The Tampa Bay Lightning went off the script.
In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season, the Lightning started hot. They won six of their first seven games, and in the randomness of that forty eight game campaign, looked like candidates for the playoffs.
Then, after that short-lived streak, the Lightning crashed. Their goaltending was brutal, and their defence non-existent. At 44.7% fenwick close by the end of the year, the Lightning were the definition of a lottery team.
The Lightning went into that lottery and came out richer, grabbing QMJHL star Jonathan Drouin with the third overall pick. While many questioned the wisdom of eschewing projected top defender Seth Jones in favour of another skilled forward, the Bolts nonetheless stocked what is arguably the best pool of prospects in the NHL.
So, with their shiny new prospect sent back to the comfort of the Q, the Lightning brought back a very similar roster to start the 2013-14 season. Of course, longtime Captain Vincent Lecavalier was gone, as was early-season sensation Cory Conacher. By and large, however, this is the team that couldn't cut it in 2012-13.
When the season began, the Lightning broke out quickly once again. One month into the season, they sat fourth in the East. Going into a November 11 matchup with the Boston Bruins, they had pushed all the way into first. It was during that game that the Lightning suffered the blow that would end their hopes of contention, except that it didn't.
Superstar Steven Stamkos, the NHL's foremost sniper and a man off to a ridiculous 10-goals-in-nine-games start to the season, suffered a broken leg sliding into his own net on an ill-fated back check. When Stammer staggered to his feet and dropped to the ice again, it seemed certain that Tampa Bay's season collapsed along with him. A month and a half later, that's not the case.
The Lightning have gone 12-7 since the loss of their best player, and have kept their heads above water at second in the Atlantic division. If the players are mostly the same, what makes this crew different than last year's?
If there's one apparent answer to that question, it's the play of goaltender Ben Bishop. The Bolts acquired the Mountain that Skates when they dealt Conacher at the deadline last year, and he's been nothing short of sensational this year, excelling in every way that his predecessors did not. Only the Colorado Avalanche have a higher team save percentage than Tampa so far, as Bishop has leveraged the league's second highest even strength save percentage into a 20-5-2 record so far.
Bishop has also enjoyed the benefit of a stingier team in front of him, as this year's Tampa team is allowing more than three fewer unblocked shot attempts than last year's iteration. One contribution to this trend can be attributed to free agent signee Valtteri Filppula, who represents the Lightning's other significant player personnel change for 2013-14. The Finn has been solid in his second line centre role, taking was an overpaid, under-performing position and making it the opposite. While Vinny was a sieve on possession last year in a more sheltered role, Filppula has been possession positive in a more defensive deployment, and scored at a very similar rate to Lecavalier's. At $3 mil per over 5 years, the early returns on the Lecavalier to Filppula transition are looking quite promising as a hockey move and a salary cap transaction.
Meanwhile, young defencemen Radko Gudas and Andrej Sustr have grown into top six roles, greatly heightening TB's depth. In fact, with Sami Salo and Eric Brewer day-to-day, and liable on the off-chance to miss tonight's game, both of those young men will be relied upon much more heavily.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a challenge, and the Montreal Canadiens are a team that have failed to rise to the occasion of late. While the Lightning are not nearly on the level of the Kings or Blues, they are nonetheless a solid possession team that can field a MVP candidate in the absence of their other MVP candidate, and are enjoying some top-notch goaltending.
If the Habs are to beat the Bolts, they'll need top-notch goaltending of their own. More importantly, however, they'll need to string together sixty consecutive minutes in a way that they have not managed to for some time. Is the team tired? Do they need a new system? Is their impressive young core falling into the sinkhole that is the bottom of the roster?
With seven days' rest, we can scratch one of those excuses off the list tonight. Now, it's up to the Habs to prove they don't need it.
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