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

Lonnie Cameron, hockey-tough linesman, shakes off puck to head (Video)

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Talking about hockey toughness is pretty much a trope at this point, yet there are still moments that impress even the cynical among us.

Linesman Lonnie Cameron accomplished that for many on Tuesday, as he returned to the Nashville Predators – Vancouver Canucks game despite taking a puck to the head in a scary moment.

Judging by the Twitter feed of Brooks Bratten from the Predators’ website, Cameron missed mere minutes of time.

So, yeah, it seems like Cameron qualifies as “hockey tough.”

As far as the game itself went, the Canucks beat the Predators 1-0 thanks to Henrik Sedin‘s goal (his 999th point) and Ryan Miller‘s 30-save shutout.

Is this more than just a slump for Henrik Lundqvist?

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People have been wondering for years if Henrik Lundqvist would finally fall off track and, you know, look human. After the New York Rangers’ zany 7-6 loss to the Dallas Stars, those rumblings are probably getting a little louder.

Don’t expect the Rangers to throw their star goalie under the bus, though, especially after a wide-open game like Tuesday’s goal-filled game at Madison Square Garden.

In fact, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is already penciling Lundqvist in for Thursday’s game against the rising Toronto Maple Leafs.

“He’s going to play, he’s going to try real hard, and we’re going to try to play better in front of him,” Vigneault said, according to the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis. “This is a team.”

Lundqvist, meanwhile, said about what you’d expect:

Naturally, Lundqvist and plenty of other Rangers threw the word embarrassing around quite a bit to describe this game, or at least the first 40 minutes. It’s just that no one’s really raking Lundqvist over the coals.

Is this time different?

Again, Lundqvist is no stranger to struggles, even if he struggles less often than just about any franchise goalie in recent memory.

Still, the sample size is getting large enough for this stretch to be a concern for the 34-year-old netminder.

While goal support and stretches of good play open the door for a respectable 18-12-1 record, Lundqvist’s allowing almost three goals per game (2.89 GAA) and has a backup-level .902 save percentage this season. And that’s over 32 games.

Things get even uglier if you focus on more recent events.

He’s allowed 20 goals in his past four starts, including allowing 12 tallies over four periods during the past two games. Lundqvist has a putrid .841 save percentage in January after producing great work in November (.925 save percenate in 11 games) and nice numbers in December (.915 in eight games).

Lundqvist has given up four goals or more on nine different occasions since Nov. 23.

In other words, there are a lot of different ways in which he’s struggling:

Is this a matter of Lundqvist regaining his focus or is “The King” finally abdicating his throne?

The Rangers are going to let him try to work through this. Otherwise, they might just need to hope that this is an off-year and *gulp* at least consider how far (an eventually healthy?) Antti Raanta could take them.

Supporting cast rallies Blackhawks in win against Avalanche

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For much of the season, the Colorado Avalanche’s biggest names have let them down while many believe that the Chicago Blackhawks are getting it done despite a mediocre supporting cast.

On Tuesday, the script was essentially flipped. The Avs’ stars were productive, yet so were lesser-known Chicago forwards like Tanner Kero and Vinne Hinostroza.

The most important narrative stayed the same, however, as the Blackhawks found a way to get by the Avalanche in a 6-4 decision.

The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the second period, but the Avs put together one of their best stretches of this lousy season. Blake Comeau tied it up, Matt Nieto scored his first goal with Colorado and then Matt Duchene answered Chicago’s only goal of the second period (by Kero) to give the Avalanche a 4-3 edge.

The Avalanche doubled Chicago’s shots on goal in the second period, generating an 8-4 edge. It felt like a rare moment where Colorado’s talent actually flexed its collective muscles.

Then the Blackhawks turned it on in the third, generating a 12-5 shot edge of their own and finding a way to win.

Hinostroza ended up making the biggest difference, scoring the tying and game-winning goals before Kero iced it with an empty-netter thanks to an unselfish pass by Jonathan Toews.

(It’s not to say that Chicago’s big names outright slept through this game, either. Toews got that assist and Marian Hossa made a bunch of plays to help make life easier for Hinostroza and Kero.)

This wasn’t always pretty, but the Blackhawks are doing enough to get points night after night. On some nights, that’s the real difference between a contender like Chicago and a languishing squad like Colorado.

Blue Jackets move back to first in Metro, NHL after beating Hurricanes

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 7:  Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets warms up prior to the start of the game against the New York Rangers on January 7, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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After stumbling for a bit, Tuesday was a reassuring night for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

With a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus moved back to the top of the Metropolitan Division (and thus, the NHL) because they now match the Washington Capitals’ 64 points but have more wins (30 to 29) and hold a game in hand.

Also comforting for Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky returned to the Blue Jackets net, allowing one goal on 25 shots.

They were probably also happy to see Brandon Dubinsky enjoy a strong night (two goals) and Boone Jenner collect an assist and this absolute beauty of a goal:

The Hurricanes actually did hold a 1-0 lead in this game, but it lasted all of 11 seconds, as that Jenner goal erased that advantage.

The Blue Jackets face the Senators in Columbus on Thursday and then host the Hurricanes once again on Saturday. They follow that up with five straight road games and six of seven away from home beginning on Jan. 22. Columbus will pass another big test if they can stick with the Capitals and the rest of the NHL’s best through that stretch.