Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 11/09/10 at 02:05 PM ET
When last the Tampa Bay Lightning were home, a celebration of a hard-fought, come-from-behind, 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins was in order before the Bolts set out on a four-game western road swing. And, after kicking off the trip with a 3-0 win in Phoenix over the Coyotes, at 7-2-1 and atop the Eastern Conference standings, Tampa Bay fans, really, couldn’t have asked for a much better start.
Now, nearly two weeks since that last home game, after an overtime loss in Anaheim and two consecutive regulation defeats following that win in Phoenix, things aren’t as rosy for Tampa Bay and the Lightning look to get back on track tonight against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
So what are we to make of Tampa’s 7-4-2 start? Hold that thought…
For starters, it’s often wise to wait until the 20-game mark to assess where a club might be headed. Since the lockout, by and large, that seems to be a large enough sample to make a solid prediction as to how things might shape up once all is said and done and the Bolts are still seven games away from that number. Plenty can change, one way or another, in that kind of stretch.
In fact, plenty can change in far shorter order than that, as seen in the last three games for Tampa Bay, the net result of which has the Lightning still second in the Southeast Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference, but just a point ahead of ninth place Pittsburgh. And though it’s still awfully early to talk playoff picture, leading indicators to this point show no reason to think the East won’t be as jumbled as it was last year, when just about everyone had reason to believe they could fight their way into the post-season almost all the way through.
But once they hit that 20-game mark, with a challenging schedule at hand in between now and then, reasonable expectations for this Lightning team should then become quite clear. It’s a stretch of seven games in 12 nights, with five of those contests on the road and four of them as part of two separate back-to-back scenarios. The opponents are no slouches either.
After Toronto tonight, the Bolts will set sail for Washington, where they’ll test their divisional mettle against the Caps on Thursday before a return engagement with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins a night later. A late afternoon home tilt is in order next, with the Minnesota Wild visiting on Sunday before midweek back-to-backs on Long Island and in Philadelphia precede a matchup with the Sabres in Buffalo a week from Saturday.
And, just like that, 20 games will be in the bag, with a lot still up in the air.
My guess is, the consensus pre-season predictions for the Lightning and the Southeast Division will look pretty good around that time. In fact, at this very moment, that’s just what we have to look at.
After a so-so start, Washington’s back on top, scoring in bunches once again, nearly unbeaten at home and leading the division in just about everything.
Tampa Bay, as many (myself included) thought they might be, is just behind the Capitals, good enough to put some pressure on Alex Ovechkin and company but probably not quite ready to usurp the incumbent division kings.
Atlanta’s next, showing intermittent signs of improvement but struggling with consistency; not anything too terribly unexpected, what with a significant change in direction for the franchise and several new faces throughout their lineup.
In fourth at present, the Carolina Hurricanes, who aren’t looking for excuses but deserve a little leeway on account of a taxing odyssey to begin the year that featured their season opening series against Minnesota in Helsinki, Finland and a west coast trip in succession (with a game in Ottawa sandwiched in between) before their first game at the RBC Center seven games into the young season. There’s a significant reliance on youth in Carolina with, as is to be expected, mixed results. Jeff Skinner’s been fantastic. Elsewhere, baby steps…
And Florida, whose occupancy of fifth in the Southeast is not a surprise, has not been last-place bad, for the most part. Of their seven losses, four have been by a single goal and only once have they been overtly outplayed (a 4-1 loss to Dallas at home). The young Panthers are the young Panthers, with Tomas Vokoun keeping them in games as the division’s least-prolific offense struggles to find its way.
So, if you look at it like that, Washington-Tampa Bay-Atlanta-Carolina-Florida, in that order, how the Southeast looks just this minute is about what folks expected it to look like in the long-run. (It’s exactly what this humble scribe pictured before the season kicked off, anyway.)
But the wise move is to refuse to make any hard-line assumptions until all have played 20.
In about a week-and-a-half, we should know enough about the Lightning as well as their four Southeast rivals to adjust those pre-season expectations and make some reasonable forecasts for the rest of the year.
The bet here remains that the way things are now is the way they’ll stay throughout.
How in the hell is a guy supposed to give out leaguewide Three Cheers after a night with just one game? Here’s how:
***Cheers to Ilya Bryzgalov, for keeping the Coyotes in last night’s game against Detroit, to the tune of 37 saves, before the Wings prevailed 3-2 in overtime.
**Cheers to the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom, for notching the equalizer in the third.
*And big time cheers to Henrik Zetterberg, for winning the game in O.T. with a tremendous individual effort.
While you’re in the listening mood, catch me at 3:45 pm, ET today on XM 204’s FaceOff with Jim “Boomer” Gordon, where I’ll preview Lightning/Leafs (and probably give Boom some crap about his Pittsburgh Steelers barely escaping the Cincinnati Bengals and he’ll return fire with a Jets/Lions barb, I’m sure).
Finally, our friends at Puck Daddy have posted an extensive interview with Steven Stamkos that is a must-read for sure. Stammer shares his thoughts on “Scary” Gary Roberts, the “Seen Stamkos?” campaign, his adult beverage of choice (when in Canada, of course) and much more.
Filed in: NHL Teams, Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
Tags: alex+ovechkin, predictions, sidney+crosby, standings, steven+stamkos, the+bolts+beat
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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.
From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.
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