Yesterday while most fans of the Washington Capitals were enjoying the teams' second annual Capitals Convention, I had the honor of attending Tampa Bay Lightning's final game of the preseason against Southeast Divisional, and cross-state rival, the Florida Panthers. It was the perfect opportunity to see how both the Bolts and the Cats had prepared during the off season, and scout what lies ahead for DC over the course of the 2010-11 NHL season.
First and foremost, I would like to thank the Tampa Bay Lightning organization's media relations director Brian Breseman for the courtesy of granting me media access to last night's Lightning/Panthers game. I was treated very well by everyone in the building and I was impressed by how classy the whole organization was, down to the players. All three stars of the game tossed pucks over the glass to kids in the stands after they were announced. I was also treated to an elevator ride with Lightning radio color commentator Phil Esposito, who still has all the passion and energy for the game as he's ever had. After the game, I also had a short conversation with radio play-by-play man Dave Mishkin, who was also very nice and interested in my presence at the game. I enjoyed chatting with the Lightning bloggers (including Raw Charge) between periods in the media room, the game presentation rivaled the Verizon Center's, and it was overall an excellent hockey atmosphere. Everyone in Tampa is excited for the Lightning this season, even I caught myself throwing up my arms when they scored. Hockey is back in South Florida and the Capitals will have to watch out for a re-loaded Lightning team this season.
For much of the first period of tonight's hockey game, the Tampa Bay Lightning were playing disorganized and sloppy hockey. Considering they were icing a lineup of mostly regulars, that wasn't an encouraging beginning. The Florida Panthers weren't exactly helpful, getting sticks in passing and shooting lanes, limiting the Bolts to only 5 shots for the period. That didn't excuse the sloppy line change that started with the Lightning having possession and ended with nobody within 20 feet of the puck without the puck moving. Pavel Kubina broke up a 2-on-1 with a diving sweepcheck about 8 minutes into the game, but that doesn't excuse the breakdown that started the play. When the Bolts got a powerplay 9 minutes in, they had trouble connecting passes and getting shots. Halfway through the powerplay, Steve Downie took an unnecessary offensive-zone cross-checking penalty.
The goalie who suffered at the hands of the Capitals last season had a strong and occasionally spectacular game. During the Steve Downie penalty, he collected a dump-in and executed a perfect, slow aerial clear all the way down to his opposite number, Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom.
His one blemish came at 13:51 of the first period. Panthers defenseman Mike Weaver had dumped the puck into the Tampa zone along the glass when it hit a stanchion and bounced out in front of the goal, catching everyone off-guard except Panthers forward Mike Santorelli, who pounced on the puck, deked Mike Smith (left) to the ice and roofed it.
With just 3 minutes left in the period, Weaver sent a shot on goal from the right point with Steven Reinprecht parked in front. Smith made the save, but the rebound went to Reinprecht. Smith made a diving stick save on Reinprecht's put-back attempt, and that rebound went to new Austrian acquisition Michael Grabner. The still sprawled Smith stopped got his glove on that.
Sleeper Has Awakened
The Lightning began showing signs of life toward the end of the first period, but really couldn't put it all together until Andrew Peters took a holding penalty 3:25 into the 2nd period. On that powerplay, Vincent Lecavalier snuck behind the defense on a feed from Martin St Louis, drove to the net, and beat Markstrom to the blocker side at the 4:32 mark. It was a huge goal that energized the announced crowd of 11,404 and brought the sleeping Bolts to life and ruffled the Panthers. It also earned Vinny #2 star of the game honors.
After that goal, the Lightning started to pile on. After only taking 5 shots in the first, the Lightning fired off 18 in the second while holding the suddenly toothless Cats to 5. Less than 3 minutes after Lecavalier's goal, Steven Stamkos gave the Bolts the lead. Steve Downie fired a shot from the faceoff circle that was blocked by the shinpad of Panther's defenseman Bryan Allen. Downie got the puck back and plowed right through Allen, before falling to the ice. He made a cross-ice pass to Stamkos from the ice, and Stamkos fired a shot that deflected off the Allen and in past a helpless Markstrom.
Forty seconds after the goal, in an attempt to spark his team, Panther forward Kenndal McArdle squared off at center ice with Lightning forward Nate Thompson. After about a minute of circling each other and trying to grab on, the actual fight lasted only 10 seconds, with McArdle landing several jabs before Thompson connected an upper-cut for a takedown.
One minute after the fight, Marty Reasoner took his second penalty of the game and it only took the Lightning 10 seconds to capitalize. Vincent Lecavalier drew two defenders to him between the circles before feeding a short pass to Stamkos at the faceoff dot. Stamkos one-timed a slap shot past Markstrom for his second goal of the game on what has become his signature shot. After the game, Stamkos said he had been keeping that one-time slap shot sharp over the summer, and it showed, which is why he earned #1 star of the game honors.
For the rest of the game, the Lightning dominated, only occasionally being threatened. The Panthers powerplay was impotent all game long. The Lightning finished the game with 40 shots on goal the the Panthers 21. While the Panthers didn't dress Bryan McCabe, Stephen Weiss, or David Booth, they still had most of their starting line-up, and they weren't scary at all. They looked solid defensively most of the game, but the young squad definitely had issues handling the Lightning once they woke up.
The Lightning, on the other hand, look like they could be a playoff team this year. They still have the amazing top-end talent, but they don't look so top-heavy this year, sporting a lineup of forwards that should be effective lines 1 through 4. New acquisition Simon Gagne played well, as did Ryan Malone, who took jersey #6 so Gagne could keep #12. The Lightning defense still has a couple question marks, but the top 4 of Mattias Ohlund, Brett Clark, Victor Hedman, and Pavel Kubina looks very strong. If Mike Smith and Dan Ellis can hold the fort in goal, they should be a playoff contender come spring. Rookie coach Guy Boucher has all the pieces he needs, the question becomes can his team execute.
Eric Perrin (left) played an energetic and effective game in a serious bid to make the Lightning roster for the third time of his career. Perrin won the Cup in 2004 and played three more solid NHL seasons, but spent last season in the KHL. He was especially strong on the forecheck disrupting the play and regaining possession. Perrin made several nice plays behind the net, including setting up Sean Bergenheim for his goal at 7:44 of the third period. On that play, Perrin zipped behind the goal with the puck, where he was met by a defenseman trying to check him. Perrin evaded the check, switched directions, and sent a feed out in front for Bergenheim who just had to shoot it.
If the well-traveled Perrin makes the team, he will have been teammates with Martin St Louis for 10 seasons on 4 teams in 4 leagues (QAAA, ECAC, IHL, NHL). Perrin has also played three seasons in Finland and one in Switzerland. If he does not make the team, it would be likely another team would pick him up on waivers.
St Louis was named #3 star of the game after a 2 assist night. Lightning defensemen Pavel Kubina and Michael Vernace also had assists on the night.