Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 01/26/11 at 12:08 PM ET
With the pre-All-Star break portion of their schedule now officially complete after last night’s 2-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Tampa Bay Lightning sit comfortably atop the Southeast Division, second overall in the Eastern Conference and can rest, save for All-Stars Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, with five days before a meeting with the East-leading Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday.
51 games in the books, 31 to play – before the second season, that is, which is now nothing short of extremely likely for Tampa Bay. (Playoff hockey, folks! And – gasp – something to get excited about!)
Actually, there’s been plenty of excitement surrounding the Lightning all season already.
There are, of course, the 31 wins – second only to Philadelphia (33) and matched only by Pittsburgh in all the National Hockey League.
There’s the 16-4-2 home record and the fact that all but one of the Lightning’s hockey games in February will be played at the St. Pete Times Forum, with ten tilts remaining on the lengthy 12-game homestand.
There are individual performances to consider, namely St. Louis and Stamkos, near the top of the league in goals, assists and points all season long and the latter now in position for “Rocket” Richard and Art Ross honors with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby on the shelf.
There’s the emergence of Victor Hedman, at just 20-years-old, as an impact, two-way defenseman, still getting better each game with soaring confidence.
There is the play of Dwayne Roloson, with seven wins in 10 appearances since being acquired from the Islanders and, while we’re at it, three shutouts, two of them over the Washington Capitals, evening up that season series, which will conclude with two more meetings in Tampa.
There has been, all along, a legitimate all-hands-on-deck approach, with clearly established roles throughout the lineup and, as this year’s organizational mantra dictates, an “All In” attitude.
With that comes perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of all for this year’s Lightning – the fact that they’ve managed to limit the down times, a reality during an 82-game schedule that no team can avoid altogether – and get things back on track in short order. To this point, Tampa Bay has only lost consecutive games five times and three straight just twice. That particular downtrend came almost back-to-back during a rough stretch in November where they dropped six of seven. That aside, there have been no sustained losing streaks. None. And that isolated instance, the only real eyesore on the Lightning’s first half schedule, was largely neutralized by rolling off five straight wins immediately thereafter and at least a point in seven of eight. There’s the formula, in a nutshell, for consistent progress and success to the tune of the second-highest point total in the Eastern Conference and third in the entire league.
Really, is there anyone out there who expected this much (or, dare I say, more) out of this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning at the All-Star break? The guess here is no.
Perhaps head coach Guy Boucher would tell you he expects more (in fact, he probably would) but I think, deep down, this kind of turnaround this quickly may even be a bit of a surprise to him.
And, though he surely wouldn’t say it either, just as he wouldn’t be too quick to hand anything to his club 60-some odd percent of the way through the regular season, general manager Steve Yzerman has to see the lightning-quick progression of his Lightning as somewhat unexpected this early in his tenure, no? The aggressive acquisition of Roloson, far ahead of the trade deadline, was enough to indicate that Yzerman and company saw enough in the team as it was to immediately address a problem and fortify the club for an expected playoff run. I’m not sure that was such a concrete expectation from the start.
A hope? Sure. But the expectation? Not so fast.
It is no matter anymore because it is the expectation now, as well it should be.
From the GM and the coach, down to every last player on the roster, the standard line, from this point forward, will be, “There is still improvement to be made,” – an inherent truth when perfection has not been reached and just maybe a living description of the never-satisfied Boucher himself.
But, honestly, what is there to complain about?
(Yes, one lone Together We Will sign still hangs on the outside Forum wall. I’ll give you that.)
In all seriousness, there isn’t much.
The goaltending has certainly had its moments prior to (and even here and there since) Roloson’s arrival, but the veteran’s presence and consistency has all but eliminated that once unnerving concern.
Underwhelming offensive numbers from the likes of captain Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne remain, though the latter has picked it up of late and criticism of the former has consistently been met with approval of his all-around efforts from the decision-makers.
Beyond that, any clamoring for improvement or specific upgrades to the lineup could be looked at as a bit of a stretch. Arguments can be made for defensive depth and a veteran forward presence for the third and fourth line but at what cost and at the expense of whom? Defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron is already on the way, readying himself at AHL Norfolk and who, among the workhorse forwards, can anyone successfully argue should be removed from the lineup in favor of any theoretical addition?
There’s no clear-cut answer there and that is an overwhelming positive and a credit to the current lineup. Granted, there certainly could be changes, for a variety of reasons, but it has to be very reassuring to know that, for once, that sort of thing doesn’t appear to be necessary.
Yes, folks, through 51 games, the Lightning have proven to be a true force in the Eastern Conference and the final 31 will now play out with the focus on continued progress and seasoning for a postseason run.
There are no guarantees but that is, in fact, a reality because this club has shown nothing to indicate the kind of collapse it would take for a team in their position to miss out on Stanley Cup playoff action.
And, given their current standing, their penchant for continually getting better and a battle mentality embraced by all, that just isn’t going to happen.
I’m not sure anyone could have expected anything more.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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