The Lightning are poised to take on the Winnipeg Jets at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday with one thing in mind, two points. Belief is starting to set in that this team could very well be a playoff bound team. As it stands right now, the Lightning sit in 11th place with 48 points while the Jets have 52 points in 10th place. That four point gap could be narrowed to two as early as tomorrow night. Also remember that the Lightning hold games in hand on a number of the teams battle for the final couple playoff spots. Right now, the Lightning are in a great position. In the NHL, five straight wins does that.
It’s tough to really describe just how important the next two games are for this group. Two home games against Southeast division rivals directly above the Bolts in the standings; does it get any better than this? These games are going to be hard fought, passionate and all around great tilts. For the fans lucky enough to be attending, enjoy the hockey; it’s going to be great. Before the Bolts start getting ahead of themselves, they have to focus on the task at hand. That task? To beat the Winnipeg Jets and take two points to the bank. Here’s my pre-game report for Thursday’s tilt.
Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this good about the Lightning. So far this season, fans have witness inconsistent effort, lackluster goaltending and a defense that would make most minor league offenses look like the NHL all-star team. Now, the tides have turned. Has the roster improved? No. So where has this change come from? It all starts with effort. So often in professional sports, we hear about the effort. What does it really mean? It means getting clutch performances from key guys, it means getting timely offense from unexpected sources, it means getting that huge save to keep a game tied, it means getting that unnoticed defensive play deep in the corners, but most of all, it means playing for the team. Right now, the guys are playing for each other; it’s so noticeable. Everyone seems to be buying into the fact that this group could very well end up in the playoff picture come April. That positive atmosphere and aura has really translated onto the ice.
Guy Boucher was quoted after the Capitals win regarding this effort and try:
"It's part of the hope that we will continue to get better. Our players are dedicated. We're keeping our fire alive" (lightning.nhl.com).
Boucher has this group fired up right now and the Winnipeg Jets best be ready to take on one of the most dynamic offensive groups in the game. Consider for a second that the Lightning have three players with more than 40 points this season. Not too many teams in the league can stake that claim at this point in the season. Marty St. Louis is averaging over a point per game, Vinny Lecavalier is playing with confidence and Steven Stamkos is just going about his business as one of the league’s most dynamic, exciting players. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this Tampa Bay Lightning team is the most marketable franchise in the game with those three role models. Is there a player who commands more respect than Marty? Debatable, but he surely ranks right up there.
So, why the back story? It’s important to emphasize that the Jets are going to have a real tough time dealing with the high flying offense (no pun intended) of the Lightning. Boucher and the rest of his staff have set this team up so that there isn’t one line to defend against. Throw out a top pair against Stammer, and there’s the risk that Purcell and Vinny hook up for a goal. It’s a double edged sword. Having everybody playing well just makes coaching that much easier.
This season has been an absolute emotional ride for the Winnipeg Jets and their fan base. In fact, it’s been a great ride for the entire league. Watching Jets games, and seeing that building packed with people and energy every single night is really invigorating. Remember the good old Atlanta Thrashers days? I don’t either. Finally, Winnipeg has its Jets back. Tomorrow night the Lightning and Jets will be opponents, but that doesn’t mean Bolt fans can’t be happy for the ‘Peg and the team.
Let’s get down to the fine details here and examine why I believe that this is a very winnable game for the Bolts. The Jets come into this game without a real offensive star. People can talk about Evander Kane all they want, but I would describe him as enigmatic at best. In a few years, he could develop into a real nice player, but right now, he’s not a dominant game changer night after night. That’s not to say that the Bolts shouldn’t respect him, or the Jets’ offense, but it’s not exactly like we are taking on the Vancouver Canucks here. Remember that stat about the Lightning having three guys with 40 points or more? The Jets don’t have one guy with more than 33 points. When the Jets win, they win because of effort, strong goaltending and a lot of heart. A lot of that comes from the fans and their absolute, unconditional backing of the team.
Unfortunately for the Jets, Thursday’s game will not be played at the MTS Centre; instead, at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. What does that mean? It means that the Bolts will put their 14-7-1 home record up against the Jets’ 8-14-4 road record. To the casual observer, that spells good things for the guys who call Tampa home.
I refuse to call any game a “shoe-in” in the NHL. No team is just going to roll-over and give away two points. The parity in this league is too great and any team can win on any given night. That said, this is a very winnable game for the Lightning. Win a win, the Bolts would move that much closer to the elusive top-8. If you had asked me in mid-January whether or not I believed that the Lightning would still be in the hunt come February, I would have said no way. This is a completely different team looking for its 6th win in a row. Let’s hope that the boys turn in a good performance and take home the most important points of the season.
Thanks for reading and I’ll be back with my post-game thoughts following the tilt.
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