There wasn’t a whole lot in the way of controversy in last night’s series opener between the Lightning and Penguins. (Well, there was Zbynek Michalek using his stick as a toothpick on Marty St. Louis, which we’ll get to…) I imagine
when there is, this ongoing exchange between FromThePoint.com’s Brian Metzer and I will take on some added spice.
For now, we’re just teaming up to bring you opposing viewpoints of the series, as it plays out. With chapter one in the books, here’s my latest exchange with Metz, looking back on last night’s 3-0 Pittsburgh win:
JJ: We’ll keep this one simple: Was that NOT exactly what the Penguins wanted to do - play a tight defensive game, rely on Marc-Andre Fleury to make a couple (or a slew) of key saves and break through offensively at the right time? Sure seemed like the gameplan to me.
BM: You nailed it, JJ. That was the plan and they executed it to perfection. Sure, they would like to get more offense early, but when it doesn’t come they just find a way to settle into a tight defensive scheme, allow MAF to do his job and roll on from there. It has been their modus operandi throughout the season, but even more so since losing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
It was very interesting to watch the Penguins make an adjustment in how they handled their offense in the second and third period. It seems as if Dan Bylsma convinced them to just get pucks on the net from everywhere on the ice. Where they might have been trying to get a fancy in the first period, they were shuffling pucks toward Dwayne Roloson from everywhere. Heck, Jordan Staal even tried to put a shot off of his back from below the goal line. That flurry of shots allowed them to open the game up a bit and generated the scoring chances that they needed to eventually break through.
Game one between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay was about what most probably expected, in terms of style, intensity, strategy and even end result. In a toss-up series that most have conceded can end up going either way, last night’s game was a small example of just that. In the end, the home squad prevailed, largely on the heroics of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and, though the final score will reflect a three-goal difference (thanks, in part to an empty netter), the teams battled in just the type of tightly-contested matchup the series itself should ultimately reflect.
From the Lightning’s perspective, they have to look at it as just one game. They can be disappointed (as well they should) and lament missed opportunities (of which, they had many) but game one is over and done with and they’ll do what they’ve done all year, win or lose, in wiping it clean off the slate and starting anew.
As for the Penguins, game one appeared to be the execution of exactly what they’d hoped to do from the start – a tight defensive game, strong goaltending and a timely goal to shift the momentum. Alexei Kovalev’s third period tally did just that and perhaps the Bolts hung their heads thereafter, even just for a moment.
That moment, of course, was one too much and, in it, Arron Asham extended the lead to 2-0. There were times during the regular season when Tampa Bay (and goaltender Dwayne Roloson, in particular) lost composure after an untimely goal against and never recovered. While this may not have been an extended repetition of just that, as Roloson and the Bolts did appear to regain confidence and poise late, it can serve as a lesson for a team short on playoff experience that in the postseason, such a singular moment of self-wallowing can prove costly.
He answered my questions and now I answer his.
In the latest installment of our ongoing collaboration that will last throughout the Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay series, I respond to five questions from FromThePoint.com‘s Brian Metzer about the Bolts as they prepare to take on his hometown Pens.
Here’s the first one, as a sample:
BM – Though this series would have been a bit sexier had all of the star power been on the ice for each side, it does still feature one of the most exciting players in the league — Steven Stamkos. Stamkos will certainly leave his finger prints on the series, especially if the Lightning advance, but I have been thinking that Vinny Lecavalier is almost more important to the Lightning’s chances. What are your thoughts? The Penguins defense will be focused on stopping the Stamkos/St. Louis combo leaving Vinny to lift himself and the ‘Ning to greatness…
JJ – While Stamkos has been stymied of late, scoring just one non-empty net goal in the final 13 games, it’s awfully difficult to stop Marty St. Louis. Somehow, the ageless wonder always seems to manage to make a difference. Because of that, and the undeniable fact that St. Louis is still the heart of this club as well as its primo offensive catalyst, I put more value on his performance than Stamkos’ even. That said, the Lightning need Stamkos to return at least partially to the form that had him on such a torrid pace for most of the season. The way he’s fizzled, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out that he’s been nursing some sort of unknown injury, though I don’t have any reason to suspect as much and, if so, they’ve done a good job of keeping it under wraps to this point.
More original content from yours truly, as well as a link to my answers to Brian Metzer’s questions at FromThePoint.com, in short order.
For now, here’s a sampling of some other takes on the Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay series, everything from opinion and commentary to prediction and previews, from the Tampa and Pittsburgh areas and beyond…
Getting there — back to the playoffs — occurred much quicker than anticipated. Yzerman, a Hall of Fame player for two decades in Detroit, spoke of the long-term picture and hired the youngest coach in the league, 39-year-old Guy Boucher. While this season was not to be overlooked — the hope was the team would compete for a playoff spot — the broader plan was to make the Lightning an annual participant in the postseason with an eye on three years, even five years, down the road.
Instead, Boucher and Yzerman turned things around at warp speed, guiding the Lightning to the second-best regular season in franchise history in finishing with 101 points and a record-tying 46 victories.
To accomplish that in Year One of a long-term plan put Tampa Bay on the fast track to becoming a perennial playoff contender and legitimate threat to win another Stanley Cup — maybe more — during the new regime.
Leading up to tonight’s Stanley Cup playoff quarterfinal opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, you’ll probably be gearing up by gathering every piece of information out there about both teams, previews, predictions, news and opinion alike. While I put out my series breakdown yesterday (and probably fell out of favor with some of the locals, as I picked the Penguins to win a true “pick ‘em” series in six games, while recognizing how very possible it is that the series could fall the other way in the Lightning’s favor) and also shared my brief thoughts on the other quarterfinal matchups, that was just me.
And, that’s just not enough.
Instead of relying on my take alone, I’ll be taking advantage of the Tampa/Pittsburgh matchup to do some long-awaited collaboration with a pal and former colleague who does a fine job in covering the Penguins at FromThePoint.com, Mr. Brian Metzer.
Metz has covered the Pens admirably for years at a number of different outlets and his word, on their end, is gold in my book. With that in mind, I thought I’d toss a few burning questions his way, to get his take on the series before it gets underway. He’s returned fire, and I’ve answered a few of his inquiries as well, which he’ll be running over on his site later this morning. (For now, Brian’s posted Ten “Must Sees” for the series…)
We’ll be staying in touch throughout the series and picking each other’s brains with every twist and turn therein, all to be shared right here (and there) for your reading enjoyment. (Make sure you’re following Metz on Twitter as well for further updates on his end.)
And, hurt feelings aside, I’m sure we’ll take a look back at this potentially-epic matchup once all is said and done.
Finally, each of us will be popping in at NHL Home Ice (Sirius 208/XM 204) periodically during the series and we’ll do our best to keep you posted on times for our guest spots. I do know that Metz will be on with Jim “Boomer” Gordon sometime this afternoon, for starters.
To kick things off, here are my five questions for Metz and his insightful responses thereafter. I’ll be posting a link to my retort on his site as soon as possible.
Every year around this time, in writing this very piece, I usually begin with something along the lines of, “I swore I’d never make playoff predictions again.” For starters, everybody does it and I usually try my best to steer clear of being just like the rest of ‘em. But more than that, my repeated attempts to avoid postseason prognostication stem from my overwhelming lack of accuracy in years past. (The postseason underachievers of the world have drawn my ire time and again. San Jose, you still top my poop list for that reason.)
But worse than my failure to pick a set of winners that resembles anything close to accuracy is my perennial failure to avoid picking altogether.
Something always draws me in.
And now, I realize, I’m powerless to fight it. I’ll make my picks here today, do so again round after round and I’ll do it again next year (and the year after that, and so on and so forth). Might as well be honest with myself…
This year, the allure is in the series that will remain my primary focus, Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh. I have to admit, it’s still a bit surreal to see the hometown Bolts actually in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After the last two seasons of uncertainty, four seasons overall since their last playoff game and even despite the regular season success they managed early and often this year, the fact that exit medicals and getaway interviews haven’t already been conducted is still a bit of a walk through bizzarro-world for me. Better get over that, I suppose… The Lightning certainly aren’t thinking that way.
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The playoffs are here and there’s much to do along with that. We’ve got predictions to be made, schedules to coordinate, stories to write and, don’t forget, beards to grow!
As far as scheduling goes, complete playoff dockets can be found all over the place but many folks have a specific focus in mind and you won’t find that readily available just anywhere. But I’ve put together a master viewing schedule for anyone with a Southeast Division focus, in particular, including AHL Calder Cup playoff matchup for Carolina, Tampa Bay and Washington fans looking to track their minor league affiliates in the postseason as well. (I would imagine that AHL Live will make a playoff package available in short order.)
Naturally, many of you (like me) will be watching as much playoff hockey as you possibly can, by whatever means necessary, making the act of planning your viewing schedule relatively pointless but, if you follow along with this, fans of teams in the Southeast (and even those who will only see playoff action through their minor league affiliates) won’t miss a second of their club’s chase for a championship. I’ll certainly aim to update this past the first round, where applicable.
Your master schedule awaits:
For a time, it looked like four teams from the Southeast Division would at least have a fighting chance at a playoff spot. As late as the end of January, while Tampa Bay and Washington remained comfortably among the top half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff-bound teams, both the Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes teeter-tottered in and around eighth place, making a quartet of Southeast clubs fighting to advance through the Stanley Cup playoffs a distinct possibility.
Alas, Atlanta was in freefall mode soon enough, winning just twice in the entire month of February, the Florida Panthers never contended, despite having a better showing this year than many expected, and Carolina’s impressive fight for the eighth and final playoff spot fell just short yesterday, though the final round of that battle last night left much to be desired, losing to Tampa Bay 6-2 at home in a win-and-in setting.
So, it will be the Capitals and the Lightning only representing the Southeast in the NHL postseason, which is about what most pundits put forth in preseason predictions. Flip-flop Atlanta and Carolina in the Southeast’s final standings, and the actual finish is exactly what I’d expected, though I won’t boast that as a feat deserving any sort of special recognition. By and large, the end result in these here parts was an easy call.
That being said, there were some twists and turns and surprises along the way.
Down to the wire, indeed.
Game 82 tonight for the Carolina Hurricanes, against visiting division rival Tampa Bay could very well be a “win-and-in” situation for the home squad, depending on what the New York Rangers end up doing in today’s home tilt against New Jersey (2-1 Devils early in the second, as I type this).
With the ‘Canes currently in eighth, thanks to a greater number of regulation wins (35 to New York’s 34) after an even point total of 91, a Ranger loss in regulation today renders tonight’s game irrelevant. If the Blueshirts earn a single point, Carolina must at least do the same to regain eighth. New York wins, so must the Hurricanes.
Essentially, it’s follow the leader (or the trailer, as it were, in this case).
Well, they’re in.
With a hard-fought 2-1 decision over a likely first-round opponent in the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Tampa Bay Lightning will return to the NHL’s post-season for the first time since 2007.
There was satisfaction in the locker room in the minutes after the win was secured – but not celebration. Deep down, players that have been part of the team in recent years of disappointment (and downright sorrow) had to appreciate a sense of revival and a reward for their resiliency. Newcomers had to be pleased to be a part of the team’s turnaround, now with a tangible measure of achievement.
To a man, the satisfaction of checking goal number one for the season off the list has now been realized.
But that was about it – and the sense in the room last night was that this team, despite some recent struggles, does indeed feel like getting into the playoffs was just step one of many.