Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 10/14/10 at 11:39 AM ET
Death, taxes and JJ’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…
The alternative to the standard game recap became a staple of my Tampa Bay Lightning coverage last season and it was only a matter of time before it made its season debut here.
Sure, the title of the regular feature has now been copied by a second-rate Bolts blog as of this morning but the content can’t hold a candle to the original and, hell, you’re here with me and they’re, well… They’re sleeping, I’m sure, on Pacific Time and what not… (Lightning coverage from California? Now that’s insight!)
Agendas aside, let’s get on with the highs, the lows and the low blows from last night’s 4-3 overtime win for the Lightning in Montreal, shall we?
St. Downkos Rides Again
A widely accepted assumption this off-season in many circles was that the upstart, uber-productive line of Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to repeat their performances of 2009-10 again this season – at least not together. Many acknowledged Downie’s emergence as an impact player but reasoned that, with Simon Gagne now in the fold in Tampa, it was only a matter of time before he, St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier would be united and that Stamkos and Downie would have to find a new running mate under head coach Guy Boucher.
The Lightning’s top line of a year ago has spent significant time together through the first two games of the new season and hasn’t missed a beat with five goals and nine points to boast, collectively, in that time.
What makes the line special is the sum of its parts, which is basically everything a coach could ask for in a go-to trio. Downie brings the jam, St. Louis is a workhorse and Stamkos is just a unique, upper-echelon talent. The end result is often a puck in the opposition’s net, though the means by which it gets there varies significantly. While 91 and 26 found some serious magic together almost immediately, leading to highlight reel tallies on countless occasions, these three players possess the necessary moxie to pot the puck through gritty, gutty efforts as well. See exhibit A, as in St. Louis’ third period equalizer from last night:
What you see is St. Louis and Downie plugging away in the corner, defenseman Randy Jones keeping the puck in the Montreal zone on an attempted clear, Stamkos firing it toward the net and Marty finishing the play in front at a key point in the game.
What you don’t see in the clip is that the entire sequence began with a grinding effort by St. Louis in the first place, simply to get the puck across the Montreal blue line. That he reaped the eventual reward of the shift was poetic justice, which is often the case for the heart and soul of the Lightning.
The lines will be mixed and matched quite a bit under Boucher – that much we know already – but it sure is nice to have an ol’ reliable at the ready and these three seem to always get it done for Tampa Bay.
There’s a lot riding on Carey Price in the Montreal nets this season, what with last year’s playoff hero, Jaroslav Halak, now calling St. Louis home and all. But while Price may be as well-prepared and up to the challenge as possible, facing 48 shots is a bit much to ask and the Lightning’s offensive onslaught was unrelenting in this one.
With an emotional lift from the pre-game events of their home opener, the Habs jumped out to a predictable two-goal lead in the first. After the slow start, Tampa Bay weaseled their way into the contest by throwing anything and everything at the net – a fine idea for any team looking to jumpstart things after faltering out of the gate. Stamkos and Teddy Purcell (who won’t get a star in this one but, I thought, had a fine game himself) led the way with eight shots apiece and St. Louis and Gagne followed with five pucks to the net each.
The focus for the Lightning moving forward will likely be more on limiting opposition chances, rather than increasing their shot and scoring chance totals. With a relatively unproven defensive corps, there’s more simply more to be done to that end, in terms of monitoring and teaching. But the fire at will approach seemed to make things click last night and ultimately yielding the two points is what it’s all about.
Brett Clark’s seeing-eye goal may have put the Lightning on the board in the second stanza against the Canadiens, but there won’t be any mistaking the first-year member of the Bolts for, say, Washington’s Mike Green, or any other offensive whiz from the blue line.
Instead, the real value in a player like Clark comes in other, less glorious areas, such as blocked shots, where the former Avalanche led all Lightning skaters in last night’s game with five.
He did show some offensive prowess during his Colorado days, with consecutive seasons of 30+ points from 2005-07 and, with a spot on the Lightning power play, presently, perhaps his offensive talents will get a second look after all. But Clark has already shown that he can bring the hard-working, gutsy presence to Tampa Bay’s defense that has been so sorely lacking in recent seasons.
Clogging up shooting lanes and getting in the way of pucks headed to your net is part of the simple recipe to limiting opposition scoring chances – a key to Lightning success this season. To this point, Brett Clark is doing his part in that area.
Defenseman Michael Vernace, a surprise out of training camp for most, goofed badly early in the first period on an errant pass that led directly to a Maxim Lapierre tally and he paid for the mistake in the ice time department, seeing just 1:52 in the first period and a shade over nine more minutes the rest of the way.
These types of gaffes do happen, of course, and you can almost see Vernace realizing his error before even releasing the puck from his stick on the play…
… But it’s just this sort of mental blunder that costs teams games, it gave Montreal an added lift to kick off this particular contest and it could very well make Vernace familiar with the press box in Philadelphia tonight, with the more experienced Matt Smaby waiting in the wings.
Too bad for Vernace, really, because it was a simple mistake but, for a team that is preaching playoff intensity from the start, it’s that same simple mistake that needs to be avoided at all costs.
So Much for That
Thirty some-odd seconds after the St. Louis game-tying goal in the third, Andrei Kostitsyn knotted things up for the Habs after Tomas Plekanec nudged a bouncing puck past Lightning d-man Mike Lundin and found his linemate untouched in front to restore Montreal’s lead.
In years past, that sort of immediate step backward would have deflated the men in Lightning sweaters undoubtedly, and only the late Stamkos marker saved the Bolts in this one.
Hard to blame Lundin on the play but end results are end results and his body position could have been better.
Hold it, Heddy
On the whole, Victor Hedman was excellent last night, besting all skaters in ice time (26:14), leading several offensive rushes, recording four shots on goal and registering a plus-1 rating, so I can’t possibly be too critical.
But, as we saw all too often a year ago, his decisions to pinch are suspect at times and, on at least one occasion, led to an odd-man rush against in Montreal.
Hedman is a phenomenal skater whose offensive skill set is only beginning to emerge – the end-to-end rushes this team is sure to enjoy from the big Swede for years to come will be something special – but to become an elite, two-way blueliner, he’ll have to master the art of knowing when to cheat.
Truly, that only comes with time… Still 19, he clearly has that much on his side.
Down Goes Downie
Less than three minutes after an exchange that earned each man a roughing minor in the second period, Downie and Lapierre came together once again – only this time, Lapierre took the cheap route, dumping Downie from behind into the boards and drawing a boarding major on the play.
Downie was unhurt, which is why – it was explained – the penalty to Lapierre did not also carry a game misconduct, but he certainly could have been and this is exactly the type of hit players have to learn to avoid. It wasn’t a situation, as we’ve seen so many times, where the checked player has turned his back at the last second, putting himself into danger. Lapierre had every chance to lay off and didn’t and it could have cost Downie immeasurably.
Instead, Lapierre got the gate and a minor dustup with Nate Thompson, as well as another smear on his already tarnished reputation.
The Happy Wanderer
We’ll keep this simple because he played well, again, when it mattered but, just two days after we sang the praises of Lightning goaltender Mike Smith on The Bolts Beat for not leaving his crease at inopportune times, he took a couple of strolls in the third that nearly cost his club.
Coach Boucher has shown some refreshing intensity since his arrival and his eyes give off professional wrestling promo-like fervor. (Like, you know, the kind of wide-eyed glare that leaves you convinced that at any moment actual laser beams may be shot from the pupils, burning any and all in their path?)
A goaltender-induced turnover, especially late in a close game, might actually make that happen.
Sit tight, Smitty. For your own safety.
Montreal fans are outstanding – passionate, knowledgeable, proud and so on and so forth – but in the final stages of last night’s game, they were also a bit ignorant. As SunSports color commentator, Bobby “The Chief” Taylor so astutely pointed out, the crowd was booing (looking for a penalty) every time a Canadiens player fell to the ice.
At one point, Kostitsyn tripped over himself with no Lightning adversary within at least 15 feet… And yet the crowd booed lustily, looking for a call.
On whom, pray tell? The Invisible Man? Casper? Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken?
The eventual game-tying goal was met with a chorus of boos from the home faithful, thinking that Malone had tripped or otherwise interfered with Dustin Boyd as Lecavalier slipped a beauty of a pass to Stamkos to knot things at 3-3 and that disapproval, it appeared, was justified. Still, with a second look, Malone and Boyd got their sticks crossed up and the latter seemed to lose his balance in the exchange – not a penalty, though that was only slightly cleared up by slow-motion replay.
Worst of all, the disappointed Montreal fans littered the ice with debris – unacceptable in any instance.
Most in attendance have rooting interests. Some take it to the extreme. But nobody’s out to get you, folks, least of all the referees. And you aren’t owed anything.
I love the ardent Canadiens masses and find their zest for the game unrivaled – but that got silly, real quick.
Got a beef from last night? Start with the 48 shots against. Few teams win with that formula.
***AROUND THE SOUTHEAST***
Elsewhere last night, the Washington Capitals stymied a solid effort from the visiting New York Islanders with a 2-1 victory. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom tallied for the home squad and Michal Neuvirth allowed only Nino Niederreiter’s first NHL goal on 24 Islander shots in victory.
Tonight, the 2-0-0 Carolina Hurricanes are in Ottawa to take on the Senators, the Lightning hit Philadelphia, where it is expected Dan Ellis will get his first start in goal as a member of the Bolts, and the winless Florida Panthers visit Calgary. (If three goals in total are scored in that last one, color this guy stunned.)
Three cheers are on the way…
Filed in: NHL Teams, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
Tags: alex+ovechkin, andrei+kostitsyn, brett+clark, carey+price, dan+ellis, dustin+boyd, guy+boucher, jaroslav+halak, martin+st.+louis, matt+smaby, maxim+lapierre, michael+vernace, mike+green, mike+lundin, mike+smith, nicklas+backstrom, nino+niederreiter, randy+jones, ryan+malone, simon+gagne, simon+gagne, steve+downie, steven+stamkos, teddy+purcell, tomas+plekanec, victor+hedman, vincent+lecavalier
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