Tampa Bay Lightning
@ St. Louis Blues
Greetings from Raleigh, where the Lightning face the Carolina Hurricanes tonight at the RBC Center. It’s the sixth game in the season series; the Lightning has won three of the first five contests. The teams have split a pair of games in Carolina.
Both clubs have undergone major roster changes since their last meeting in late December. For the Lightning, Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern, Alexandre Picard and Junior Lessard weren’t even in the organization. Carolina has acquired Sergei Samsonov, Patrick Eaves, Joe Corvo and Tuomo Ruutu while Ryan Bayda, Tim Conboy, Keith Aucoin and Wade Brookbank have arrived from the minors.
Just two games since the trade deadline, we are starting to see the new-look Lightning develop an identity. Jokinen has joined Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis on the top line and has gelled quite nicely. Last night, during the Lightning’s overtime power play, Jokinen made two terrific plays to gain entry into the Toronto defensive zone – the second of those eventually led to Dan Boyle’s game-winner.
Jeff Halpern is centering the second line with Michel Ouellet and Mathieu Darche. That line has produced points against both Minnesota on Wednesday and Toronto last night. Ouellet has goals in three straight games while Halpern has three points in those two games. Halpern, as he has done with Washington and Dallas during his career, has provided strong defensive play and has given the Lightning a reliable right-handed faceoff man, Tampa Bay’s first such player since Dave Andreychuk.
Picard scored a power play goal last night and looks as if he will fit in quite well on the Lightning blue line. Lessard had a strong Lightning debut last night, playing 10:37 and recording two shots and three hits.
Smith, who will start again tonight, has been both solid (and at times spectacular) in his first two Lightning starts. With his athleticism and ability to play the puck, he is an exciting player to watch. I’ve often heard Lightning coaches say that what they want from a goalie is a performance that gives their team a chance to win every night. Against both Minnesota and Toronto, Smith has done that, and more.
It will be a continuing process for the new players to fully acclimate themselves to the Lightning system and team concept. But so far, they’ve done well fitting in with their new teammates. Playing as a team will be an important component tonight against the first-place Hurricanes.
Prior to their loss on Thursday to the Rangers, the Hurricanes had been 6-1-1 in their prior eight games. It was in the second game of that stretch that Carolina lost captain Rod Brind’Amour to a season-ending knee injury. The fact that Carolina has been able to build their division lead in his absence is remarkable. Of course, the big question for the Hurricanes is this – will they be able to keep winning through the end of the season, and presumably, deep into the playoffs, without a leader of Brind’Amour’s ilk?
To this point, the ‘Canes have done it differently just about every night. They had scored power play goals in just three of their last 13 games, but in two of those games, they netted three PP markers in a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh and four more in a 6-3 triumph over Washington. During their hot streak, they’ve had low scoring 2-1 victories where Cam Ward’s goaltending was a key. Then there have been more wide-open outcomes such as the afore-mentioned Washington win and a 5-3 victory over Atlanta.
Their scoring has been balanced and it’s needed to be, given the long-term injuries to Brind’Amour and Justin Williams. The addition of Samsonov has really helped offset the losses of those two skilled players. Samsonov had only four points in 23 games with Chicago to start the year, but he has amassed 18 points in 23 contests with Carolina. Not surprisingly, All-Star Eric Staal, who has 30 goals, is leading the way offensively for Carolina. Erik Cole has heated up recently, picking up six goals in his last 10 games. But the ‘Canes may have to deal with yet another injury to one of their top offensive players. Ray Whitney, who has scored some big goals against the Lightning this year and is Carolina’s leading scorer, suffered a leg injury on Thursday and is questionable for tonight’s contest.
In analyzing this game, I can find no clear-cut formula to prescribe for either team. The Hurricanes are finding ways to win most nights, so it is up to the Lightning to prevent their opponent from finding a way this evening. The RBC Center is hosting basketball this afternoon, which means that the ice likely will be quite choppy tonight. Both teams, therefore, will need to grind out a win. Pretty passing plays could be few and far between.
A good special teams game from the Lightning, who went 3-4 on the power play last night, would help. (Carolina owns the worst penalty kill percentage in the league). Naturally, too, the Bolts will rely on Smith for another excellent performance, one that gives Tampa Bay an opportunity to win this game.