by Bob Harwood
What's going right in Tampa Bay and Minnesota? They are, at the time of this writing, on top of their respective divisions, and playing like they believe they belong there.
In 2 years in Minnesota under coach Jacques Lemaire, it's been "defense first" and not much else. The Wild were supposed to suffer because of the new clamping down on clutching and grabbing. Their defensive style shouldn't be confused with the interference the league is trying to curb.
Already thought of as one of the great teachers of positional hockey, Lemaire has this young group beating the opposition to spots, to the puck, and surprisingly, to the punch, as in scoring punch. 45 goals in their first 13 games??? The Wild??? Absolutely.
Within a great system that has featured rotating captains and dispersed leadership duties emphasizing team values, are some outstanding individuals.
| Mikael Renberg and the Leafs took a little wind out of the Lightning's sails on November 5. |
Graig Abel Photography
Credit Bill Mackult as a surprise source of scoring early on. Throw in Sergei Zholtok who says he's finally allowed, after recent stints in Montreal and Edmonton, to create, or at least finish, around the net.
Marion Gaborik continues to pace this team with big numbers and a world class scoring touch. Goaltender Manny Fernandez says he used to wake up to nightmares of letting pucks go by him. Not any more. He's playing with poise and has the confidence of the team in front of him.
Their biggest free agent signing, 5-foot-8 Cliff Ronning, is shameless in his passion for hard work. It is not always safe or smart for a recent expansion team to play its youngest and top prospect, in this case QMJHL scoring sensation Pierre-Marc Bouchard, at the NHL level, but Minnesota is finally taking risks.
The Wild have treated the start of this, their 3rd season, as their playoff run. It might be the kind of start they can tun into a solid and surprising finish.
It is work ethic and a "positive-desperation" that links Tampa and Minnesota, and their explosive starts.
This is a fast Lightning team that handled it's first two game losing streak of the season, something very common last year, with poise and a sense of purpose, definitely not part of the picture a year ago. They fell short in a 4-3 defeat to the Maple Leafs, to make it three-straight losses. The good sign: They know they can and SHOULD be better.
Like the Wild, the Lightning have one player doing a lot of scoring, in Martin St.Louis, who is near the top of the NHL scoring race. But like Gaborik in Minnesota, St.Louis doesn't dominate games as much as he imposes his will and tenacity on the opposition and his teammates, and that leads to opportunity.
There is veteran presence in Dave Andrechuk on an otherwise fairly young team that is now finally believing in the system and preachings of coach John Tortorella. That brings us to Vincent Lecavalier, and a commitment to defence. Backchecking??? Vinny??? Absolutely. It's happening, and leading to special teams ice-time.
Nikolai Khabibulin is handling the puck more in this, his second year in Tampa. The Lightning are taking advantage of the surprising puck-moving skills of newcomer Brad Lukovich on defense. This is a group of less-than-spectacular individuals who think and act like a team, in what is described by one Tampa player as the tightest room he's ever been a part of in the NHL.
Leaf fans have to wait a few months to see first hand if the Wild are still on top or even competitive, as the two teams meet only once, in April. But Tampa Bay made it clear with their recent visit to ACC, their best effort in what is now a string of five straight losses to the Leafs dating back to last year, that they can get plenty of mileage out of a bit of talent and a lot of hard work, a formula that has two surprise teams at the top of their respective divisions. Other Bob Harwood columns: >> Fitzgerald will fit in fine