by Ian Cunningham
The Lightning penalty kill looked abhorent over the weekend in a home-and-home series with state rival, the Florida Panthers. In total, the Panthers struck seven times on the power play, along with one short handed marker for eight special teams goals in two games. Florida has only one power play goal in its other two contests this season. Clearly, there are some issues to address with the Tampa special teams, but these issues are of a correctable nature.
Chief among these concerns is a lack of discipline, leading to 33 minutes of penalties in the home opener Monday night. Not to make excuses for 5 power play goals in a game, but when you’re short handed half the night it takes its toll on the penalty killers. And when you run down the list of penalized Lightning players it reads like their penalty killing lineup: Adam Hall, Ryan Malone, Steve Downie, Matt Gilroy, Eric Brewer, Martin St. Louis, Dominic Moore, Pavel Kubina. With these players sitting in the box throughout the night it puts a lot of strain on the coaching staff to be creative with new penalty killing tandems both up front and on the blue line.
The penalty killing “substitutes” at times looked out of place and were hesitant to get in the shooting lanes, leading to second chance opportunities for the Panthers. The end result was Tampa Bay playing catch up for most of the night. At 5on5 the Bolts looked to be a stronger club than Florida, often controlling possession and pace during play. Both teams demonstrated an ability to operate at high speed, but Tampa appeared to be more assured of themselves at this pace.
So if the shorthanded struggles did not hamper this squad over the weekend set, it’s reasonable to assume that Tampa would not be sitting on a five game losing streak, the longest during coach Guy Boucher’s tenure with the club. The worry for Bolts brass and their fans is whether this is a legitimate issue within in the club, one that could hinder the chances of even qualifying for the post season. Or if it is simply a hiccup in a team system that can be corrected with diligent work coaches and players.
Don’t forget, this is basically the same team that had the 2nd best penalty kill in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 92.3% efficiency. Only the Montreal Canadiens perfect penalty killing in a first round exit was more proficient. So without having some of your penalty killing veterans in the box, you have a shorthanded squad that can be relied upon in even the most tenuous circumstances. The key to improving the Bolts PK would thus be more dependent upon their ability to stay aggressive at even strength while evading the ire of the officials, in other words, discipline.
You may ask why I haven’t chastised the Bolts power play as of yet, and it is simply because I do not think it is a worry at this point. The power play is not as “coachable” as the penalty kill, in that creating offense goes beyond the X’s and O’s that any hockey coach has at his disposal. The most successful power plays have players who have a heightened awareness of their surroundings, commonly referred to as vision. You see it in the early success of the Edmonton Oilers this season. Players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have a nose for the net, and an inborn ability to both make and finish scoring plays.
The same can be said for the Bolts top three snipers: Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier. This trifecta is one of the most explosive the entire league has to offer and all three have a natural ability to see a play develop and position themselves accordingly. They also are some of the strongest finishers in the league, although you can argue that Lecavalier’s stats are not where they used to be.
So I think it is safe to assume that by seasons end the Bolts will have one of the stronger power play units in the league. Like I have said before, the end of October is a much better time to assess the position the team is in this season. In less than two weeks the Lightning will have played eleven games and the Eastern Conference will most likely begin to take shape. Until then, enjoy the hockey.