2010-11 NHL season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

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boucherandyzerman.jpgLast season: (34-36-12, 80 points, 4th in Southeast Division, 12th in Eastern Conference) The Lightning have been a mess more or less since they won the Stanley Cup before the lockout. Almost universally bad personnel and front office decisions will do that to you. Really, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos were the only bright spots of last season, although many will point out that changing their owner, GM and coach might be the real ‘highlight.’

Head coach: They say that Guy Boucher is bringing in a system quite unlike anything Lightning players have ever seen … whatever that means. All I know is that he can’t be much worse than Rick Tocchet and that the scar on his face makes him look a villain from a James Bond film. These are good things.

Key departures: G Antero Niittymaki, F Alex Tanguay, F Zenon Konopka, F Todd Fedoruk, D Andrej Mezaros, D Matt Walker, D Kurtis Foster. Few teams can match the Lightning when it comes to year-by-year turnover. The good news is, this summer resembles cleaning house compared to the ‘re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ type moves in previous years. They might miss Foster’s booming slapper a bit, though.

Key arrivals: G Dan Ellis, F Simon Gagne, D Pavel Kubina, D Brett Clark, F Sean Bergenheim, D Dominic Moore. Ellis is a slight upgrade over Niittymaki while Gagne is a considerable upgrade over Tanguay — if he can stay healthy. Actually, Kubina’s a step up from Meszaros, too. Just a bunch of shrewd moves by new general manager Steve Yzerman.

Thumbnail image for lecavalierwithnewteammates.jpgUnder pressure: When you make the kind of coin that Vincent Lecavalier does, you better produce. He’ll always be under a lot of pressure in Tampa Bay, but when you consider that Stamkos could rake in big bucks as his contract expires this season, Lecavalier needs to justify his very expensive existence. If the French-Canadian talent can make it happen this season, Tampa Bay might turn some heads sooner than some expect.

Protecting the house: Neither new addition Ellis nor Mike Smith are going to take the world by storm, but they’re both competent goalies. On the negative side, Smith is injury-prone while Ellis is unproven as a starter. I like the duo, but they’ll need some solid defense to shine.

Tampa Bay’s defense is a lot like its goalies: solid but unspectacular. Victor Hedman struggled in his first season, but he should be a special player one day. Mattias Ohlund is getting a little long in the tooth, but he’s a solid trooper. Kubina and Clark are nice additions as well. Boucher’s system will have a big impact on the quality of this group, but this could be the best group they’ve had in quite some time (even if that’s not saying much).

If nothing else, the Lightning should allow less than the putrid 260 goals they gave up last season.

Top line we’d like to see: Stamkos-Lecavalier-St. Louis. This trio boasts a speedy playmaker (St. Louis), a true gunslinger (Stamkos) and an elite center (Lecavalier). Tampa Bay would be wise to split Stamkos and Lecavalier for the sake of depth scoring, but if it needs a goal, this could be a great combo.

Oh captain, my captain: Lecavalier’s been the (admittedly pretty) face of the franchise since the team’s former owner called him the ‘Michael Jordan’ of hockey, even if he hasn’t always been the captain. I wonder if St. Louis might be a better choice, though, since he consistently produces while Lecavalier is decidedly up-and-down.

Street fighting man: If ridding themselves of last season’s leader Konopka wasn’t enough, the team openly states that it has an anti-fighting policy. Considering that Southeast Division is getting tougher (at least in Florida and Atlanta), that might be a minor concern.

Best-case scenario: Let’s not forget that the Lightning boasts top-level forwards that can compare to any in the NHL. Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Gagne, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie are a pretty imposing group. Winning a Cup seems a little ridiculous, though, but what about a run to the Eastern Conference finals?

danellistbl.jpgWorst-case scenario: Boucher’s system doesn’t work out. Smith gets injured and Ellis has a new set of ‘Dan Ellis Problems’ (namely, letting in too many goals). Lecavalier flounders, Stamkos regresses, St. Louis shows his age and Gagne gets hurt for half the season while their defense fails miserably. The team finishes well enough that they don’t get a good draft pick, but low enough that they miss the playoffs.

Keeping it real: When you consider how bad the Eastern Conference is once you get past the elite teams, the lower seeds are wide open. The Lightning can definitely earn a seventh or eighth seed simply by improving by increments. They have a potentially explosive offense, a decent defense and an OK goalie duo. Sounds like the right mix in the diluted East.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Tampa Bay earns a 3. I’d rather give them a 2.5, because they have a lot of talent, but are far from complete. There are a ton of unknowns from this team, but I think a Lecavalier-Gagne combo could wreak havoc on second-defensive pairings

Capitals accuse Letang of leaving his feet, hitting Johansson in head

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Get this: the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins seem divided on the legality of Kris Letang‘s hit on Marcus Johansson.

(Take a moment to gather your thoughts amid this shocking revelation.)

You can watch the hit over and over in the video above. This post features some takes on that check, which the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is reportedly reviewing.

Generally speaking, the three things people discuss regarding the check is how late it might be, if Letang used his feet and if Johansson’s head was the principal point of contact.

Letang told his side of the story:

The Capitals disagree:

While Barry Trotz pleads the Fifth after his previous comments about Brooks Orpik‘s suspension:

No doubt about it, Letang’s status is the top story to follow in this series between Games 3 and 4. We’ll find out soon enough how it all shakes out.

Penguins ride Murray’s masterpiece to 2-1 series lead vs. Capitals

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If Marc-Andre Fleury suiting up bothers Matt Murray, then the rookie goalie channeled those feelings into a masterful performance on Monday.

The Washington Capitals absolutely dominated Game 3, but Murray was even better, stopping 47 shots as the Penguins stole one 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead.

(Capitals fans might see some parallels to Washington’s Game 5 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers; they fell 2-0 despite a 44-11 shots on goal edge thanks to Michal Neuvirth‘s heroics.)

Murray stopped chance after chance before Alex Ovechkin finally broke through for his first goal of this series. Justin Williams then brought the Penguins’ lead down to 3-2 to make for a hold-your-breath final minute.

A driven Ovechkin and strong overall play from the Capitals (despite this defeat) aren’t the only reasons why Game 4 might present some twists.

First things first: Kris Letang might get suspended for Game 4 (if not for more than one game) thanks to this controversial check on Marcus Johansson.

Beyond that, there could be some bumps and bruises from this contest.

Bryan Rust left during the first period and didn’t return to the game after blocking a shot. Brian Dumoulin seemed shaken up after an Alex Ovechkin hit in the third period. The Capitals might have a player or two to look at, as well.

In other words, the Penguins could really lack for quality defensemen with Letang possibly suspended and possible injury absences for Dumoulin and Olli Maatta.

This series is living up to the hype … and really building up the hate.

Yes, NHL is reportedly looking at Letang’s hit on Johansson

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It remains to be seen if Kris Letang will get suspended for his hit on Marcus Johansson … and if he does, for how long.

(You can read initial reactions and some analysis about the specifics of the check vs. the one that got Brooks Orpik suspended here.)

There are a few things we do know already.

For one thing, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is reportedly looking into it.

Another factor that could help Letang avoid a suspension or limit the duration of supplemental discipline: Marcus Johansson returned during the second period.

In fact, Johansson delivered some hits on Letang.

There have been some nasty moments in Game 3, and more might be coming. The Penguins lead 2-0 with a few minutes remaining in the middle frame.

Kris Letang may face suspension for hit on Marcus Johansson

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Update: Reports indicate that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is indeed looking into the hit.

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As thrilling as this Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals series has been, it seems like every game presents another controversial hit.

Game 3’s most noteworthy entry (so far?) came when Kris Letang was whistled for interference on Marcus Johansson.

Penguins fans griped that Brooks Orpik didn’t get a major penalty for his hit on Olli Maatta … now Capitals fans likely feel the same about the check Letang delivered.

Watch it in the video above. Also, Stefanie “My Regular Face” has it in GIF form:

Things could get ugly in Game 3:

One factor in a suspension happening – or at least the duration of the suspension – would be what the point of contact was:

Also, lateness of the check:

The Penguins ended the first period up 2-0 against the Capitals, even though Washington played one of its best 20 minutes of the series. Expect more drama.

Update: The Penguins won the game 3-2.

Read reactions to the check here.