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Big Game Tonight for the Bolts

October 22, 2009, 10:31 AM ET [ Comments]

To say that tonight’s game against the San Jose Sharks is an important one for the Tampa Bay Lightning requires a little explanation.

It’s no more important than any other on the 82-game schedule, really, in terms of positioning in the standings. Every game, from that perspective, carries equal weight.

And it’s too early to discuss the value of divisional matchups. Only those in contention for a division title need worry about that anyway and the Lightning still have a long way to go to be a part of that conversation.

As an interconference matchup, some might even say tonight’s tilt carries very little impact, as compared to meetings against Eastern Conference adversaries.

But this evening’s visit from old friend Dan Boyle and the Sharks has some very interesting plot points that make this early season contest very significant to a Lightning club that will try and rebound from a pair of ugly losses in Ottawa and Pittsburgh.


- A major shuffling of the forward lines commences tonight that includes the forced dismantling of the highly effective trio of Ryan Malone, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Essentially, the “St. Malkos” line (a name that has caught on exactly nowhere, despite my best efforts) quickly established itself as Tampa Bay’s number one unit with 13 of the club’s 17 goals this season and an impressive aggregate total of 25 points throughout the first seven games. Now Steve Downie, late of the sandpaper line with Todd Fedoruk and Zenon Konopka, will get a shot with Malone and Stamkos.

No matter the motivation behind such a move, any time you break apart such an effective grouping, you’re taking at least somewhat of a risk; robbing Peter to pay Paul, as they say.

Speaking of Paul …

- A goalless Vincent Lecavalier will hope that a reunion with St. Louis will cue the old magic and erase the glaring goose egg on his stat sheet. More important than that, of course, is overall production from the new line, which will feature rookie James Wright to Lecavalier’s left. There’s a lot of speed with this new forward group – a factor that could propel the Lightning captain, who has hinted at simplifying his game and driving to the net more frequently.

Despite the goal drought, Lecavalier trails just St. Louis at present with six assists but he is also a team-worst minus-5. Head coach Rick Tocchet has said that Lecavalier’s game needs to get “uglier” and crashing the crease would certainly be a part of that equation.

But, it’s been apparent from the start of the season that something is just a bit off about Lecavalier’s game, which is awfully tough to figure out and equally as concerning when you consider that he should now be as determined, focused and effective as ever, with trade rumor and injury distractions finally all but dead.

That said, a goal or two will go a long way toward quelling the growing restlessness among the Lightning faithfulas it pertains to the face of their franchise.

If only they came that easily …

- Alex Tanguay, unable to produce with Lecavalier to this point, will now skate with Jeff Halpern and Drew Miller in an effort to shore up his overall game. If he’s not scoring, just like anyone else, he has to contribute somehow. Defensive lapses have compounded the disappointment of Tanguay’s lack of early season production (a single assist so far) and the feeling is that playing alongside Halpern and Miller will alleviate some of the pressure to score and encourage Tanguay to do the little things.

- It looks like Mike Smith will be back in goal for the Lightning, despite another solid overall effort from Antero Niittymaki in the loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday. This is a great opportunity for Smith, personally, as he continues to try to get into a groove after last season’s concussion woes. More often than not this year, he’s looked rusty, at best, in the Lightning cage. With Niittymaki playing as well as he has behind (or is it in front of?) Smith, it remains to be seen whether or not the pressure of an emerging backup will influence Tampa Bay’s number one positively.

Should he falter, one would think some more time as a spectator might be in store. Succeed and the Bolts are one step closer to getting back to where they want to be
– with two capable goaltending options at any given time.

With a formidable opponent in San Jose, however, the task at hand is anything but simple.

- The recent lull in the schedule provided the chance for Tocchet to put his team through an “extended training camp” of sorts, where practices have consisted largely of puck battles and other camp-like skating drills. The coach, as he had toward the end of last year’s miserable campaign, has threatened to cut ice time if the results from here forward are not to his liking.

The problem there, naturally, is that he’ll have to follow through should that become reality. When you make that sort of statement publicly as a coach, there is no backing down. Hopefully, the players respond and it will all be a moot point. If not, who sees their ice time diminish? Take your pick. The desire for an increase in production and overall responsibility definitely doesn’t end with one or two players.

- Win and they’re in, right? By “they” here, the reference is to fans, as in start winning and they’re in the seats. In three home games to this point, the empty seats have been prevalent.

All it takes around here is a winning product. (Look at last year’s Tampa Bay Rays, for instance, compared to this year’s version.) A little win streak and the St. Pete Times Forum will be on its way to being the place to be once again.

2-0-1 at home this year, adding another “W” tonight would be a real boost to that cause.

They can worry about the ills of the road later.


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