Tampa’s offense must compensate for defensive woes

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

In recent NHL history, only a handful of teams have won the Stanley Cup thanks more to their scoring ability than their defensive play. The mid-1980’s Edmonton Oilers and, arguably, the early 1990’s Pittsburgh Penguins come to mind.

If the Tampa Bay Lightning are to bring the Cup back to Florida for the first time since their pre-lockout 2004 triumph, they’ll probably follow a similar pattern. After a mediocre first half, the Lightning struck back with a five-game winning streak between January 7 and 15, and have been among the league’s hottest teams ever since.

But winning primarily with offensive stars can be tough, as a March 6 confrontation with the Vancouver Canucks at GM Place showed. The good news was that even though 2004 Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis was held pointless, Vincent Lecavalier scored his club record 43rd goal of the year on the power play, simultaneously equaling Brian Bradley’s Tampa Bay mark for most power play goals (16). The bad news was that the Lightning lost 5-1 to a tight-checking Vancouver squad.

“This time of year, the game is closing down a bit,” admitted St. Louis. “Teams are playing a lot more defensively.”

“We have this mystique that we’re such a high-flying offensive team, but normally we also play well defensively,” said captain Tim Taylor in disappointment. Under the circumstances, the 38-year-old center really couldn’t get excited about Lecavalier’s feat either: “It was bound to happen. Vinny’s had a great year. But this is a sport that’s all about winning. Right now, we’re trying to gain points to win our division.”

And you could say the theme song for the process has been Meat Loaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad.” With under a month left in the regular season, Lecavalier and St. Louis both have a slim chance of catching Sidney Crosby for the NHL scoring title.

LeCavalier had never scored more than 35 goals in a season before (2005-06), and no one expected him to contend for the Rocket Richard Trophy this year versus Alexander Ovechkin and Dany Heatley. Meanwhile, after sagging to 61 points in his first post-lockout season, St. Louis has rebounded and will eclipse his Art Ross-winning total of 94 points from 2003-04.

So, “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”? Unfortunately, Brad Richards has not played up to the expectations that come with an annual salary of $7.8 million US. The 2004 Lady Byng and Conn Smythe Trophy winner’s playmaking just hasn’t been as sharp as usual, and he won’t come close to the 91 points he racked up in 2005-06.

But even if Richards continues to improve, the reality is that Tampa Bay’s current defensive crew can’t compare to the one that helped them earn the 2004 Cup. Key veterans like Darryl Sydor, Pavel Kubina, Brad Lukowich, and Jassen Cullimore have moved on to other NHL teams. While savvy puck-mover Dan Boyle remains, head coach John Tortorella has indicated that he needs better defensive work from the likes of ex-Minnesota Wild free agent acquisition Filip Kuba, sophomore Paul Ranger, and Doug Janik, who has emerged as an NHL regular this year after toiling for years with the AHL’s Rochester Americans.

In terms of goaltending, even though Nikolai Khabibulin hasn’t performed well enough in Chicago for the Lightning to regret letting him go, questions remain about whether either Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis can provide winning playoff goaltending. Holmqvist excelled for the champion Swedes at the 2006 IIHF World Championship, posting a 2.00 GAA and .909 save percentage, but can he elevate his play during an April-to-June NHL playoff marathon? At least he’s been good enough to usurp the starter’s job from Denis, who was acquired from Columbus in June 2006 for Fredrik Modin and Frederik Norrena. Like Holmqvist, Denis has never appeared in an NHL playoff game.

Frankly, if Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Richards aren’t flying offensively like a “Bat Out Of Hell” (to quote Meat Loaf again), and Tampa Bay doesn’t manage to reduce its average goals-against per game to less than three, the St. Pete Times Forum will only host a handful of hockey games in April.

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