Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Atlanta Thrashers
Greetings from Atlanta, where tonight the Lightning play the Thrashers for the sixth time in the eight-game season series. The Bolts won the first two meetings convincingly, but the Thrashers have taken the last three (winning two of those in come-from-behind fashion).
Thanks to victories in St. Louis and Nashville, the Lightning have closed the gap in the Southeast Division. The Bolts are just seven points behind division-leading Carolina and have two games in hand on the Hurricanes. But Tampa Bay still has to catapult four teams to gain the top spot in the division, a task that adds even more significance to tonight’s game. The Lightning trail the Thrashers by five points and own two games in hand on Atlanta, so assuming tonight’s game ends in regulation, the Lightning will have either sliced the deficit to three points or Atlanta will have extended it to seven points.
A win tonight for Tampa Bay would give the Bolts their seventh straight road triumph, tying a franchise record. The possibility of such an occurrence seemed remote after the Lightning won only three of their first 20 road contests. But Tampa Bay has turned its fortunes around on the road by playing a simple game, being more physical and making key plays at key times. Not all of these components have been present necessarily for an entire 60 minutes in each and every one of the games during the winning streak (the team, as discussed in previous blogs, has struggled with its situational play at times). But simply put, the Lightning have done more right than wrong in these recent road games and they’ll need to continue that trend tonight against the Thrashers.
So what are they doing right? As I wrote about prior to the Nashville game, the Bolts are getting contributions from their depth players. As was the case against the Blues, the line of Chris Gratton, Craig MacDonald and Nick Tarnasky provided energy and gave the Lightning good minutes. One way to determine how well a player performed in a game is to look at his ice time. For the second straight contest, all three of those guys skated approximately 15 or 16 minutes. This shows that John Tortorella has confidence in that line and is rewarding them with substantially more ice time than what they had been getting previously. As well, Andreas Karlsson saw 10:53 versus the Blues and 11:43 against the Predators. He’s playing strong defensive hockey and drawing a regular short-handed shift with MacDonald. Tortorella, during his meeting with the media this morning, stated that he thought Gratton’s line and Karlsson’s line (with Mathieu Darche and Jason Ward) were the catalysts for the Lightning in their dominant second period against Nashville. The Bolts outshot the Predators, 12-2, in that second period and scored the equalizing goal.
Naturally, the Lightning’s top players are producing, too. Brad Richards and Vinny Prospal netted goals on Thursday and Tampa Bay’s top line of Richards, Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis did not allow the Predators to score when they were on the ice.
The Thrashers, like a lot of NHL teams this year, have been very streaky. They started the season 0-6, but rebounded with a stretch of 11 wins in 15 games and have been hovering around the top of the division ever since. They entered last Tuesday’s home game against Philadelphia riding a three-game winning streak, but come into tonight’s match having lost their last two. The defeats were hard to swallow – on Tuesday, the Flyers broke a 3-3 tie in the last five minutes en route to a 4-3 triumph and on Thursday, Vancouver rallied with two third period goals to win, 2-1. Despite the outcomes, however, the Thrashers apparently played quite well in both those games.
Stinging from those two losses, the Thrashers likely will come out of the gates flying tonight. It’ll be important for the Bolts to withstand this potential early onslaught. Naturally, containing Ilya Kovalchuk also will be a key tonight. A week and a half ago, Kovalchuk hurt his knee. He missed two games before returning against Philadelphia. He told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that his knee is not causing him pain, but that it’s going to take time to get used to playing with a knee brace. Still, Kovalchuk scored against the Flyers and then played over 23 minutes versus the Canucks, contributing six shots. So the Bolts cannot count on Kovalchuk being anything less than his usual dynamic self tonight.