Only in the NHL is it possible to be one of the best teams over a ten game stretch and not make up any ground. That’s exactly what’s happening to the Tampa Bay Lightning right now. 7-1-2 in their last ten, the Bolts have been playing some inspired hockey. Whether it’s players fighting for jobs, looking to get traded to a contender or just simply fighting for a playoff spot, people are playing well right now. A huge win in Buffalo last night cements the Lightning in the middle of a playoff race that should be incredibly exciting down the stretch. Another two points tonight against one of the league’s powerhouse teams and it’s game on, folks.
Last night, the Lightning came out and did exactly what they needed to in order to take two points from Buffalo. The Bolts came out quick and peppered Ryan Miller with 12 shots in the first frame; it was the exact start the guys needed after a couple of demoralizing losses. The hard work in the first paid off. Momentum from that first period carried over into the second and Steve Downie potted his 50th career goal (9th of the season) from Hedman and Stamkos. It was actually a really nifty play if you watch it closely; Downie showed that he does indeed have soft hands as he maneuvered the puck in tight to put it past Miller. If Downie could play between the whistles, and not after them, for 60 minutes, he would be an incredibly effective hockey player.
Later in the second, Stamkos would pot his 37th(!!) of the season. On TSN the other night, Stamkos was mentioned in regards to goal scoring. The commentator mentioned that he was astounded that such a great goal-scoring season was going so unrecognized throughout the league. Here’s a guy who is on pace to score 56 goals after a slow-ish start to the season. Fans, we are witnessing something really spectacular with this guy. Mark my words; in a few years, his contract is going to look like an absolute bargain.
It wasn’t until the third period started that the Sabres really started gaining momentum. They put 14 shots on Garon but he was more than equal to the task. The third period was not without its tense moments as Garon had to come up HUGE on a couple of occasions. He stoned a number of Sabres players point-blank with huge pad saves. For a guy who took a lot of flak early in the season, he has put together a nice little run here (6-0-2 in last 8 starts). Unfortunately, the much deserved shutout was not to be when Jason Pominville put his 20th past Garon late in the period.
Despite letting a late goal in, the Lightning closed out the third and took home the two points. It was a deserved victory giving the Lightning 3 victories against the Sabres this season. Here are some post-game notes:
* For a team with so many defensive issues, the Lightning have a surprisingly superb record in one-goal games (14-2-6). The Lightning also moved to 16-1-1 when leading after two periods. Both of those records are going to become incredibly relevant down the stretch as the games get that much tighter.
* Victor Hedman logged a team high in the ice-time category just a few games back from injury. I got into a little disagreement with someone on one of Eklund’s blogs about Hedman’s worth. How many young D-men, with size, can play that many minutes really effectively? Moreover, how many can skate, and move the puck like Hedman? Not too many.
* The Lightning did a great job of standing up at the blueline and not allowing any Sabres forward entry into the zone. With good stick work and physicality, the Lightning were able to protect Garon all night long. That kind of team defense is what this team needs considering the blue-line core isn’t exactly the strongest in the league.
* Overall, last night’s performance is exactly what this group needed. They took home another two points and are back at it tonight in Pittsburgh. I pegged this one as a loss in my predictions earlier in the month, but now I’m not so certain. There’s no two ways about this; the Bolts are playing well right now.
As mentioned, the Lightning are in Pittsburgh tonight to take on the Penguins in the second game of back-to-backs. Before we assume that will hurt the Bolts, it should be noted that the Pens played last night against the Winnipeg Jets and won 8-5 (thank-you, Penguins). The question becomes, which team will be more tired tonight? On the one hand, you have the Lightning who played a hard-fought, playoff-like battle against the Sabres. On the other hand, the Penguins were in a high-flying match against the Jets. This could get interesting.
Just as the Lightning are hot, the Penguins have put together a nice little stretch over their last ten games (7-2-1). Even without Sidney Crosby, Dan Bylsma has this team playing hard, fast and skilled hockey. How many teams could lose their best player and still play like the Penguins have been playing? Okay, now how many of those teams have Evgeni Malkin as their second best player? Exactly. He’s big, he’s smart and he’s one of the most skilled players in the league; the Lightning are going to have to be incredibly careful with Malkin tonight. He’s the league’s leading point-scorer and you can bet he will be ready to take on the Lightning D core tonight.
Guy Boucher didn’t reveal who his starter will be tonight, but I can’t imagine that this game can go to anyone but Garon. As mentioned earlier, the guy is 6-0-2 in his last 8 starts and he is on an absolute roll. Despite being on the second half of back-to-backs, this should be Garon’s game. My sentiments are echoed by many respected hockey writers in the Twitter-verse but only time will tell what happens.
Hopefully you are all looking forward to tonight’s game; it should be a good one. My prediction was 7-3-2 to close out the month and so far the Lightning are 1-1-1 (since I made the predictions). Could tonight be the second win? Let’s hope so Bolts Nation!
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