Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 01/13/11 at 01:38 PM ET
Yesterday, the aim here was to reaffirm the realistic goal of a Southeast Division championship for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Keeping pace with the three-time defending champion Washington Capitals through 43 games was enough, at face value, to establish that. But, in shutting out the Caps for a second consecutive meeting and, really, dominating last night’s game throughout, the Lightning have taken things a step further.
The road to the Southeast Division championship goes through Tampa.
Clearly, nothing’s been settled yet. 38 games remaining games for each club – with two more against each other – dictates as much. But the tides have turned in the Lightning’s favor since the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson, who has now blanked Washington twice in a week for his new club.
The difference between being outscored 12-3 in two losses to the Capitals earlier in the year and not allowing a single goal in two since goes far beyond a goaltending upgrade.
“We were trying to play their game,” Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher said of the first two meetings with Washington this year, “And, to be honest with you, at their game, they’re better than us.”
“We focused a lot less on the other team (in the two wins) and a lot more on ourselves.”
In doing so, the Bolts have flipped the script on their division rivals and sit alone atop the Southeast standings.
And while Washington has struggled to find consistency during a shift in identity from the offensive dynamo they’ve been in recent years, Tampa Bay has continually improved all season long.
It’s always hard to go Good/Bad/Ugly in a dominant performance but here goes nothing:
All Hands on Deck for Tampa Bay
All season long, the supporting cast of the Lightning has gotten the job done. Last night against Washington was no different. It wasn’t Steven Stamkos or Martin St. Louis as the offensive difference makers. It was Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore staking the Bolts to a 2-0 lead.
It was workhorse Nate Thompson drawing an early penalty and shutting down Alex Ovechkin and company all night.
And Steve Downie firmly implanted in Washington’s heads – again – throughout.
And Mattias Ohlund leading the charge to establish a physical presence, early and often, against a Capitals team that does not seem to respond well to just that.
In a season full of positives, the consistency of the hardhat types for the Lightning might just be the most promising indicator of success down the stretch and into the postseason.
Forget the drubbing in Pittsburgh.
No, really, forget it. After trekking from Calgary to Houston to Tampa to Washington to make a phenomenal debut against the Capitals, only to face a Penguins team chomping at the bit a night later, in hindsight, is it any wonder Roloson got run in that one? Had he to do it over again, the smart money says Boucher would have rested his team’s new number one netminder in the tail-end of back-to-backs there.Forget the drubbing in Pittsburgh.
Roloson has been lights-out for the Bolts otherwise. Even with the disappointment of that forgotten outing at the Consol Energy Center, his numbers in four appearances for Tampa Bay are staggering, with a 1.71 goals against average, .946 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. And if you can really, truly forget about what happened in the Steel City, as in erasing it from the stat line, how does 0.33/.988 suit you?
Granted, that sort of play won’t last forever but this Lightning team won’t need that on most nights – scoring right around three goals a game says so. But it’s certainly comforting to know it’s there, if necessary.
Bergenheim, Roloson’s teammate with both the Lightning and the New York Islanders, knows what to expect from his goaltender on a nightly basis.
“He’s such a good goalie,” he said. “He always wants to win so bad, every single game.”
A proven track record against Washington is now an added bonus in Roloson’s new home but Bergenheim didn’t even realize what he had done against the Caps as an Islander, often single-handedly keeping them in games against a significantly more talented opponent.
“I really didn’t know that,” Bergenheim said. “He plays so well against every team.”
As for Roloson, everything remains in perspective.
“It’s a nice two points,” he said of a second consecutive shutout over the Capitals, “But we’re focused on our next game.”
A Goal for Gagne
With 18 games lost to injury, just three goals and seven points and a team-worst minus-20 rating in the 25 games he’d played as a Bolt prior to last night, Simon Gagne probably envisioned his first season in Tampa a bit differently.
Regardless, his fourth goal of the season – an important tally that turned a 2-0 lead into a 3-0 chokehold – was a reminder of what Gagne could mean to this team down the stretch and as the regular season fades and the postseason approaches, what trade deadline addition elsewhere will bring that kind of potential impact?
The reality is, while you, me, Boucher, Gagne, GM Steve Yzerman and countless others probably hoped for more from the former Flyer upon his acquisition this past off-season, next-to-nothing went out the door in exchange for his services (defenseman Matt Walker hasn’t played at all for Philadelphia and is due at AHL Adirondack for a conditioning stint any day now).
And, given his penchant for scoring in the clutch and his playoff experience, having Gagne around on a team appearing destined for an extended season isn’t a bad situation at all.
Power Play Struggles
Not a whole lot of complaining to be done after a showing like that but, if there’s anything to pick on, the power play – one goal in the last 23 chances – leads the line.
Still, Boucher seemed encouraged by what he perceived as progress and let’s not forget the added weaponry of Marc-Andre Bergeron waiting in the wings.
The Bolts remain seventh in the NHL at 21.2% overall and a surplus of shooting options awaits upon Bergeron’s arrival. No long-term worries here but, again, we’re reaching!
Stamkos Drought, Part Deux
Stamkos hasn’t produced a goal since December 30th against Montreal and has just one assist in the six games since. That’s the bad news.
The good news is, the NHL’s second-leading scorer had a similar six-game stretch from November 26th to December 7th (two assists) and overcame that with 10 goals and 16 points in the next 10 games.
At 31-26-57, he still projects to a 58-goal, 106-point season in his third year as a pro and will make his first All-Star appearance later this month. The numbers behind #StamkosMath may have taken a minor turn toward human-like projections but there is no concern about Steven Stamkos whatsoever.
Get this Guy Some Lumber!
I counted two broken sticks for Ovechkin last night but it sounds like there may have been a few more, as, apparently, Caps employees had to scramble for more sticks off the truck (bus?) for the Washington superstar.
Ah… Sticks today…
One of the most lethal scorers in the game hamstrung by snapped twigs. Shame, shame.
Twice last night, Lightning defensemen were called for penalties that, for me, didn’t add up.
Early on in the first period, Victor Hedman was whistled for what was called interference on Jason Chimera. Problem is, Chimera had the puck – or at least he did a second before. Problem two, the only penalty that maybe could have been called on the play would have had to have been roughing, as Hedman appeared to get his hands up in Chimera’s face.
In a satisfying win, of course, the penalized player won’t be too troubled by a minor leading to an unsuccessful power play chance for the opposition.
“I don’t even really remember the play,” Hedman said, “And we killed it off, so…”
But, while I leave the majority of the officiating complaints to my partners on The Bolts Beat, mislabeled infractions will always befuddle me.
Exhibit B: Ohlund’s “cross check” on Ovechkin later in the first.
It’s debatable as to whether or not a penalty was even deserved here as well. Ohlund’s hands appeared to make contact with Ovechkin’s chest – and not his chin, as you might have been led to believe from Ovechkin’s reaction – but, evidently, I must have the definition of a cross check completely wrong.
It is what it is, I suppose and, much like today’s Bad, we’re reaching in the Ugly department this time.
Dreaded Counting Gets Me Again
I’ve enjoyed each conversation I’ve had with Hedman, from his pre-draft visit to Tampa with fellow prospects Matt Duchene and John Tavares in the summer of ’09 to a quick phone interview conducted minutes after his selection, second overall, in Montreal and each time in between then and now, I’ve found the 20-year-old Swede pleasant and funny, honest and accountable.
And now, he keeps me in check as well.
Chatting after the game last night, my line of questioning turned from the aforementioned penalty, to the victory as a whole and, yada, yada, yada, something about “4-0, this or that…”
“What’s that?” Hedman interrupted with a suggestive smile, prompting my repeating of the erroneous score.
“3-0,” he corrected with deadpan delivery, before cracking a smile, laughing and expressing a willingness to take me up on my offer to credit him with the fictitious fourth goal in my writeup today – you know, since I’m making things up and all.
One, two, three… Stop.
Okay, I’m good now.
Quick note on the All-Star selections, following up on my picks from earlier Tuesday morning:
Look, there are always going to be snubs and the process is inherently flawed but, though the league’s heart is probably in the right place by insisting on some sort of representation for each club at All-Star Weekend, that wrinkle really does add more to the train wreck aspect of the selection process than it does to make things easier.
Further complicating matters is allowing a rookie representative in the skills competition to satisfy the requirement.
Either do it all the way or don’t, I say, because I’m sure Florida Panthers fans are feeling great about Evgeny Dadonov’s inclusion in some skate-around-the-cones showcase the night before the mid-season “classic”. (Assuming the average Panther fan is familiar with Dadonov, that is, which isn’t a foregone conclusion given his playing in all of 14 NHL games this season at the time of the selection.)
If you’re going to require a rep from each team, make it a rep for the game itself or don’t at all. If you do, and you insist on some sort of rookie facet to the event, you can actually field a more suitable crop of rookies than just whoever qualifies from Florida or, say, Phoenix, where defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, twice assigned to AHL San Antonio this year, also received an invite.
Washington blueliner John Carlson – maybe their best d-man this year – isn’t going. Nor is Pittsburgh’s Mark Letestu. But Michael Grabner is from the Islanders (because Tavares’ progression up there despite the circus atmosphere doesn’t deserve recognition, I gather?) and Boston’s Tyler Seguin too because, well, because.
Does Buffalo have an All-Star this year? I made a case for defenseman Jordan Leopold but probably not. Tyler Ennis will fire some pucks at plastic targets, though, so that’s good. Yeah.
Look, sometimes teams just don’t have All-Stars and there’s nothing wrong with that. If an exhibition game is going to have any merit whatsoever – and I’m not even sure that’s possible – it simply has to showcase the best that this particular season has to offer at the half-way point. And, if that means eight players from one team and none from a few others, so be it.
The argument that you’re shunning individual markets by not featuring anyone from their team doesn’t carry any weight anyway. A hockey fan truly intent on watching the All-Star game is going to watch regardless.
Besides, if you’re telling me Dadonov’s trip to Raleigh, merely for the purpose of registering a shot or two on the radar gun or skating a couple of laps around the rink for the stopwatch, has fans in Sunrise all abuzz, well, I’m just not listening and neither are they.
They probably won’t be watching either.
Filed in: NHL Teams, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
Tags: alex+ovechkin, dwayne+roloson, guy+boucher, mattias+ohlund, sean+bergenheim, semyon+varlamov, steven+stamkos, victor+hedman
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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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