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On The Road With Dave Mishkin

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning @ St. Louis Blues

Greetings from rainy St. Louis, where the Lightning open a three-game road trip tonight against the Blues.  This is the first meeting between the clubs since December 8, 2005 – the Lightning edged the Blues, 5-4, that night at the St. Pete Times Forum.  It’s been nearly four years since the last Lightning-Blues game at the Scottrade Center, which wasn’t even known by that name at the time.

The Bolts are coming off a five-game homestand, the final two games of which were intriguing for several reasons.  In last Thursday’s win against Vancouver, the Lightning played one of their most physical, intense games of the season.  The fact that the Canucks wanted to engage in that sort of game allowed for an extraordinarily entertaining contest.  John Tortorella stated after that game that playing with an edge, as the Lightning did that night, is a way that Tampa Bay must play every night, regardless of whether the other team “wants to dance”, so to speak.

Against the Panthers last Saturday, the Lightning recorded 26 hits (they had 33 against Vancouver) and played a similar brand of hockey that allowed them to control long stretches of action.  Unfortunately for the Lightning, a hot Tomas Vokoun and two critical Lightning gaffes late in the game allowed the Panthers to steal a 3-2 road win.  But the formula for success is becoming clearer – Tampa Bay must play with an edge and it will look to continue that style of play now that it is on the road.

Another development during the past couple of games has been Tortorella’s utilization of Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards on the same line.  Not coincidentally, this change took place only two games after Dan Boyle’s return to the lineup.  The Lightning put the Big Three forwards on the ice at the same time as Boyle and Paul Ranger.  Tortorella said that Boyle’s ability to transition helps those forwards get on the attack.  Furthermore, because Boyle roves around in the offensive zone, the defending team sometimes struggles with its coverage and that can open up space for the Big Three.  Against the Canucks, Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards accounted for seven points.  While the Big Three were kept off the scoresheet against the Panthers, that had more to do with Vokoun’s netminding than anything the Florida team accomplished defensively.  That five-man unit (including Boyle and Ranger) produced 26 of the Lightning’s 46 shots.

Of course, if the Lightning put those three players together on the same line, then the secondary lines must also produce so that Tampa Bay has not placed all its eggs in one basket.  Vinny Prospal has reacquainted himself quite well to center – his natural position – and his line with Jan Hlavac and Michel Ouellet has been buzzing around the offensive zone in the last two contests.  Prospal has goals in three consecutive games.  In addition, the third line, which for tonight’s game will be Chris Gratton, Craig MacDonald and Nick Tarnasky has produced goals in each of the past two games.

Whether these combinations stay together through tonight’s game remains to be seen – Tortorella doesn’t hesitate to mix up his lines in the middle of a game or period – but if they do, they will look to maintain that good chemistry tonight against the Blues.

After making the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons, St. Louis has missed the postseason in each of the last two years.  This year, the Blues are only four points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference and have two games in hand on the eighth seed, the Nashville Predators.  St. Louis was in much better shape prior to its current 2-6-2 skid, although the Blues have won two of their last three games.

Without generalizing too much, St. Louis typically looks to win with good team defense and goaltending (and All-Star Manny Legace will get the start tonight).  That’s perhaps a bit surprising given the fact that the Blues’ roster boasts skilled players such as Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk and Brad Boyes.  But the numbers back up that claim.  The Blues own the worst power play in the league and they have netted only 129 total goals, second-fewest in the league.  Legace, on the other hand, has a 2.28 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.

So the Blues’ main objective tonight likely will be not to outscore the Lightning, but instead to “outdefend” them (my apologies to Webster for coining my own word).  In other words, the Blues will be content trying to contain the big guns for the Lightning.

Therefore, I believe that the outcome of this game hinges primarily on the Lightning’s ability to break through against Legace and St. Louis’ strong defensive system.

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