Maligned Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Mike Smith had a sparkling 31-save 2-0 shutout of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, helping his club secure their fifth straight victory and a no worse than 5th finish in the Eastern Conference.
Such has been the life for Tampa Bay in their hot streak down the homestretch of this season. After struggling through most of the month of March, the Lightning have seen Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith turn in gem after gem as the hockey team seems to be figuring out how they need to play heading into the playoffs.
In all five victories, Tampa Bay has been outshot (some games a ratio of 2-to-1) yet their rope-a-dope style has enabled them to take advantage of their hot goaltenders and strike when the opportunity presents.
The Bolts suddenly defense-first style has blunted some of the goal scoring but by keeping their opponents at the perimeter and clogging the slot, the Lightning have enabled both Smith and Roloson to see the puck much better.
Even with the improved visibility, both goalies have had to come up with some unbelievable moments, making the big save just when the Lightning needed it - an element that has eluded the team until just recently.
Defensively, Tampa Bay has shown a new toughness that hadn't really been seen all season. Part of that is due to the return of Steve Downie and Ryan Malone from injury, but it seems like the Lightning coaching staff has gotten through to their boys.
Finesse hockey may work during the regular season, but it's not going to get you very far in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Tampa Bay coaching staff has gotten the Lightning to play with more grittiness. Even pacifist Steven Stamkos was throwing around his body and delivering some open ice checks in Chicago. Tiny Marty St. Louis has been seen delivering hits in the corners to guys twice his size.
It's added some edge to their game, allowed for more errors by their opponents, and enabled them to capitalize.
While admittedly, the opposing shot totals have been a bit high, if they can limit the number of shots, it's going to be increasingly difficult to score on this team.
It's a style of play Tampa Bay hopes they can take into the playoffs.
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