Friday, May 1, 2015

Round One Review - Round Two Preview. Back with more baseless predictions!

It’s May. The sun is out, the rent is paid and the Tampa Bay Lightning are still playing hockey.  What a beautiful thing it is. Having survived the seven-game slogfest with the Red Wings, the Lightning advance to face the Montreal Carey Prices Canadiens. Price has had an unbelievable season. The only thing he hasn’t done yet for the team is learn how to score goals.

I’m a sucker for the easy narrative and this series is all about revenge. Last year the Canadiens unceremoniously swept the Lightning out of the first round by shutting down their scoring and taking advantage of the Anders Lindback-sized hole in the Tampa net.  Now, after battling for first place in the Atlantic Division all season long the two teams match up for the right to go to the Eastern Conference finals.

Before we get to that, let’s reflect back on the series the Lightning just finished. And by that, I mean let’s look at how my predictions turned out.

Lightning win in six games - I was close! It took the full seven, but the Bolts prevailed.

Top Goal Scorer - Stamkos - Umm, yeah, about that.  Not so good.

Top Point Getter - Tyler Johnson - Winner, Winner!

Number of OT Games - 2 -I was off on this as there was only one.  Although it looked like Game 7 was going to OT

Most Penalty Minutes - Mark Barbario - Sadly he did not get a chance to compete. Stamkos with 14 is the surprise winner.

Dumbest Penalty - Nikita Kucherov - Let’s not talk about penalties in this series

Odd Man Rushes for Detroit -6 - I watched about 10% of this series and saw at least 3 odd man attacks for the Red Wings so I’m going to say I was off on this one.

Goals off Odd Man Rushes - 2 - I saw at least one.  I think I saw a highlight of another so I’ll say I nailed this one.

I also mentioned that five on five play was going to be more important than special team play. Penalties normally called in the regular season tend to go unnoticed during the playoffs. Well, that wasn’t exactly how it turned out. Lightning fans complained that not enough calls were being made as the Red Wings, hooked, held, obstructed, and interfered with the intrepid purveyors of hockey’s Beautiful Game. However, on the occasion that the refs remembered they had whistles and that they could use them, the Lightning’s power play was largely impotent.   They scored twice, as a team, in other words 2 fewer than Tom Wilson scored all by his lonesome for the Predators.

So, that wasn’t great. Luckily for the Lightning they were only third worst in power play percentage. The team that was behind them?  The Montreal Canadiens.  So I don’t expect much to happen in the special teams area in round two (ed note - bet the over on power play goals).

It was one of the odder series I watched. Every time the Lightning lost I felt like there was no way they would pull the series out. Yet when Tampa won I thought they broke the will of the Red Wings and would waltz away with the series. There were times that the Lightning totally dominated the ice and then times when they couldn’t get the puck out of the zone even if they were allowed to pick it up and throw it out.

How did they pull out the series win?  By out-Detroiting Detroit. They changed their game enough to adapt to the Red Wings clogging of the passing lanes and aggressive checking. They stopped trying to make pretty goals and just threw the puck at the net.  If you notice (and every Red Wing fan noticed) on Brayden Coburn’s series winning goal, Alex Killorn is treating Kyle Quincy as a human bean bag chair.  Alex was a little tired chasing after the puck so he had himself a little rest on top of Quincy which prevented the former Lightning property from getting in front of the net to block Coburn’s butterfly slapshot.

Illegal, sure. Fortunate? Also sure.  We take what we get from the refs. If they’re going to ignore Kronwall bouncing Kucherov’s head off his shoulder why should I be embarrassed that they let a little interference go on the most important goal of the series? The Lightning adapted and they won.

Oh, and having Kronwall and Zidlicky miss Game 7 helped.

The Hopeful Chase Three Stars of the Series:

3. Ben Bishop - his stats overall, pretty ordinary. But a 36-save Game 7 shutout earns you a star.

2. Alex Killorn - Two goals and two assists were nice, but his energy level and physical presence were a big factor in the Lightning pulling out Games 6 and 7

1. Tyler Johnson - No doubt that this kid is Good At Hockey. With Stamkos struggling to find the net, the littlest man on the ice played the biggest games of his career. Johnson scored six of the team’s seventeen goals.

So what do the Lightning have to do to avenge their loss from last season and advance past the Canadiens?  Pretty much more of the same.  The ice should open up a bit more, but they can’t get sucked into trying to score tiki-taka type goals.  Get the puck on Price, crash the net and put home the rebounds.  Of course, try not to even come within six inches of the goalie, because he may Rule 69.3 ya!

Stamkos has to score.  The beauty of the Lightning attack is that everyone can threaten to put the puck in the net.  When Stamkos (and his linemates) disappear, now the balance is lost. He hasn’t scored a playoff goal since Game 1 of last season’s match-up. While he’s tried to chip in physically he needs to be a threat.

I’m not sure how he breaks out of his slump other than shooting the puck more. Maybe Coach Cooper bumps him to a line with a playmaker like Valterri Filppula? Ryan Callahan and Killorn are great line mates for crashing the net and grabbing rebounds, but they aren’t exactly noted playmakers.

Speaking of playmakers.  Are we going to see a renewed use of the #FreeDrouin hash tag? The rookie only appeared in one game and with the offense sputtering there was talk that he should be seeing some ice time instead of Brandon Morrow.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that, although in his one appearance, Drouin wasn’t exactly a factor on the ice (one shot, one penalty and a -2).

It will be interesting to see how the series works out with a pretty much healthy Lightning line up going against a rested Canadiens team. Will Bishop be the difference?  I think so, and the Lightning win in another seven-game thriller.

Prediction Time:

Does Stamkos score a goal?  - Yes, he breaks the slump with an empty-netter at the end of Game 2

Does Jo Drouin play? - Yes. He suits up for 2 games

Does PK Subban do something that pisses off the national media? - No. Other than score a couple of highlight reel goals.

Does either team break double digits on the power play? Nope. They both still suck.






Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Lightning Survive Game 7 and So Did I

In keeping with the rest of this series this far, I did not watch much of Game 7 versus the Detroit Red Wings. In fact I only saw about 2 minutes at the end of period 2. Enough time to get a weird look from a guest when a groan escaped from my lips after Victor Hedman bounced a wide open shot off of the lucky horseshoe that Petr Mrazek had stuffed in his pads for this series. Truthfully, for my health, it was probably best that I didn’t have the chance to watch the game.

Game 7s are not enjoyable when your team is involved. I don’t care what anybody says. There is no “relax and have fun”. Every play is embodied with extra importance. Each shift adds a tiny little ball of stress. The only time you can relax is when the game is over. Even if your team jumps out to a three goal lead early you spend the rest of the game worrying that they will blow it. You find yourself yelling things like, “Get it out of the %$*& zone!” at the TV while your wife looks at you and questions her decision to marry you.

As I texted to a Superstar Sean last night - Game 7s take at least 4 years off of your life (still healthier than cigarettes!) So when I knew I had to work Wednesday night I wasn’t 100% bummed out.  More like 95%. Because, despite the previous two paragraphs, it is always better to have watched the game and died sooner than not to have watched it all.  I followed along by frantically refreshing NHL.com in between questions about local bars and where the closest bathroom is located (into the carpeted area and left of the bar).  I found three excuses to go over to the bar (hence the two minutes of TV time) and had a couple of friends shoot me texts to keep me up to date.

There was a small whoop (maybe more like a yelp) of joy when the screen changed to “3:58 Braydon Coburn (1) ASST: Ryan Callahan (3), Alex Killorn (2)”. Which led to some explaining to the guests standing in line to check in.  After a few more tense moments I finally relaxed when Scotty sent me a congratulatory text. So all in all not a bad way to experience it.  Just think Lightning fans - only three more rounds to go (if we’re lucky)!

So how do the Lightning’s Game 7s rank in order of stress?  Let’s go to the list from most stressful to least.

1. June 7, 2004 - Game 7 Stanley Cup Finals against Calgary.  I think this is the easy winner for all Lightning fans. After the unbelievable double-overtime Game 6 the stress level was a 100 out of 100. We had survived the gut-wrenching double-overtime Game 6 so there was no way the Lightning would blow it on home ice in Game 7, right?  Believe it or not I turned down a ticket to go to the game. Mostly because I was poor, but also because I knew there was no way I could handle being around other people with that much stress. Regrets, sure I’ve had a few.

I watched it alone in my condo. I actually paced back and forth in front of the TV. I’m sure there was a beer on my coffee table, but I don’t think I drank it. I shrieked like a girl when Ruslan Fedotenko scored (both times). I dropped to my knees and raised my arms in the air when the clock ran out on the final frantic seconds. Yes I geeked out big time. All things I couldn’t do in public. I might have even yelled out a few Larry Hirsch-esque “Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”

Happiest sports day of my life. photo from Associated Press


One of the highlights of the night - about 30 minutes after the game ended, a slightly less-than-sober Hamel (my buddy who went to the game) called me to announce that he was celebrating the win with former Lightning goalie Darren Puppa (PUUUUUU-PPPPAAHHH). I congratulated the slightly embarrassed goaltender before the phone disconnected. Perfect ending to the night.

2. May 27, 2011 - Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. This one clocks in at a nice 75 out of 100. After all, no one expected the Lightning to be there. They were playing with house money at the time. It would have been lower on the stress level if not for off the ice factors.

I wasn’t in the best place in life at the time. Unemployed, living week to week in Chicago, and completely at a loss with what to do with my life. Luckily I was also living  with an extremely patient girlfriend.  I met some friends and watched it at a bar downtown.  Of the Game 7s this is the only one the Lightning have lost. I might have wandered the streets wondering why I followed sports if this was going to be the payoff.

Highlight - Stamkos coming out onto the ice with the cage covering a broken nose he suffered earlier in the game. At that point the young center started his journey to being the leader of the franchise. Now if he could just find his scoring touch again.


Broken nose, broken leg - Boston has not been kind to Stammer. 


3. April 27, 2011 - Game 7 First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I put this at a solid 70 out of 100.  Much like the game against the Bruins, the Lightning weren’t even supposed to be here. They were a surprise to make the playoffs, they were playing the mighty Penguins (granted the Penguins didn’t have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the lineup) and the Pens had, at one point, a commanding 3-1 series lead.

The Lightning should have been done after losing in double-overtime on a fluky James Neal goal in game four. Instead they absolutely shellacked the Penguins in Game 5 and then tied the series in game 6 when Steve Downie (current Penguin!) and Ryan Malone (former Penguin!) scored third period goals.

This was not a fun game for the Lightning. This was one of those “4 years off your life” Game 7s. Dwayne Roloson stopped 36 shots for the playoffs and Sean Bergenheim scored the only goal.  This was also the series that made Sean Bergenheim a very rich man.

I think Link had the exact opposite reaction to this goal than I did.


Honestly, I always forget that this series went to a Game 7, I thought the Lightning beat them in 6. It was such a weird series, maybe one day I’ll do a deep dive into it.

4. Wednesday Night’s game. - A decided 50 out 100 in the stress category. First because I couldn’t watch it and second because I convinced myself that the Lightning couldn’t overcome the trapping/interfering/borderline cheating style that the Red Wings were playing. So I went in with pretty low expectations.

5.  May  22, 2004 - Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. Stress on this one was a 5 out of 100.  I know, you’re shocked. A Game 7 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history? A moment to validate all of those horrendous games I went to where I had to convince myself that Sergei Gusev was a legitimate solution on the blueline. A chance to crush the dreams of Flyers fans, those hated, almost-rivals who always seemed to beat the Lightning?

To this day I’ve only seen about 5 minutes of this game. And that’s the last five minutes. Yet I have no desire to go back and watch the game. In fact, of all of the games the Lightning have played this is the one that means the absolute least.  Because this was the day that I had my first (unofficial) date with The Duchess.

After many, many months of talking we finally had decided to do something together without anyone else involved. Casablanca was playing at the Tampa Theater and we decided to catch it together, but not as a date, date. Just a couple of friends hanging out together - at least that’s what we told ourselves.  She was nice enough to call me early in the day and ask if I wanted to re-schedule because of the hockey game. Not being a fool I said no it would be fine.

So we went to the movie. After it was over we popped into The Hub where their one TV was showing the game. I ordered a way too strong drink and we watched the Lightning dispatch the Flyers amidst the riff-raff that fills a dive bar like The Hub on a Sunday afternoon.

Luckily for our relationship, The Duchess was out of town for the actual Stanley Cup finals.

So the Lightning move on and will try to vanquish the Canadians.  Remember those guys? The ones that punked them last season by sweeping them out of the first round? Will this series go to a game 7?  Maybe. If it does, I might have to call in sick for that one.

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Quick Post on The Plight of The Second Shift Hockey Fan

This is not going to be a stat-driven,deep-dive review of the series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings.  As much as I would love to say that I’ve watched every minute of every game, I can’t.  As a matter of fact, with the exception of Game 3 and a period and a ½ of Game 2, all I’ve seen are highlights and quick recaps.  I have one of the greatest jobs in the world, but the hours aren’t conducive to playoff hockey.

That being said, I have been following the series as best as I can from a 1,000 miles away and without TV access during the games. However, I do feel a bit of a disconnect with other fans.  And, quite frankly, it sucks.  I watched Game 3 at Hattricks in Tampa and for the first time in a year remembered what it was like to watch a game with fellow fans. The Stanley Cup run of 2004 (normal working hours) and the Eastern Conference run of 2011 (unemployed) are the top two sports moments of my life.  Despite their struggles early on, this team has a bit of that feel to it and it pisses me off that I can’t enjoy it real time.

Standing at a computer and hitting refresh every five minutes on ESPN’s score page is no way to watch a playoff hockey game. Neither is coming up with excuses to wander by the bar every 10 minutes to watch 30 seconds of action.

Granted, on a list of life’s burdens this ranks somewhere between Southwest’s internet not working and a FitBit not syncing with an iPhone (two real-life complaints I’ve heard in the last week) so this entire post should be taken with the correct amount perspective. But fellow sports fans, I’m sure you feel my pain.

Yet, even though the information provided is stripped down minimum, I still get caught up with the ebbs and flows of the action.  I hit refresh and it’s 0-0 with 10 minutes to go in the first and I feel confident. I hit refresh and it’s 1-0 Bad Guys in the second and I’m worried. One more refresh and it’s 2-0 Bad Guys and a sense of despondency sets in.  After dealing with a minor crisis I hit refresh and it’s still 2-0 with 10 minutes to go in the game and anger sets in. How could this team blow it like this. They’re getting punked by a goalie who’s not even good enough to have the right amount of vowels in his last name.

So I’m a little bitter at this point and the beginnings of a horrible, not so nice post are starting to spin around in my brain while I’m working (I’m putting labels on things so not much brain power is being directed to actual work operations). I’m ready to take Ben Bishop to task, Steven Stamkos to task, Coach Cooper - in short everybody is getting blamed for this debacle.

I'm not saying it's ALL your fault, Steven, but can we see you celebrate at least one goal this series?


Then I hit refresh. It’s now 2-1 Bad Guys.  Tyler Johnson, that undrafted, unwanted dynamo of scoring has breathed life into the game. What’s that? Is that a little bit of hope growing in my brain? I spy a dirty glass in the lobby. Why surely that must be returned to the bar from whence it came post-haste. I cannot have it sullying my pristine lobby for even a moment.  Why lucky me they have the Lightning game on and they are showing a replay of a Lightning goal.

But that’s not Tyler Johnson raising his hands in celebration it’s his partner in crime Ondrej Palat.  Could it be? No…YES! The Lightning have tied the ballgame up and we’re going to overtime.  With an inappropriate woo-hoo I head back to my desk to refresh away. After about 26 refreshes I get the good news: Tyler Johnson, That Magnificent Bastard, scored in overtime to tie the series, excite fan base and swing the momentum to the home ice bound Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Why Tyler Johnnie! You Mad Cap!" #BadPhotoShop #GreatMovie


Remember all that bad stuff I was going to write? Flush that down the toilet. A new narrative is to be written. The plucky favorites overcoming a hot goaltender and suffocating defense (and horrible special teams) to grasp victory from defeat and disgrace.

I return to my labeling with a renewed hope for the series and the realization that I will be able to watch Game 5 in it’s entirety (something that I have not clued the Duchess in on yet) with a sense of hope not despair.  The Wings will be reeling with the knowledge that they let the series slip through their fingers while the Lightning know that they played their worst game but survived.  Who knows maybe a magical, fire breathing unicorn will assist on a Steven Stamkos power play goal in Game 5!

Would I have liked to watch it live? Of course. Would I have woken the Duchess and the cats up with a wild, barbaric yelp of joy? You Betcha!  Would I have recorded myself watching the game so that I could send it in to NHL.com in hopes that they would post #MyPlayoffMoments?  Hell no. However, I will take the win, no matter how I found out about it.

We live in an amazing  age of technology. Thirty years ago I would have waited for the news or a score break during the baseball game to find out who won. Heck, living in Chicago I probably wouldn’t even be a Lightning fan.  So I shouldn’t complain that I have to wait a day or so to actually watch the game, after all my life choices landed me in Chicago. But still…if you’re reading this boss man, could you maybe take a look at the upcoming NHL schedule before creating MY work schedule. You know, maybe a couple of early days when the Lightning play?  That would be cool.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Happens When A Blogger Gets Stuck in Traffic Near a Ballpark

On Monday night I found my self stuck in traffic on US-19 in my old stomping grounds of Clearwater, FL.  I noticed that the lights were on at the stadium where the Clearwater Threshers, the Single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Philllies, play.  So instead of hanging a left back to Tampa and sitting in more traffic, I hung a right and pulled into the parking lot.

It had been a cloudy, rainy day in Tampa (which is doing nothing for my tan) so it wasn’t a 100% lock that the game would be played. Things were clearing up, but just to be safe I splurged for the highest end ticket that promised me a little bit of an overhang and, thus, protection from any rain.  The cost for the ticket - $13.  Gotta love minor league ball.

The ticket was $3.00 more than normal because I opted in for the “Feeding Frenzy” upgrade. All you can eat burgers, hot dogs, fries, pizza, peanuts and popcorn.  My friends, this is why America is the greatest country in the world.

I was planning on live-tweeting the game, just because I was alone and felt like being annoying. Unfortunately, my phone chose not to cooperate and ran out of battery life just after I snapped one photo of the ballpark.

You can see the photos of the other stuff I did on Instagram @TorchRamrod


Lucky for you, my loyal readers (Mom, Dad hope things are well for you) I did jot down my thoughts and will now present them to you, along with some extra information I’ve looked up since them.  So instead of a live-Tweet I give you a Twitter Reenactment of my thoughts during the Clearwater Thresher/ Tampa Yankees baseball game:

 - Pre-game music is a mix of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The Threshers audio guy is really catering to his demographic.

- If there are 500 people here I would be surprised. Pretty sure everyone gets a foul ball tonight.

- The Threshers lead-off hitter is Drew Stankiewicz. There is no way in hell he’s not related to former Yankee Andy Stankiewicz. (He is Andy’s son.  I now feel extremely old).

- Not to be outdone, the Yankees are starting someone named Rookie Davis. That sounds like a name the computer generates five seasons into dynasty mode on Maddon 2013.

- Speaking of Yankees, the kid in front of me has a Yankees T-Shirt and thick gold chain. They had to have come as a set, right?

- All you can eat night at the ballpark isn’t quite the value when you’ve given up meat for a year.  I guess I’ll take the peanuts…all of the peanuts.

- It’s Bingo Night at the Ballpark. Every time a Thresher comes up to hit they flash a bingo ball on the screen. If you get bingo then you win free bingo cards at some bingo parlor (1/3)

- The balls are white with yellow writing…shown on a pale yellow background. Not a great set up, guys. Which leads to… (2.3)

- the lady three seats down constantly asking which number it is.  “Is that a 53 or 56? Harold, I can’t see it”. For four innings the same thing EVERY AT BAT! Harold is either deaf or a saint.

- Rookie Davis (the Single-A rookie) is hitting 95 on the gun. Smooth wind-up. He’s officially my Michael Taylor Single A guy who looks like he’s going to be a good major league player but won’t.

- None of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects are at this game. None of his top 10 prospects for either organization are at this game. Ten years from now Justin won’t be able to say, “I saw that kid before he was a star”

- Threshers starter David Whitehead gets into some trouble in the second allowing to hitters to reach with no outs. He promptly strikes out the side. The Yankees have three hitters that have struck out a third of their at-bats so far on the season. Two of them struck out this inning.

- Whitehead is a sinker-baller who tops out at 91mph. If he gets it down he’s effective. If he leaves it up, not so much.  Some loud foul balls so far.

- Wind is gusting in from right. No balls leaving the yard in that direction tonight.

- Devin Lohman jaws at the home plate umpire after getting called out on strikes. When you’re hitting .179 in the A League you don’t get to criticize the umpire, kid.

- Do players still call umpires “Blue” now that the umps are wearing black shirts on a regular basis?

- Davis is mixing an 82 mph overhand curve with his fastball.  The Threshers look a little overmatched.

- Thresher’s Mitch Walding’s walk-up music is “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue. That song was released in 1985. Walding was born in 1992.

- I recognize exactly zero other walk-up songs.

- Hey Rob Ducey is on the Threshers coaching staff! I remember him.

- First run scored by the Yankees when the Thresher’s catcher airmails a throw to 3rd on a stolen base attempt.  Hey I’ve done that before!

- Yankee’s 4th run scores when a wild pitch gets past the Threshers’ catcher. Not having the best night, because he’s also getting the hell beat out of him with pitches in the dirt.

- The wheels have officially come off for Threshers in the 6th. They give up 4 runs and are now down 8-0. The inning could have ended early if the 3rd baseman hadn’t whiffed on a potential double play ground ball.

- I think that foul ball just hit my rental car.

- Props to the sound guy for mixing up the foul ball sound effects.  A SPROING noise for balls bouncing off the net, crashing sound for balls off the fa├žade and a screeching tire for balls hit into the parking lot.

- Davis has given up 4 hits through 5 2/3 innings pitched and struck out 7. Three of those hits are from Willans Astudillo.  Promote that kid.

- Davis’ night is done in the sixth. He leaves with two outs, runners at the corners, up 8-0 and the next three hitters are a combined 0-7 with three strikeouts against him.  Hey coach maybe leave him in to see if he can close out the inning.

- Chad Taylor, his replacement, closes out the inning with a fly ball out to centerfield.

- 7th inning! Where did the pitch speed go?  And where are the sound effects?  I bet the same guy runs both and he’s on a bathroom break.

- and now it’s 12-0 Yankees.  Not a great day for the Threshers’ pitching staff. Or their defense.  Or their hitters.

- Kind of a hard luck inning for reliever Lino Martinez. An error by the 3rd baseman and a passed ball hurt him. He makes a great 2 strike pitch to Matt Snyder and Snyder cue balls it down the third base line for a double and 2 RBIs.

- The home team is losing 12-0 and there is a fan with a Cubs shirt on. It’s like I’m back in Wrigley!


My back started to get sore and I had enough peanuts to feed an elephant army so I decided to call it a night. According to the paper the Threshers did not mount a historic comeback and lost 12-1.  So I don’t really feel bad for leaving. Plus I got to listen to the Penguins lose Game 3 on the ride home!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Post Season Prediction Time!

Playoff Beard Circa 2010-11
The sun is out. The long johns are back in storage. I’m growing a beard. That can mean only one thing.  PLAYOFF HOCKEY!  That’s right! It’s the best time of the year (other than Christmas -Christmas is the best). For the second straight year there is late April action in Hockey Bay, USA.


After a record-setting regular season campaign, the Lightning find themselves with home ice advantage against the Detroit Red Wings, a match-up that everyone was quick to dub The Yzerman Bowl. Oddly enough, for the first time all year, Mr. Yzerman has almost no control over what happens.  The rosters are set. He can’t pull off any more trades, sign any free agents, or tinker with the roster at all.  He can only sit high in the press box and scowl down at the ice. Luckily he’s pretty good at scowling.

Not a scowl, but c'mon how could I not post this picture? (Photo from COMC.com)


It’s understandable why the focus is on Mr. Yzerman. After all, he did have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Red Wings, learned the GM trade at the foot of Detroit General Manager Ken Holland and built the Lightning in the model of the Wings.  Besides what else are we going to focus on? Drew Miller going against his old team?

How do I feel two days away from game one?  Kind of excited. This should be an entertaining match-up between two teams with skill. I think the Bolts match-up pretty well against the Red Wings, but then again I thought they matched up well against the Canadiens last year and that didn’t turn out so well.

Detroit is a good, but not great team with a bit of a goalie problem and some aging stars. If the Lightning can generate turnovers (something they failed to do against Montreal last year) I‘m cautiously optimistic that they can take the series.  Detroit is a team that doesn’t make many mistakes so the Lightning will have to take advantage when they can.

While this is the first playoff match-up against the two franchises, a lot of the players that will be taking the ice have played against each other with a championship on the line. In 2013, the Syracuse Crunch (AHL affiliate of the Lightning) lost to the Grand Rapid Giffins (AHL affiliate of the Red Wings) in the Calder Cup finals.  Six current members of the Lightning roster (Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Vlad Namestnikov, JT Brown) and nine current members of the Red Wings  (Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Landon Ferraro, Luke Glendening, Danny Dekeyser, Petr Mrazek) played in that series.

See what I mean about Mr. Yzerman copying the Red Wings philosophy? Draft well and develop your in-house talent.  I don’t have the time or inclination to see if two franchises have ever had that many players meet in a Calder Cup series and a NHL playoff series, but to me it seems highly unlikely.  Hopefully the TampaCuse boys can exact some revenge against the team that beat them two years ago.

As I was doing that research I was kind of surprised that many young players skated on the Red Wings roster. To me the Red Wings were an aging franchise relying on offense from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and questionable hits from Niklas Kronwall.  Shows you how much of the Red Wings I’ve watched this year, eh?  I’ll blame that on my work schedule.

The biggest question mark for the Red Wings is going to be in the net.  After riding out the end of the season immersed in a goaltending battle with incumbent Jimmy Howard, Mrazek emerged as the starter. He finished the season with a 35-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes and in his last start against the Lightning on March 28th he turned away all 23 shots he faced in the Wings only win against Tampa.  So he should have some confidence going into the series.

As for the Lightning, the status of the defense is going to keep Coach Cooper up at night. The good news is that it looks like at least two of the injured blue liners will be ready to go for Game 1. Braydon Coburn has been participating fully in practice this week while Andrej Sustr, despite wearing the red no-contact jersey in practice, is hopeful that he’ll be ready by Thursday. Unfortunately, Jason Garrison (who doesn’t have as much playoff experience as I thought - only 8 games) probably won’t return until the middle of the series at the earliest.

Detroit will be looking to exploit the lack of experience on Tampa’s defense with a viscous forecheck. Their offense, like the Lightning, is based on creating offensive chances off of turnovers.  I would expect them to pressure the defense of the Lightning and hope to force them into mistakes.  It will be imperative that Tampa’s forwards don’t break out of the zone to early leaving their teammates without multiple passing options (expect Bobby Taylor to talk about “gap control” at least 156 times during the series….I’m going to miss The Chief).

The other storyline for the Lightning is going to be Ben Bishop’s lack of experience in the playoffs. In fact, people have been talking about that for at least two months now. To me, it’s not that big of a deal.  After all, every goalie that’s ever played in the playoffs has had a “lack of experience” until he’s played his first game. Critics said that Bishop would struggle as a number one goalie because he didn’t have that experience either, and things turned out pretty ok in that regard.  I believe that good goalies will be good no matter their background. If games played in the postseason mattered, the one goalie in this series with actual playoff experience (Jimmy Howard) would be starting.  Bishop will be just fine.

Having Ben Bishop between the pipes is one of the big reasons I’m cautiously optimistic instead of cautiously pessimistic. He managed to make it through the end of the season without hurting himself diving needlessly after a puck. However, he isn’t the only one that’s healthier this time around in the post-season.

Last year, Ondrej Palat played in 3 of the 4 games, but he wasn’t the same Palat that garnered rookie of the year votes. Valtteri Filppula was also banged up a bit. Having those two players at near full strength does so much to round out the roster. Filppula might have the best hands on the team (although Jo Drouin is rising to the challenge) and his ability to set up his teammates gives the Lightning a 3rd line that is just as dangerous as the top two.

While the Triplets have been successful when Palat has missed time this year, they are simply deadly when he is healthy. Despite having all-world goal-scorer Steven Stamkos on the roster, they are the top line on the Lightning. As they go, so does the team.

Special teams will be an interesting sub plot. The Lightning have stumbled around with the extra man all year finishing 14th in the league. For whatever reason (cough..cough.. trouble getting the puck in the zone) they struggle despite the offensive talent they have. The Red Wings, not so much, as they have cruised to a robust 23% success rate with the man advantage.

While less penalties are called in the playoffs it means that each power play has a little more importance. The Lightning have to find a way to at least generate chances when they have the opportunity. I think that the series will be won based on 5-on-5 play (and overtime), but if the Lightning waste their power play chances it could come back to haunt them.

Will any former Tampa Bay Lightning members come back to haunt them in this series?  There are two possibilities - Drew Miller and Kyle Quincy.  Miller is a defensive forward who played with the Lightning for 14 games in 2009-10. He isn’t on the ice to score goals, which, based on last season’s playoffs means he is going to score 4 times against the Lightning (see Weise, Dale)


Wait, you say, Kyle Quincey? He never wore the uniform.  That’s true, but for the briefest of moments he was a member of the Lightning.  Back in 2012 the Lightning weren’t very good. They did have a couple of bright spots. One of them was a hellion on skates named Steve Downie. The Lightning, wanting young Downie to be a success traded him to the Colorado Avalanche for Kyle Quincey. Mr. Yzerman, knowing his old team needed some help on defense, quickly swapped Quincy for a first round pick and something called a Sebastien Piche.  With that first round pick Mr. Yzerman selected a young goaltender from Tyumen, Russia with a pain-in-the-ass name to spell. That man will be backing up Ben Bishop - Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Was this digression included so that I could post a photo of Downie? You betcha! (Photo from nj.com)


That moment in Lightning history is brought to you by the good folks at Argo Tea.  Argo Tea - where bloggers blog and old people argue about the Super Flu (seriously, as I type this four old people behind me are almost ready to fight each other about the flu. I’m scared to turn around)

Quincey has been a steady defensemen for  the Wings averaging about 19 minutes per game and chipping in 18 points this season. While his work won’t show up on the score sheet he will be instrumental in shutting down the Lightning attack. If he can disrupt the passing lanes (the Lightning do love them some cross-ice passes) then their offense will stall and things will get dicey.

After all of this typing what do I think is going to happen?  The high-power offense sputters a bit, but the Triplets end up being too much for the Wings. I say the Lightning win in six games. I’m apparently not alone in predicting a Lightning win, which kind of makes me nervous.  But sometimes you just have to believe that the best team will win.

Predictions:

Top Goal Scorer - Stamkos
Top Point Getter - Johnson
Number of OT games - 2
Games I watch in Real Time - 2
Most Penalty Minutes - Mark Barberio
Dumbest Penalty - Nikita Kucherov
Odd Man Rushes for Detroit - 6
Goals off Odd Man Rushes - 2

Bonus Prediction - there will be no picture as great as this picture.







Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Lightning Beat Up on the Blueline

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two games left in their season. As the season grinds to a close they have an outside chance of cracking the 50-win barrier for the first time in franchise history.  They also have a chance at cracking the 50 defensemen used barrier. At one point, around the time that it was announced that Andrej Sustr was hurt, I made a Twitter joke about the Bolts needing to look up Sergei Gusev to see if wanted some ice time. I was 90% joking, 10% serious.

In their last game, a 4-0 victory over the Florida Panthers, rookie Nikita Nesterov logged 21 minutes of ice time. Fellow rookie Luke Witkowski was on the ice for 15 minutes and uber-rookie Slater Koekkoek skated for 16. For a team fighting for the overall number one seed in the Eastern Conference that asking a lot out players with a combined 41 NHL games played. It’s also not sustainable.

Currently Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison, dark horse team-MVP candidate Andrej Sustr and deadline pick-up Brayden Coburn are all currently on the sidelines with various injuries (deadlocked at 2 upper body injuries and 2 lower body injuries). While the forwards have battled through some injuries as well (Alex Killorn is the latest member of the walking wounded) it’s the blue line that has suffered the most this season.

There was a concerted effort in the off-season to buoy the defense corps, mostly based on the fact that last year they had to trade for Michael Kostka in order to have enough defensemen on the roster.. It was a good thing that General Manager Steve Yzerman worked quickly to trade for Garrison and then back the free agent truck up to Anton Stralman’s house. The new imports haven’t necessarily turned the team into a clone of the mid-90s New Jersey Devils teams  and shut other team‘s offenses down (the team’s goals against this season is 2.51 as compared to 2.55 last season), but they have provided a bit of stability in front of the net.

Stralman is one of those defensemen that excels at both the old-fashioned “eye test” but also has the backing of the statistics crowd. He never displays panic when he has the puck and always seems to make the right pass.  When he is on the ice good things tend to happen - good things like more shots by the Lightning as evidenced by his 52.8 CF% (I think I did that right.  I’m still getting used to these advanced stats.)

Heading into the playoffs the Lightning will most likely get at least two of their big guns back.  NHL.com’s Bryan Burns reported that Coburn skated with the team (although in a red no-contact jersey) and Hedman participated fully in the practice. It bodes well that he will join the team for at least one of the last two games while Coburn is shooting for the first playoff game.

Having Hedman back will be instrumental in the team’s success in the post-season. It’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy this year as he was putting together a season that would have had him in the Norris Trophy conversation. Over the last two seasons the big Swede has shown the talent that made him a top draft pick in 2009.

Hedman’s return will most likely mean that Koekkoek will find himself back in Syracuse for their playoff run. The former number one draft pick acquitted himself fairly well during his two games with the big club. There were moments where you could see his potential, especially when he got the puck in open ice and was able to use his skating skill to weave past opponents in the neutral zone. There were also times when he looked a little lost on the ice.

In all likelihood he will spend next season in  Syracuse since this is his first season of professional hockey.  The Lightning have six other defensemen already under contract with Sustr and Mark Barberio likely to have their restricted free agent options picked up by the club (and I would expect Sustr to turn his excellent play into a longer term deal). Koekkoek could use a little more experience in the AHL and will probably play the Witkowski role of first call up should injuries occur.

Compared to where the team stood last season (Ben Bishop hurt, Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula banged up) the Lightning aren’t in that bad of shape.  Hedman and Coburn coming back will be a big boost and allow Coach Cooper to control the minutes of his younger players.  With home ice advantage locked up for the first round he’ll also be able to control the match ups.  

At this point should the Lightning even rush their injured players back? While it would be nice to be able to hand an Atlantic Division banner from the rafters, in the long run it doesn’t really matter that much. They have wrapped up home ice advantage in the first round which is the most important thing, but it’s not like they can dictate getting an easier opponent by winning the division. Most likely they will be facing Detroit, but there is also the chance that they will play the Bruins, the Penguins or even the Washington Capitals. Nothing is going to be sorted until the last day, so it would be better to rest the players an extra week then bring them back too soon and risk them re-injuring their upper or lower bodies.

 The good news for Lightning fans is that the team’s philosophy isn’t affected by who they play;  Coach Cooper and his staff believe that the Lightning, when healthy and clicking on all cylinders, can dictate their style of play no matter who is on the other side of the puck.

Hopefully whoever they play, they will play them with a full roster and Mr. Gusev can watch from his couch in Yekaterinburg.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lightning Card of the Week - Witness the Death of the Personal Collection

That's it. I'm done. I'm throwing in the towel, stopping the fight before someone gets killed. That somebody being me. The reason – see below.

How that signature is "Brett Connolly" I have no idea



Yup, that's a Brett Connolly 2010-11 Panini Luxury Suite Relic/Auto numbered to 99 Rookie. I received it on February 27th. By sundown on March 2nd Mr. Connolly was no longer a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Following in the grand tradition of buying out Vincent Lecavalier and trading Dustin Tokarski, General Manager Steve Yzerman orchestrated a transaction to personally piss me off.

Therefore I'm done. No more new personal collections. I'm sticking with what I got, because I can't bear the responsibility of having MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV or Alex Killorn or Radko Gudas (wait what?) traded simply because I focused on him for my collection. Better to hunt for circa 2001 Lecavalier cards then have the blood of an innocent rookie on my hands.

As for the trade itself I'm not really that surprised. It was kind of expected that at some point Connolly was going to be traded. Despite being the first player drafted by Mr. Yzerman it seemed like the former Prince George Cougar was always the odd man out. The ascension of the TKO Trio kind of bumped Connolly and fellow non-personal collection forward J.T. Brown down the depth list. Once Vlad Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette joined the roster and didn't fall flat on their faces it was only a matter of time until Connolly was on his way out the door.

The return for Connolly was decent (a 2nd round pick in 2015 and a 2nd round pick in 2016) and helps Mr. Yzerman recover some of the assets that he lost in picking up Braydon Coburn at the deadline as well. Since he dealt one of his 1st round picks it was nice to get back into the 2nd round (the Lightning lost their initial pick in the round to the Rangers once they re-signed Ryan Callahan) and a chance to keep the prospect pipeline flowing into Tampa.

If the organization is going to be successful long term, they are going to have to keep drafting well. They don't have the financial resources to keep signing big name free agents in the off-season so they have to fill the roster from within. They also can't afford to constantly trade away 1st round picks for deadline acquisitions like the Penguins have been doing. So if they do trade a 1st rounder like they did for Coburn it makes sense to use a surplus asset (like young forwards) to recoup their losses.

It's interesting that Mr. Yzerman has now traded away the first three picks he made as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Connolly was his first (drafted 6th overall), Brock Beukeboom, a 3rd round pick was traded to St. Louis for Eric Brewer and Radko Gudas, also drafted in the 3rd round, was part of the deal that brought Coburn to Tampa this winter. I guess he kind of wants a do-over for that draft.

One of the few photos of Brock in a Lightning uniform and he is apparently auditioning for the Tonight Show.


Connolly was a stretch pick from the moment the Lightning called his name. While some evaluators had him as one of the top offensive talents in the draft that year, a hip injury had limited him to only 16 games during the 2009-10 season. When he was drafted everyone's favorite bald analyst Pierre Mcguire called him, “either a grand slam or a ground out”. Bob McKenzie pointed out that Connolly's right-hand, his dominant hand, had been crushed in a metal gate when he was a kid and that it “lacked structure”.

In the end, Connolly was more a less a solid double. He bounced back and forth between the AHL and the NHL, bounced back and forth between lines before finally settling as a 3rd liner who was starting to find his scoring touch having netted a career-high 12 goals in 50 games for the Lightning this year. The Bruins were looking to add his presence for a playoff run, but a broken finger suffered in practice has pretty much shut down his season.

Compare the 2010 draft to the one a year later where four of the six picks (Namestnikov, MBNK, Nikita Nestorov and Ondrej Palat) have played for the Lightning and the other two players (Adam Wilcox and Matthew Peca) are among the organization's best prospects. Now that's a pretty good draft year. In fact, in terms of games played for the organization, it's probably the best draft since the Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Dmitry Afanasenkov, Martin Cibak draft of 1998 and the players are still on their entry level deals.

One of the problems of having so much young talent on the roster is that it does make it hard to figure out which individual players to invest in be it with cards or jerseys. I did take the plunge on drop a few bucks on a Kucherov jersey just because:

A – he shoots the puck a lot
B – not many people rock the 86
C – Nikita Kucherov is a bad-ass hockey name.

However, there is no guarantee he'll be here long term. The Lightning have a crazy amount of good young forwards who adapting well to the NHL level. While that is all well and good while they are under team control, it can get a bit expensive once they hit the open market. There is no way the team is going to be able to keep all of the players that they are developing now.

As a matter of fact I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to see another team try and snatch one of the restricted free agents from the Lightning be sending them an offer sheet. Luckily, most of the players are actually signed through next season, but the 2016-17 off-season could be very, very interesting. Killorn, Brown, Kucherov and Paquette are all RFAs that year and could garner some interest. Oh and there is also the fact that Tampa Bay could still be trying to sign some old man named Steven Stamkos in that same summer.

Those, however, are headaches for the future. For now things are looking mighty bright. While my personal collection might be lying broken on the floor at least the team playing on the ice is moving right along. And I'll move on. In fact I actually went to a card show this weekend and acquired some new cardboard. The first card I picked up (at a ½ off sticker price box):

Signature is a little better in this one.