In case you missed it, the Tampa Bay Lightning did the unthinkable last week:
They held the Ottawa Senators to a single touchdown.
And yet, for all of the grit and pluck on display in that hard-fought contest, the Bolts failed to convert on a 4th-and-goal attempt late in the game. The good news is that they nailed the extra point.
A score like that certainly goes a long way towards illuminating a team's problems, no?
Now, the easiest way to explain away a loss of this magnitude is to simply throw the goalies under the bus. And this approach, while admittedly cruel, is probably acceptable given the hitherto abysmal play of Tampa's two netminders, Mike Smith, and Antero Niittymaki.
To be fair, Niittymaki has posted borderline-respectable numbers; but neither player looks anything close to comfortable in net.
And soft goals are always hard to stomach.
Even so, head coach Rick Tocchet has been admirably diplomatic about expressing such concerns to the media: "Everyone knows that Smitty is our No. 1, Nitty knows that, but that doesn't mean Nitty comes in and plays with the attitude of being a backup."
Right. More appropriate: "Bad Smitty. Bad Nitty."
But as bad as the goaltending has been, Tampa has reason enough to stay positive. They clearly have two near-future superstars in Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos, while semi-recent acquisition Ryan Malone has begun to validate the questionably-pricey salary used to lure him away from Pittsburgh.
Victor Hedman, whom the Lightning selected second overall in the draft this past summer, is obviously talented. No surprises there. But his composure on the power play has been truly remarkable when one considers the lofty expectations that come with such a high-profile assignment. A rookie who is out of his depth on the power play has nowhere to hide.
But put those eggs away, Mr. Bombay: The touch this kid puts on his passes cannot be coached.
And don't let his size fool you, either. He can dangle . This later gift, however, is both a blessing and a curse.
Young, offensive-minded blueliners—Mike Green comes to mind—are inclined to cheat a little too far forward, a tactic which can backfire in a very predictable way. And this instinct—an undeniable asset once polished by maturity—has been the only overtly-obvious chink in Victor's armor thus far. He's hung his goalies out to dry on more than one occasion.
Which is a bad idea even when one's goaltenders are playing well .
Steven Stamkos, on the other hand, has been virtually flawless as a sophomore. He's smart, he's skilled, and he's got a howitzer for a shot...one which appears to have been custom-built to pad his teammates' stats. He's every bit the complete package. The goal he scored against Pittsburgh last week was a thing of beauty, an effortless blend of coordination and concentration. It's the kind of goal one expects Crosby to bag.
No worries. Crosby had great seats for this one, too.
Furthermore, Tampa's pet rebound-monster, Ryan Malone, is presently leading the team in goals. No joke. Ryan Malone—playing on a team with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, no less —is leading his team in goals.
And he's arguably looked better than he ever has in the process. Always comfortable in front of the net, and presently on a line with St. Louis and Stamkos, he's bound to post career numbers this year. Which will translate into a career-high in smiles this year. Maybe.
But as long as he's smiling, the Bolts will probably have something to smile about, too.
So things are looking good in Tampa-upon -Bay. The Lightning clearly have the roster necessary to bury a ton of pucks. They just have to be more selective about where they choose to bury 'em.
A blessing, and a curse.