by Ian Cunningham
The Tampa Bay Lightning sit below the .500 mark for the first time under Guy Boucher’s tenure as head coach of the hockey club. The team has allowed at least four goals against in the past three contests, the end result being one point of a possible six. This after starting the season with a convincing 5-1 victory over a strong skating Carolina Hurricanes squad. Perhaps the deflating loss the following night in Beantown carried over to some subpar defensive efforts on the East Coast. The game versus the Bruins could be perceived as a statement game, a chance to showcase that last year’s post-season run was not a one time occurrence. Instead it could be viewed that Tampa may not be quite ready to make the jump to the class of the Eastern Conference.
However, that’s only one way of looking at the first week of a six month regular season. The other is that with a victory in Florida on Saturday night, the Bolts can sit at .500 with the next four of six games at home to close out the month of October. Looking at the schedule prior to the commencement of the season, I mused quietly that Tampa would be fortunate to return to the St. Pete Forum on October 17th at the .500 mark. With games versus Carolina, Boston, and Washington to start the season, the Bolts could easily have started to an 0-3 mark. Not that that would be acceptable within the expectations of the team, but easily conceivable.
To reach the .500 mark on Saturday night will not be an easy task though. It is opening night in south Florida and there are plenty of new Panthers looking to make an early impression with the local fanbase. Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Brian Campbell, and returning hero Ed Jovanovski headline a Panthers squad that is being promoted to the fans as “A Team Built To Win”. There is a lot of pressure to re-engage with an uninspired market and the Panthers will want to start off with a bang on Saturday night. Florida is 1-1 and coming off a 4-2 loss in Pittsburgh, with three full days of practice before Tampa comes to town.
The Bolts on the other hand have one day of practice after traveling from Long Island last night, and before they depart for Florida for the weekend matchup. I’m sure that on Boucher’s agenda for practice will be defensive zone coverage, as several times this past week all five Tampa players were caught running around in their own end. This led to extra point shots, open seam opportunities, and an inability to efficiently control the puck. Most of these flaws were brought on from failed attempts to clear the puck safely out of the zone. Too many times in games two through four did we see a Tampa winger try in vain to place the puck past an oncoming point man instead of playing the puck high and hard, off the glass. Yes, Tampa is a transition team but this transition comes from creating turnovers off a strong backchecking presence, not necessarily from static, outside possession in your own end. Sometimes, it does not pay to be flashy, and saucer passes from your own flank to the middle of the ice are best used sparingly.
Goal scoring has been inconsistent from game to game, but should not be a concern this early with all the natural talent Tampa has up front. If Tampa finishes their home and home with Florida on Monday night without some sort of contribution from their top snipers, then there might be reason to consider a shake-up in line combinations. But such shake-ups can often backfire in the long run (see John Torterella circa 2006). So it may be best to ride out any potential slumps and hope for more secondary scoring from players such as Ryan Malone or Steve Downie.
So there are a couple of ways to view the start to the Tampa Bay Lightning 2011-2012 campaign. Indeed, there are obvious concerns about the team’s defensive abilities, especially with Mattias Ohlund on the shelf for the foreseeable future. But, overall the team has skated hard, competed for loose pucks, battled in high traffic areas, and had their opportunities to score. With a couple of flaws in the early going being addressed by the coaching staff, and a slew of home games to round out October in a newly renovated and interactive Forum, Bolts fans should be excited about the potential to succeed in the coming weeks. Let’s enjoy the start of the season and not get too worried about the numbers as of yet. The end of the month marks the 11 game mark for the Bolts, and will be a very good juncture to judge how this roster stacks up against the competition.
Home opener is Monday, October 17th @ the St. Pete Time’s Forum. Limited tickets are still available for what promises to be quite the fan first experience as the Bolts officially open their newly renovated digs to the public. Several tours have been conducted for season ticket holders, among others, with overwhelmingly rave reviews for the facilities. Included is an outdoor pavilion bar for Terrace level guests, completely renovated executive suites, and every single seat in the arena is brand spanking new. The Lightning executive, led by Jeff Vinik, spent a lot of time studying the newest facilities around North America, assembling all the creature comforts and the best features that these various venues have to offer.
I think my favorite is the computer generated “Lightning Bolt” that strikes on the end glass after every goal for the home side. I anticipate it will really add a unique element to games in Tampa, much like the goal song in Chicago, or the Capitals’ unique goal horn. And what visiting goalie is going to want to have highlights of repeated Lightning Bolts striking down upon him after every mistake made in the game. It could help make the Forum a more intimidating place for other teams, something I feel any Bolts fan would be on board with. If you don’t have tickets for the game on Monday, move fast, I don’t anticipate they will be available for long.