By Brian Metzer/Jon Jordan
As I have mentioned almost incessantly since last night, my friend and blogging colleague Jon Jordan and I have decided to come together to tag team this Penguins/Lightning series. We have long hoped for an opportunity to work together and we finally found the chance.
We will be bringing you a series filled with our blogs, our thoughts, our triumphs and tragedies. We will also be doing of a series of hits on both XM Home Ice and TSN Radio, so make sure to keep your ears peeled!
If you aren’t doing so already, you can also follow the both of us on Twitter here: @Brian_Metzer @JonJordan. Our feeds are full of additional insights and analysis…plus a good bit of fun banter with our other cronies in the blog-o-sphere.
The first salvo in our meeting of the minds… our Rebel v Rebel if you will, was fired this morning in the form of my answering five questions that were posed by JJ regarding YOUR Pittsburgh Penguins. Now it is his turn to hit me and all of your with his takes on five questions that I sent him about the Lightning.
I hope that you enjoy… as I often say, JJ is the best Lightning blogger out there and he brings it here in the form of intelligent, insightful answers. Hey, he even picked against his own team… though he tempered it with an old “It could go either way” type of follow up. 😉
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BM – Though this series would have been a bit sexier had all of the star power been on the ice for each side, it does still feature one of the most exciting players in the league — Steven Stamkos. Stamkos will certainly leave his finger prints on the series, especially if the Lightning advance, but I have been thinking that Vinny Lecavalier is almost more important to the Lightning’s chances. What are your thoughts? The Penguins defense will be focused on stopping the Stamkos/St. Louis combo leaving Vinny to lift himself and the ‘Ning to greatness…
JJ – While Stamkos has been stymied of late, scoring just one non-empty net goal in the final 13 games, it’s awfully difficult to stop Marty St. Louis. Somehow, the ageless wonder always seems to manage to make a difference. Because of that, and the undeniable fact that St. Louis is still the heart of this club as well as its primo offensive catalyst, I put more value on his performance than Stamkos’ even. That said, the Lightning need Stamkos to return at least partially to the form that had him on such a torrid pace for most of the season. The way he’s fizzled, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out that he’s been nursing some sort of unknown injury, though I don’t have any reason to suspect as much and, if so, they’ve done a good job of keeping it under wraps to this point.
As for Lecavalier, identifying him as an individual key to the series isn’t off the mark at all. The captain has been a dominant force since the All-Star break and is juiced about a return to the postseason after several seasons of turmoil. His (relative) lack of production at times will always push people toward complaining about value for his contract (there is no such thing as value for that size contract, by the way) but I anticipate that Lightning (and Penguins) fans will see legitimate shades of the Vinny of old, once he gets a sniff of playoff hockey again.
Keep in mind, however, he’s still getting used to wearing a visor after a late-season eye injury (a very close call to something far more major) against Chicago. He had said he would take it off in the playoffs, if the transition wasn’t going smoothly but, so far, I haven’t heard anything to suggest that that will indeed happen.
BM – Dwayne Roloson helped the Edmonton Oilers go on a magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals back in 2005-06 at the age of 36. Can he still have that impact as a 41-year-old? It seemed as if his performance seemingly dipped a bit when used in multiple games in a row. That might just be a perception from afar, but do you think he is capable of backstopping this team to a long playoff run this season?
JJ – I think he is, yes. By and large, Roli stabilized the rickety bridge that was the Bolts’ goaltending situation upon his arrival in early January. Age is not a factor with him – I mean, it’s there, as a number, but that’s it – as many will tell you he is one of the better-conditioned athletes they’ve ever dealt with. There were times when he was off his game since coming to Tampa Bay and a few that legitimately got away from him but I think that may have been a biproduct of Roloson the battler trying to take on too much on his own. He has his moments but, though it was a long time ago, he has proven capable of getting the job done in the past in the playoffs.
Should he falter, the Lightning are once again confident in Mike Smith behind him. After seeming to be the odd-man out when Roloson was acquired (and Dan Ellis was still here), Smith returned to Tampa Bay after a stint at AHL Norfolk and has been excellent in spot duty since. He’s mentioned simplifying his game as a key to that turnaround and the Lightning, so far, are the better for it. As we all know, having two capable netminders in the fold – just in case – is an invaluable safety net for a team in the postseason.
BM – The Lightning finished the season by winning seven of their final eight games. Over that stretch they held opponents to an impressive 1.75 goals per game. Is that indicative of the type of performance that we can look for from this group of defenders? Dovetailing with question #2, how much of that was Dwayne Roloson’s doing? Speaking of the defense, former Lightning head coach Rick Tocchet recently made some comments regarding Victor Hedman… essentially saying that he can be rattled if he is hit hard on the forecheck — BS or Not?
JJ – The Lightning want to play a tight defensive game under Guy Boucher and are most successful when they adhere to the system, as most clubs are within their coach’s game plan. That said, I think their performance down the stretch was more a product of “hunkering down” as a group to get the job done and add to their point total in the standings. Remember, they had a terrible month of March prior to that run of seven out of eight to close things out and they had to get things back to “Keep It Simple, Stupid” mode, in my opinion. They did that, won a handful of tight games, secured their playoff spot and here we are.
As for Toc’s comments about Hedman, I wouldn’t put so much of a focus on him with those remarks so much as I would the defense as a whole. I agree that this blueline corps can be rattled with an aggressive forecheck. They turn the puck over in their own zone too often and can be forced into making ill-advised passes, even behind their own goalline at times, under pressure. Heddy has shown an affinity for fighting back so it will be interesting if the Pens employ a method as Toc suggests, in an effort to get him to take a bad penalty or two.
A bigger concern, as I said, for the Bolts defense would be staying cool and making the smart pass from their own end. We’ve seen them on too many occasions seem to rush things and cause problems for themselves. That can’t happen in the playoffs.
BM – How big a factor will youth be for the Lightning? Though they have some vets who have been there and done that, they are still rolling into the dance with a group of youngsters that could easily fall into the “Bright Lights, Big City” trap and get a little overwhelmed in the playoffs, at least in the early going. I ask the question based on the experiences we had with the Penguins and their first trip back to the playoffs during Sidney Crosby’s second season. They were shell shocked by the Ottawa Senators during the first couple of games and never really bounced back in the series.
JJ – There are youngsters on this club, yes, but there is only one true rookie in Dana Tyrell who plays regularly. To be fair, however, I believe there are nine players that will dress for the Lightning in the playoffs that have absolutely zero postseason experience at the NHL level. Buffering that, though, are the likes of Lecavalier, St. Louis, Mattias Ohlund, Ryan Malone, Adam Hall and so on, who do have significant postseason experience and can kind of show the newbies the way.
All in all, however, this team has been a reflection of their no-panic, no-nonsense head coach all year long and I don’t expect that to change now. Remember, this is Boucher’s first crack at a NHL postseason too and, though things may not end up going Tampa Bay’s way in the end in what I expect will be an incredibly close and hard-fought series, I’ll bet you some delicious and cold adult beverages that Boucher’s playoff inexperience at the NHL level will not stick out as a detriment to this team in this series.
BM – Last but not least… what is your take on the special teams match-up? I feel that it will be one of the most important aspects of this series as you are seeing one of the league’s best power plays lock horns with one of the league’s best penalty killing units. I haven’t watched a ton of Lightning hockey this season, but I have seen enough to know that when that PP unit is rolling, they are winning way more often than not.
JJ – Huge factor. Absolutely huge and maybe a series-decider all on its own. You’re right that when the Lightning power play is on, it’s lights-out. But when it isn’t, it’s sloppy as all hell. The Lightning allowed more shorthanded goals (16) than any other team in the NHL during the regular season. Pair that with the league’s best penalty kill belonging to none other than the Penguins – a team that was tied for second in shorties themselves – and the recipe for disaster could very well be there, as far as Tampa Bay is concerned. It isn’t exactly as though they can play it carefully, however, as they’ll want to take advantage of any time they get the man advantage. The key will be to find a happy medium between aggression and puck control. They simply cannot turn the puck over at the blueline on the power play – not at all. Shorthanded tallies are such momentum-swingers and could prove to be the death of this team after all, if they aren’t careful against Pittsburgh.
The Lightning penalty kill (8th overall) seems to have an advantage on Pittsburgh’s 25th rank power play but, insert a certain Crosby here, and that could change in a heartbeat.
Again, special teams would be huge, and I look directly at that formidable Lightning power play that is eerily susceptible to the shorthanded goal as a potential bugaboo for the Bolts.
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You can follow all of Jon Jordan’s work over at KuklasKorner – Beasts of the SouthEast. As for the above referenced “delicious and cold adult beverages?” I am taking him up on that!