If Florida can be a comfort to Canadians in the midst of a brutal March, then a brutal Tampa Bay, as in Lightning, is an even greater comfort to Canadian hockey teams.
Saturday afternoon’s 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators marked a remarkable stretch in which the Tampa Bay Lightning offered two clear points to the Winnipeg Jets (2-1, March 7), Montreal Canadiens (4-3, March 9), Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2, (March 20) and now two welcome points to the Senators on the 23rd.
Sunday it could be gift time for the Jets again – a victory Winnipeg sorely needs following two humiliating losses Thursday and Friday to the surging Washington Capitals.
There is simply no explaining the Lightning. With the game’s greatest scorer in recent years, Steven Stamkos, established stars like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier (currently injured) and a young coach, Guy Boucher, who only minutes ago, it seems, was said to be “the next great thing” in NHL hockey.
Yet in falling to the Maple Leafs Wednesday this predicted powerhouse had four power play opportunities and took not a single shot on goal.
“We didn’t want the puck,” Stamkos told the media after Wednesday’s match in Toronto. “I really don’t know what to say.”
General Manager Steve Yzerman, in attendance at Scotiabank Place, may soon be the one who does have something to say. The Lightning’s record (13-17-1) and mostly listless play – based around a forecheck that could best be described as a “tickle” – may cost Boucher his job if matters do not improve.
They were certainly not improved much Saturday in Ottawa, where their surprised hosts did not have to concentrate hard until late in the third period, when the Lightning’s third goal of the period brought a little urgency to the game.
Sometimes, said Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot, when a game “is winding down and you’re up 4-0, some players get a little ‘relaxed’” – and bad things happen.
The Senators held on, however, much to the delight of the sellout crowd of 20,016.
The Lightning’s unwillingness to forecheck makes them susceptible to opposition teams having time to organize their rush – and all too often it costs them.
The Senators’ first goal, however, came off a lack of concentration in Tampa Bay’s own end, when huge defenceman Victor Hedman tried a sloppy clearing that was trapped by Methot – back in the lineup after being out briefly with a tweaked right knee. Methot fired the puck toward the Lightning net and rookie forward Jakob Silfverberg, Ottawa’s best player of late, neatly tipped it in behind goaltender Mathieu Garon.
Ottawa went ahead 2-0 when centre Kyle Turris was allowed to carry the puck up and into the Lightning end before sending a lateral pass to defenceman Eric Gryba, mysteriously standing all alone in the slot. Gryba’s slapper blew right past poor Garon for the rookie’s first NHL goal.
As Gryba told the television broadcast during the intermission, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.”
Garon’s luck only worsened when Silfverberg fired a long shot in off the boards and Ottawa forward Guillaume Latendresse was able to chop it free of the Tampa Bay defence. With the puck imitating a Mexican jumping bean, Latendresse missed one chance but, falling, was able to turn about and improbably clip the twirling puck out of the air and into the far side of Garon’s net.
It would be Garon’s last goal against this afternoon, Lightning coach Guy Boucher electing to replace him with Cedrick Desjardins, who began brilliantly, stopping first Silfverberg on a partial breakaway, then stoning Daniel Alfredsson on the rebound.
With less than 10 seconds left in the period, however, Desjardin fell victim to Alfredsson firing a puck hard through heavy traffic and then punching his own rebound home to give Ottawa a 4-0 lead.
In getting the second assist on Alfredsson’s goal, Sergei Gonchar set a franchise record for defencemen with points in 10 straight games – which is also the longest streak in the NHL this shortened season.
“Any time you get up 4-0 after the first,” said Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean, “the test is how you continue to play.”
And eventually his Senators were tested.
The Lightning only came to life late in the third when, with less than 10 minutes to go in the game, young Tyler Johnson managed to tip an Eric Brewer point shot in off Lehner’s left post.
Just over two minutes later, Johnson scored again from beside that post when he shovelled a quick pass behind Lehner.
“They get one, they get two,” said Lehner, “and all of a sudden things get a little shaky.”
With less than two minutes left in the game, Teddy Purcell scored off a mad scramble to bring Tampa Bay to within a goal of the Senators, but Alfredsson scored into the empty Lightning net to still any hopes of a full comeback.
“We get a 4-0 lead,” said a relieved MacLean, “it’s a hard game to bring home, but we found a way to bring it home.”
With the win, the Senators improved their record to 17-9-6 for 40 points in 32 games, leaving them well positioned, along with the Canadiens, Jets and Maple Leafs, to make a determined run to make the postseason.
Canada thanks you, Florida.