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Crashing The Net: Consistently Inconsistent

Last week the Tampa Bay Lightning were the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and looking to build on their recent success as they chased divisional rival Florida Panthers for the second overall seed. What a difference a single week can make in the ultra-competitive East; the Lightning now find themselves barely clinging to the 8th and last playoff seed, as they are about to play four games in the next six days. After rattling off ten wins in eleven games before February 6th, the Lightning have suddenly reverted to their stagnant offense, defenders watching rebounds go for goals that plagued them throughout much of the early part of the season. However, the most troubling trend might be that their one positive constant this year: rock solid goal tending, suddenly looks vulnerable having allowed 14 goals in their last 4 games, three of which resulted in losses. Tampa general manager Steve Yzerman recently put the Steven Stamkos trade rumors to rest by telling the media Stamkos would not be traded this year and they are continuing to work on a contract extension. Bolt’s fans can only hope this news brings some much-needed stability to a team still unsure of whom they are so late into a season. The Lightning will play four teams this week, all four of whom are worse than the Tampa in the standings. It seems as if the Lightning will continue to slide up and down the standings for the rest of the season; but how they are do this week versus equal or lesser competition may invariably decide whether they get to play for Lord Stanley’s cup again or if they are left on the outside looking in when the music stops.
FEBRUARY 16 VS. SAN JOSE The San Jose Sharks are the best team the Lightning will face this week, at least on paper. The Sharks have nearly an identical point total, to go along with a slightly better goal differential than Tampa. The Sharks are one of the most offensively gifted teams in the league as they score nearly three goals per game ranking them in the top 5 in the league for goals scored. The only thing they do better than scoring goals at even strength, is scoring goals on the power play, where they rank 3rd overall with a 23% conversion rate with the man advantage. While their defensive play has been fairly average, it has been enough combined with their overwhelming offensive fire power to place them in the middle of the Western conference playoff race as the current 6th seed. A trio of veteran centers lead the team: Joe Pavelski, Joe Thorton, and Patrick Marleau who account for nearly 30% of the team’s goal production. The centers paired with one of the best offensive defenseman in the league Brent Burns who already has 48 points on the year, make the Sharks a threat to score no matter which line is on the ice for them. The Lightning will face a difficult challenge against a San Jose team that likes to start fast, and will make you pay if you commit penalties; two things which have plagued Tampa all season. The Bolts must stay out of the penalty box along with finding a way to score a goal or take a lead into the first break, which is something that eluded them for the most of the season during first periods. If the Sharks are able to score early it could be a long night for Tampa.

FEBRUARY 18 VS. WINNIPEG The Winnipeg Jets have trouble stopping goals and they have trouble scoring goals consistently. These two facts are the reasons the Winnipeg Jets are likely a lottery team. This time of the year is usually when teams like Winnipeg begin to look at what assets or salary cap casualties they may be able to trade to better situate them for the future. The Jets like the Lightning have a contract negotiation on-going with one of their key players in left-winger Andrew Ladd. There were rumors Ladd was close to an extension, but now his name appears to be popping up into potential NHL trade deadline rumors after the Jets decided to extend young defensive star Dustin Byfuglien; before they could reach a deal with Ladd. The Jets season is likely over due to their inability to find consistent blue line defensive pairings, and up and down goalie play which should enable the Lightning to catch a team who may be thinking more about the offseason than the regular season. If the Bolts can get a lead on Winnipeg and force the Jets to play faster than they’d like to, it could lead them to commit some penalties putting the Jets in a difficult position with their 3rd worst penalty kill unit in the league. The Lightning playing to their strengths should be able to win in a walk away at home. The Lightning have been anything but a sure thing this season and Winnipeg still has enough core young talent intact, that if Tampa turns in a poor effort the Jets could ruin a Bolt playoff run before it gets started.

FEBRUARY 20 @ PITTSBURGH The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to lurk in the Eastern conference playoff hunt and their upcoming game against the Tampa Bay Lightning could be a determining factor as to which of the two clubs gets into the playoffs, and which one is left out. The Lightning already hold the season tie-breaker advantage having won the two previous meetings this season but the Penguins know there could be several three-way ties with all the Eastern conference team so close, so points and wins matter more. The Penguins continue to rely heavily on their perennial all-stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who account for 33% of their goals scored on the year. The big off-season acquisition right-winger Phil Kessel has not been a total flop but he has not provided the added offensive spark the Penguins had likely hope for when they acquired him either. The recent injury to Evgeni Malkin has pushed Kessel further under the microscope; as the team looks for more scoring options to stay in the playoff hunt long enough for Malkin to return in the coming weeks. The Lightning have had success against Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury putting up big totals both times they faced him this season. Even with the previous success agains the Penguins, the Lightning will likely need a dominant performance from Ben Bishop if he gets the call to start in goal against Pittsburgh due to their great 16-8-4 home record. The Lightning need to come away with some points in Pittsburgh if they want to remain serious about their playoff chances.

FEBRUARY 21 @ CAROLINA The Carolina Hurricanes were previously an after thought earlier in the season when the Lightning squared off with them, but since January 8th the Carolina Hurricanes are an astounding 9–3-3 in their last fifteen games, and suddenly find themselves only four points back from the 8th seeded Bolts. The Hurricanes still rank in the bottom half or bottom third of most major offensive and defensive statistical categories but they’ve started to win a lot of one goal games or at the very least get to OT to garner at least a point. They’ve been primarily buoyed by the strong goalie play by both Cam Ward and Eddie Lack who have managed to keep opponents to less than two goals a game over the last fifteen game stretch. This has taken the pressure off the Hurricanes limited offense, allowing their primary goal scorers like defenseman Justin Faulk and left winger Mike Skinner to do enough scoring to get the two points. The Lightning still have two games left on the season against Carolina, this one being the first of those two; and with only a four point advantage they cannot afford to allow the Hurricanes to get any closer to their point total. If the Lightning stumble earlier in the week, and come in tied, or worse behind the Hurricanes in the standings this second game of a road back to back could have huge playoff implications for the Lightning and Hurricanes. The Lightning cannot afford to play a low scoring affair with a Hurricanes team that seems very comfortable playing overtime and one goal games recently. Tampa will need a special effort on the road to make sure this game isn’t the one Bolts fans look back on to what “could have been” if they end up missing the playoffs by a point or two.

Useless Prediction for the Week: The Lightning have toyed with us all season, two steps forward, one step back so I don’t expect anything different this week. I think the Lightning manage to win both the home games against the Sharks & Jets, and then lose both road games with likely one going to overtime or shootout. The Lightning need 5 points to stay teetering on playoff contention, naturally I think they’ll get those 5 points. My useless prediction the Lightning go (2-1-1) for this slate.

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