latter category. 

For example, in last Saturday’s game against Philadelphia, the Lightning badly outplayed the Flyers for most of the first two periods.  Those two periods were two of the best that the Bolts had played in recent games.  But Tampa Bay was unable to grab the lead; instead, the Flyers got a late second period power play goal to take a 2-1 advantage.  Not even five minutes into the third period, the Flyers had tacked on two more goals and grabbed a comfortable 4-1 lead.  As Chris Gratton told the St. Pete Times after the game: “That’s the way it’s going right now.  When you have a couple of minutes when you break down or you take a penalty, the puck just seems to find our net.”

So the Lightning must find a way to regain some of their lost confidence.  Remember, this is a team that was regularly blowing out the opposition at the St. Pete Times Forum earlier this year.  Tortorella stated before the Philadelphia game: “We aren’t bad players and we aren’t a bad team.”  He’s right and hopefully, based on the bulk of the Bolts’ play against the Flyers, the team took a small step in the right direction.

Tampa Bay faces a Toronto team tonight also struggling with its confidence.  The Leafs have just one win in their last seven games and are coming off an embarrassing 6-1 home loss to the New York Rangers.  One of the games in that stretch was a 2-1 loss to the Lightning on December 20, a game in which Karri Ramo picked up his first NHL win.  As I’ve mentioned in several previous blog entries (particularly in recent games that have matched the Lightning against other struggling teams), getting a lead will be very important for both clubs tonight.  The squad that can build a one or two-goal lead will feel so much better about itself than the one that has fallen behind.

The Lightning will look to win the special teams matchup.  The Leafs, who are traditionally strong on the power play, have been surprisingly ineffective on the man-advantage all season and their penalty kill yielded five goals against the Rangers last Saturday.

Naturally, goaltending will be a key, too.  Ramo will attempt to reprise his first effort against the Leafs.  Toronto’s Vesa Toskala has been nursing a sore groin – if he can’t start, the Lightning very well could see Scott Clemmensen, who was recently recalled from the minors and relieved Andrew Raycroft in that Rangers’ game.
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