The month of February is shaping up to be one of vital importance for the Tampa Bay Lightning. With 12 games until the February 27th trade deadline, the Lightning are looking at a schedule that will have a huge impact on whether or not the team makes the playoffs this season. In this blog, I’ll take a look at the Panthers game coming up on Saturday, some rumors making rounds and the standings.
Time and time again, it’s been said that one should never judge a book by its cover. To start the 2011-12 NHL campaign, that’s exactly what a lot of people did with the Florida Panthers. How was a group of misfits supposed to be competitive without Tomas Vokoun in net? Were fans really supposed to believe that overpaid Brian Campbell was the answer? Dale Tallon may have wished for success, but not even he could have expected the start the Panthers got out to this season.
With 11 points in their last 12 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly turning some heads. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Bolts occupied the 15th spot in the Eastern conference for an hour or two. Fast forward six games and the Lightning find themselves in a battle for a playoff spot, and possibly the division crown.
On Thursday night, the Lightning took to the ice against the Winnipeg Jets. In a game dominated by the Lightning’s speed, pressure and attack, somehow, the Jets came out on top in overtime. It was a demoralizing loss that, when put into perspective, could hold a lot of weight going down the stretch. That extra point given to the Jets, seemingly insignificant, is the difference between a four point gap with two games in hand and a five point gap. Despite having their work cut out for them, the Lightning are certainly not out of this race.
The Jets head to take on the Panthers later today in what will be their second game of back-to-back contests here in Florida. It would be a bit of a stretch to say that the Jets worked hard last night in Tampa, so they should have a lot of energy built up to bring to the Panthers game. That means that the Panthers will come into the Tampa Bay Times Forum on their own set of back-to-back games. That should bode incredibly well for the Lightning.
This is the final meeting of the season between the Panthers and Lightning with the Bolts currently boasting a record of 3-1-1 in the previous five contests. A lot of people don’t believe that history, or past games count for anything. It’s my personal opinion that, in a league in which all the teams are so evenly matched, every mental edge helps. Award the Lightning a point in the mental category heading into this one.
In those five contests, two Lightning players have recorded 7 points each. Steven Stamkos has notched 5 goals and 2 assists while MA Bergeron, who may or may not play, has 2 goals and 5 assists. Bergeron himself stated that he feels ready to play so we may in fact see him in the line-up. Given his history this season against the Panthers, it’s probably safe to assume that as long as he’s feeling alright, he’ll be in the line-up.
As far as goaltending goes, there really isn’t any way this game isn’t given to Mathieu Garon. Not only has he been spectacular over the last few weeks, but his stats line against the Florida Panthers this season is great. His .929SV% will give the Panther shooters a little something extra to think about before firing away. As mentioned earlier, any mental edge is a good thing for this team right now.
This game won’t be easy for the Lightning. The Florida Panthers have a few unsuspecting guys who can put up points and move the puck really well. In a few seasons, the state of Florida could have a really good hockey rivalry going on. I’m sure that was Gary Bettman’s original plan anyways.
As mentioned earlier, this is a pivotal game for the Lightning; these two points mean more than most. While the standings won’t drastically sway with a victory or a loss, the entire season could. The guys know how important every game is from now on and they know what they have to do. Boucher’s said it, the players have echoed it, and now it’s time to get the job done. It all starts with a regulation time victory against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.
3rd Place: Florida Panthers with 57 Points through 49 Games
8th Place: Toronto Maple Leafs with 58 Points through 51 Games
9th Place: Washington Capitals with 56 Points through 50 Games
10th Place: Winnipeg Jets with 54 Points through 52 Games
11th Place: Tampa Bay Lightning with 49 Points Through 50 Games
Those five teams are essentially battling four two playoff spots (the Toronto Maple Leafs technically don’t factor into the 3rd place spot). Exclude the Washington Capitals for a moment and ask yourself what the Panthers, Leafs and Jets all have in common. They all started the season much hotter than they are right now. As aforementioned, the Panthers came out of the gate red-hot. Yes, they’re still leading the Southeast, but someone has to. The Panthers playing hockey right now are simply not playing at the same level they were earlier in the year.
The Leafs also started this season with a bang coming out of the gate with Phil Kessel’s unbelievable offense, James Reimer’s solid goaltending and a defensive structure that was hard to penetrate. Since then, confidence seems to have become an issue for the boys from the center of the universe. Reimer has lost his consistency, trade rumors are everywhere and the team can’t put together two great performances in a row. Does that remind anyone of the Bolts earlier this season?
Similarily, the Jets started off the season playing some decent hockey. Backed by a rocking hometown crowd and a lot of passion, the Jets started this season flying (literally). There was excitement, the dreams of a playoff berth and much, much more. Since then, expectations have seemingly come back down to earth for a group that simply doesn’t have the talent to compete with other groups in the East. In my opinion, it’s going to be a little while until the Jets are back in the playoff picture. Those guys were left with a real mess from the Atlanta days.
That leaves the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals; let’s start with the Caps. After Bruce Boudreau’s firing, it took Dale Hunter and the players a little while to get adjusted. Since then, the Capitals have been playing much better hockey. Ovechkin looks hungry, the team looks fed-up with losing and a lot of things seem to be firing on all cylinders. That’s not unlike the Bolts.
Since their early season struggles and a losing streak to start January, the Bolts have been a much different team. They are playing with speed, intensity, drive and most importantly, heart. It’s pretty obvious that there is an uphill climb to make for the playoffs to be in the picture, but with the way this team is playing right now it’s not necessarily out of the question.
The NHL standings are so hard to predict and interpret. As a result, we can only take a look at cold, hard numbers. Since the lockout, it has taken an average of exactly 92 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. With the Bolts currently sitting at 49 points, they would need 43 points in their last 32 games to reach that mark. That means that the Bolts would have to acquire 67% of all the points available to close the season. To put that into perspective, the Bolts home record this season (which has largely been perceived as a positive) has them taking home just over 65% of the points available. Yes fans, this means that the Bolts will have to play better than they have this season at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on both home ice and the road. Possible? Yes. Probable? Even a hardcore fan such as myself has to say no.
Since my medical absence, a lot has gone on in the rumor mill. With the trade deadline only weeks away (I’ll be glued to Twitter and Hockeybuzz for all the latest), teams have been making calls, inquiries and offers like there’s no tomorrow. In this segment, I’ll take a look at players the Bolts have been linked to in The Fourth Period’s latest ’25 Most Available Players’ piece, and Eklund’s rumor pertaining to the Bolts and the Vancouver Canucks.
When you think of underrated defensemen in the game (is that really possible?), Lubomir Visnovsky immediately jumps to mind. He’s fast, he has a rocket of a shot, and he’s become much more defensively aware over the last few years. When I saw that he was being linked to the Lightning, I was thrilled. Here’s a guy who has the ability to put up 50+ points per season while playing key minutes for whatever team he’s on. Imagine him on the powerplay instead of Brett Clark. As Lubo has another year on his contract, the asking price for him would be incredibly high. The question becomes, is it worth it?
There was some stuff floating around earlier in the year about Gill possibly coming down to Tampa from Montreal. As a veteran, pending UFA, the asking price for Gill probably wouldn’t be any higher than a mid-round pick. That said, the possible benefits of adding the guy are endless. He’s a proven winner, a leader in the room and a true gentleman. Not only that, but he’s also a huge physical presence on the ice. That’s something our defense could use a little more of down the stretch.
It’s probably better to get this over in one segment as four guys are linked to the Bolts at this point. As per usual it’s Jonathan Bernier, Josh Harding, Evgeni Nabokov and Antero Niittymaki. I’ve made my opinions on Niittymaki incredibly clear. We’ve seen that experiment once before and it didn’t exactly work out. I’d rather have Garon manning the net than a guy who couldn’t hold onto the back-up job in San Jose. As for Nabokov; if the Lightning find themselves in a race for the playoffs, I could see him fitting in just like Dwayne Roloson did last season. Other than that, there would be no reason to bring him in.
Now, the other two guys are very interesting. Both Bernier and Harding are great goaltenders in the Western Conference. Personally, I prefer Bernier just because I’ve followed him quite closely since his draft year and I know what he can do. The kid is a wizard in net and when he is finally given a shot in the National Hockey League he will prove all the doubters wrong. Could you imagine a trade with the Los Angeles Kings that brought in Bernier and the possibly available Jack Johnson? What would it cost?
To Los Angeles:
To Tampa Bay:
2012 2nd Round Draft Pick
Would you do that deal? Would Los Angeles? It’s a lot to give up on both ends but that is the pure definition of a true hockey deal. The Kings are getting a prospect goaltender to develop behind Jonathan Quick (ala Cory Schneider/Roberto Luongo), a great young player with tremendous upside and a sizable winger who charges the net. The Bolts would get a great young goaltender who will one day be one of the best in the game, a defenseman with a ton of skill and unrealized potential and a draft pick.
Submit your trade proposals to my message inbox and I’ll publish them with my thoughts. Who would you like to see the Bolts go after at the deadline? Let me know.
When Eklund reported that the Lightning were in talks with the Vancouver Canucks, the first name that jumped into my head was Steve Downie. He mentioned that the Canucks wanted a tough, gritty forward to step in and play a physical style for them in the playoffs. Downie seems like the perfect fit for their third line. As I’ve mentioned before, I follow the Canucks quite a bit. That group really misses Raffi Torres on the third line. He was the guy who made opposing players think twice before laying a hit on the Sedins or making a blind pass. Downie could be that guy for them. Now, a lot of people will say that the Canucks would never want Downie because he’s ‘dirty’. Well, look no further than Max Lapierre. There’s a guy who had one of the worst reputations in the league, and yet, Alain Vigneault (top 3 coach in the league IMO) was able to straighten the guy out.
Of course, that’s all speculation on my part.
Thanks for reading this jam packed blog. The next few weeks should be really exciting and very intriguing to follow as the Bolts make the push towards the playoffs. Steve Yzerman’s phone will certainly start to ring a little bit more down the stretch and it should be very interesting to see what moves, if any, he manages to pull off. Thanks for reading; I’ll be back with my post-game review tomorrow night along with any other news that hits my desk pertaining to the Bolts. Last but not least, remember that last season the Toronto Maple Leafs were 12 points out of the playoffs on February 3rd; they managed to get into a real tight race for the last spot. Our Bolts are only 8 points out; this is manageable.
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