Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Columbus Blue Jackets
Greetings from Columbus, where the locals are digging out from under all the snow that fell in the last couple of days and the Lightning and Blue Jackets play tonight at Nationwide Arena. This is the only meeting between the clubs this year and the first contest since January 13, 2006. On that night, the Lightning defeated the Blue Jackets, 4-2, at the St. Pete Times Forum. The teams haven’t played in Columbus since October 23, 2003; the Bolts won that game, 1-0.
The last three Lightning games have been hard-fought, close contests and, throwing out Pittsburgh’s empty-net goal, all three have been one-goal defeats. Against the Penguins last Tuesday, the Bolts generated 19 scoring chances on Marc-Andre Fleury, but couldn’t convert any of those chances into goals. On Thursday night in Philadelphia, the Lightning defended pretty well throughout that game and held the Flyers to only 10 scoring chances. Still, Philadelphia broke a 2-2 tie with a late third period goal. On Friday against the Devils, the Lightning got the game to overtime thanks to Karri Ramo’s outstanding goaltending performance. Through three periods, Ramo stopped 29 of 30 New Jersey shots on a night when the Lightning had difficulty generating a lot of scoring chances of their own. The two New Jersey goals Ramo yielded both came off of two-on-one rushes.
So today, the Lightning will try and put all the positive components from the last few games together. The goaltending, whether it has been Mike Smith or Ramo, has been excellent in all three games. The Bolts want to clamp down the Columbus attack the way they did in Philadelphia and try to amass the same number of chances they did versus Pittsburgh. All the while executing well in their situational play, a subject often mentioned in this blog. What that means is that the Lightning need to make a key play at a key time and not allow the Blue Jackets to do so.
Columbus enters this game on a seven-game home winless skid and is coming off a 2-1 overtime loss to Edmonton on Friday. Even though, the Blue Jackets traded veterans Sergei Fedorov and Adam Foote at the deadline, they haven’t lost much ground in the standings since those moves. Columbus enters today’s game just seven points out of the final playoff spot. (Interestingly, that deficit has led the local scribes in the Columbus Dispatch to describe the Jackets’ playoff hopes as being on life support, if not already dead. I disagree. Making up seven points in 13 games is a difficult, but not unrealistic, goal).
Under Ken Hitchcock, who took over the head coaching reins early last season, Columbus has become a sound defensive team. Hitchcock’s coaching and the addition of two-time Selke Trophy winner Michael Peca have helped in that regard, but a lot of the credit goes to goaltender Pascal Leclaire. Leclaire leads the NHL with nine shutouts and ranks in the top five in both goals against average and save percentage.
Most of the Blue Jackets’ offensive production has come from two players: Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev. With just 163 goals scored in 69 games, the Blue Jackets rank last in league scoring. So the Lightning’s objectives today are to limit the effectiveness of Nash and Zherdev while finding ways to generate offense against a tough defensive squad.
By the way, both Peca and Freddie Modin are nursing injuries and missed the Edmonton game. At practice yesterday, Peca declared himself fit enough to play, but apparently Modin will miss today’s game against his former team.