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by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning @ Ottawa Senators

Greetings from suburban Ottawa, where the Lightning play the Senators tonight at Scotiabank Place. The home team has won each of the first two contests – the Bolts beat the Sens in a shootout on December 4 before the Senators rallied for a 4-3 overtime victory against the Lightning on January 5.

The Lightning are coming off a 3-0 victory last night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That matchup perfectly illustrated how much momentum swings affect a game’s outcome. The Lightning outplayed the Penguins in the first period; they were quicker, hungrier and more dangerous than their counterparts. They were riding the wave of a momentum surge. The Penguins, by comparison, looked flat in the opening 20 minutes, which is how a club can look when it is fighting the tide of an opposition momentum surge. During that good stretch, the Lightning got goals from Kyle Wanvig and Chris Gratton and built a 2-0 lead. But in the second period, momentum shifted.  The Pens spent most of the period possessing the puck in the Lightning end and the Bolts fired only four second-period shots on Ty Conklin. But the Pens, despite enjoying the game’s momentum during the middle stanza, could not get on the board.  Credit goes to both Tampa Bay’s defensive zone coverage, which prevented the Pens from generating more than a handful of scoring chances.  And when the Pens got a good look at the Lightning net, the Bolts received key saves from Johan Holmqvist.  Consequently, the Lightning withstood the Penguins surge. Then, five and a half minutes into the third period, following a great possession shift in the offensive zone from Brad Richards, Marty St. Louis and Jan Hlavac, Andre Roy jumped on the ice and scored Tampa Bay’s third goal.  That play took the wind out of the Penguins’ sails and firmly put momentum back on the Lightning’s side, which they were able to carry for the rest of the game – the Bolts outshot the Penguins, 14-7, in the third period and the lead wasn’t seriously threatened.

Momentum surges, and how each team handles them, will be a factor in tonight’s game.  The Senators are a team that feeds off the energy of their crowd and can be difficult to derail when they get rolling.  It’ll be important for the Bolts to limit Ottawa’s momentum surges, in quantity, duration and effectiveness.  On the other hand, the Lightning will try to inflict damage when they have momentum and that is something the team has been able to accomplish in their three-game road winning streak.  As referenced above, they did it last night.  In the victories at New York and Sunrise, the Bolts spotted the opposition an early lead before rattling off four unanswered goals.  It also occurred in the overtime loss to Ottawa (which immediately preceded the New York game) – the Bolts grabbed early momentum and scored three of the game’s first four goals.  

Specifically, the Lightning can help their cause in this regard by playing a North-South game – John Tortorella traced Tampa Bay’s second period struggles last night to its reliance on an East-West sideways style.  This was a departure from the North-South direction the Lightning used in the first and third frames.  Avoiding sideways plays will be critical tonight, he stated, because the Senators are quick and skilled at intercepting those cross-ice passes.

The Senators, like the Lightning, have gotten most of their offense from their top players.  Ottawa’s top line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson is one of the league’s best.  But it’s possible that the stars on both sides might not factor in the decision.  For Ottawa, Heatley is out with a shoulder injury and in Thursday’s win over Carolina, Alfredsson suffered a hip injury and missed the final two periods.  Alfredsson is questionable to play tonight, so even if he can go, he might not be at full strength.  Without potentially two of their top three offensive players, the Sens surely will focus on playing a sound, defensive game and try to neutralize the Lightning’s most dangerous weapons.

That’s why this game could come down to a battle between the teams’ secondary scorers.  They have played a role in recent wins for both squads.  On the Lightning side, Gratton had three points in the win over the Rangers.  Nick Tarnasky had two goals in Sunrise.  Roy had three points last night.  In Ottawa’s victory over Tampa Bay on January 5, Mike Fisher scored the OT winner and Randy Robitaille chipped in two goals.  On Thursday against the Hurricanes, Antoine Vermette netted two goals.

Finally, as was the case last night, goaltending will be a key.  Whether it’s Holmqvist or Karri Ramo, that goalie will need to come up with a big game performance against the top team in the Eastern Conference.  Ray Emery, who has started each of the first two games in the season series, is expected to get the start tonight for Ottawa.

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