The Flames make a brief pit stop in town this evening before they head to the West Coast for a couple of matches, but tonight’s affair is an interesting one to say the least. The Lightning have some pretty famous men in their employ, and have likely needed good work from all of them to overcome some horrific netminding.
Unlike previous iterations of the team, this edition is out-shooting their competition by an extremely healthy margin. That 6.8 Shots/60 differential 5v5 is the game’s best by a pretty wide amount, and a complete 180 from last year, when no significant Tampa forward finished in the Corsi black. This year, not one is in the red. This isn’t a situation where the personnel is dramatically better, either, since the one player who was a clear roster upgrade, Simon Gagne, has only played part of the year. Of course, maybe having a fairly infamous EV sinkhole the likes of Vinny Lecavalier on the shelf has been a feature as opposed to a bug in terms of controlling play at EV, but even he was in the black before he was hurt. Guy Boucher might be a good coach, but I’d guess that mere competence behind the bench can take on the appearance of genius considering some of the pikers that patrolled that spot in recent years for Tampa. How much credit any coach should get for a significant EV turnaround is always an interesting question, but he’s had the look of an upgrade thus far.
The game’s still won or lost by actual players, though, and the Lightning do have some serious weaponry up front, with Steven Stamkos leading the team in scoring. He’s playing pretty decent comp this year and managing to outshoot it, which is good progress for a young player even with Martin St. Louis helping him out. They’ll operate alongside Simon Gagne this evening from the looks of things, so Boucher is loading up that group in Lecavalier’s absence. That will leave Malone, Dominic Moore and Ted Purcell as a second group, as Steve Downie is on the limp with a high ankle sprain.
One of the under-appreciated things about Tampa is the solid work they’ve gotten from their support players. Hall, Thompson, Moore and Bergenheim have all outshot some decent competition this year, with the first two gents doing good work against top lines on more than a few evenings. Their usage so far this season would suggest a night against Iginla’s line, so it will be interesting to see if Boucher continues that approach.
The other notable thing that the Lightning force all opposition to address is a quality PP, which will an area to watch tonight and not simply because Steven Stamkos is really productive when up a man. The Lightning overload the strong side more than most teams in an effort to isolate Stamkos on his off-wing, and teams have respected their other weapons enough that Stamkos has flourished over the last couple of years. He’s very astute for a kid at finding the soft spots in a PK as well. Even accepting his improvement at EV, it’s still on the power play where the Lightning’s top scorer is most likely to hurt any team.
Tampa’s backline is anchored by Mattias Ohlund, who gets the toughest assignments in terms of match-ups and Zone Starts of any player on the club. He’s doing so with Randy Jones as his regular partner this year, leaving Victor Hedman in the relatively good care of Brett Clark, and I’m not being flip. Clark’s a good vet Dman who was another astute pickup on Steve Yzerman’s part, one a few spare part types that have flourished on the Gulf Coast this autumn.
Nothing is ever perfect, though, and this Lightning team’s cross to bear thus far has been terrible goaltending. It’s not often that a team’s best man at that position sports a .879 EVSV%, which is where Dan Ellis finds himself entering this evening’s play. I could write off his play to this point as some sort of revenge of the Twitterati, but Mike Smith is working at a .870 level, and both of those figures are 1980’s quality performance. Neither goalie has been anywhere near this bad historically, so I would guess that Tampa won’t have to cover for that manner of incompetence all season long, but they are struggling at a level that would have pushed most teams over the edge. The killer PP and general out-shooting have papered over the goaltending deficiencies for now.
So, stay out of the box and generate shots on net to test some shaky goaltending. Seems like a plan for most nights, of course, but tonight’s game should be a particularly good affair for that approach.