Question of the Week: First Half Highlights and Lowlights

Question of the Week is a weekly feature that poses a question to Raw Charge writers and other writers within the Boltosphere, discussing the ins and outs of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning have passed the midway point of the season. There have been ups and downs, there have been changes, there has been stability. The first half of the season had its moments, good and bad, so this week we ask:

Reflecting on the first 41 games of the NHL regular season, what do you think is a highlight of the first half? What do you think is a lowlight from first half?

This week we take a look at the first half of the season, reflecting on specific highs and lows of the first 41 games - a player performance, or perhaps a team statistic, or a specific game could be mentioned as examples of these high points and low points.  In addition to contributions from members of the Raw Charge staff, we got responses from other personalities from around the Boltosphere, including Bill Philp (Lightning Shout, Hockey Independent), Bolts2Cup (Bolts2Cup.com), Jon Jordan (Kukla's Korner), Mike Corcoran (ESPN1040.com, Creative Loafing Sports), and Pete Choquette (Bolts Prospects).

Follow the jump for this week's answers.

Bill Philp (Lightning Shout, Hockey Independent)

Highlight: Winger Teddy Purcell. Purcell has accumulated six goals, 18 assists and 24 points (All career highs) while playing in every game. All of his six goals have come during even strength situations, an area where the Lightning has struggled. He has been criticized in the past for not wanting to get involved in the "dirty work" along the boards. He has shed that image this season. He possesses a rocket-like wrist shot and is a threat to score every time he is on the ice. All this for a salary of $750,000!

Lowlight: The lack of production from forward Simon Gagne. A paltry three goals and four assists coupled with a frightening -21 rating in just 25 games. Only one time in his 11 seasons in the NHL has he finished with a minus rating. He has scored 20 or more goals in seven of his 11 seasons. He is getting shots (67) and ice time (16:22 average) but his shooting percentage is a terrible 4.5%. He is on pace to finish with just 21 points. This lack of production is costing the Bolts a $5,250,000!

Bolts2Cup (Bolts2Cup.com)

Highlight: As the season began, new Head Coach Guy Boucher appears to have been keenly aware of the challenges presented by the very difficult schedule he inherited in his first year: as a head coach in the NHL. The Lightning began the season playing 20 of their first 31 games on the road, including a stretch where the team played 15 of 21 games on the road, which included two separate trips to the west coast. The big story of the first half of the Lightning's 2010-2011 season is the astonishing success despite the grueling road schedule. Since Christmas, the Lightning has been atop the Southeastern Division, holding down the 2nd spot in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning has done this on the strength of a solid 13-10-3 record on the road. The grit and determination displayed during the brutal schedule is a testament to the character of the team. The off season additions by Steve Yzerman have clearly added tremendous character, work ethic and commitment to both ends of the ice and significantly contributes to the fantastic first half of the season.

When the season began, the Lightning's objective was likely to weather the storm andremain in contention for a playoff spot through the first half of the season. By playing above .500 during the brutal stretch of games, the Lightning positioned themselves to make a strong run at the division and even challenge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. By any measure, the Lightning has exceeded expectations and appear to be one of the top five teams in the Eastern Conference having weathered the storm and now looking at a lengthy home standing at the end of the month through nearly all of February.

Lowlight: While many fans will point to the goaltending as the low light in the season, an equally or more significant concern had been the inconsistent defensive play. Since December and the return of Simon Gagne and Vincent LeCavalier, the Lightning defense seems to have found its stride and the consistency and success has been fantastic but for the 8-1 game in Pittsburgh after the big 1-0 overtime win in Washington.

The inconsistency appears more likely to rear itself towards the end of road trips and the second of back-to-back games. Interestingly, the injuries to Gagne and LeCavalier seem to have been far more detrimental to the defense than the offense as the veteran presence cut down on unforced errors and poor back checking support. The play of both veterans increased the consistency across the board, as well as the overall success on defense. It is not a coincidence that the goaltending began to improve dramatically with the more consistent defense and the return of Gagne and LeCavalier. Of course, now with the addition of Roloson, goaltending has become a strength on this team and the continued defensive consistency promises to make it very difficult to beat the Lightning.

Don't Trade Vinny

Highlight: Martin St. Louis

Despite my namesake, I've maintained for several years now that Marty is this team's heart and soul. So far this season, he's only gone more than one game without a point once, and that was only two games. One of which was a shutout. He's on pace for 36G, 68A, and 102 points. That would be a career high in assists and tie his career high in points. On top of that, he's already got five game winning goals (his career high for a season is seven), 23 power play points, and 44 (!) blocked shots. Keep in mind he plays right wing.

Regardless of who wears the ‘C,' Marty is the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lowlight: Getting bamboozled by the Penguins 8-1

Let's get the excuses out of the way: "We've spent the entire year on the road!" "The schedule maker is an idiot!" "We used all our energy the night before shutting out the Capitals!" "They get calls because of Sidney Crosby!" "Sidney Crosby!" "Sidney Crosby!!"

There, now then, that's out of the way. Ask yourself this now; would Guy Boucher use any of those excuses? No.

While it's true that this was the second of back-to-backs, that doesn't matter. Any team that wants to truly compete with the best in the league cannot lose by seven goals. Do these games happen to every team? Yes, of course, but the game was over after the first period. And the good teams, even when they get obliterated, rarely have lost the game after one period.

Does this mean I think the Lightning aren't as good as their record? Not at all, but I hope they learned a lot from this game.

John Fontana

Highlight: Adam Hall's contributions were the highlight of the first half of the season.  This guy was basically exiled to Norfolk last season by former management...  And yet he has been nothing more than amazing in what he's done for the team.  Hard worker, gritty, maybe not as flashy as Dana Tyrell, or Nate Thompson, or Dominic Moore, but he's been huge.

Lowlight: Special teams.  Oh, the power play has produced, the penalty kill has been effective, but it's the fact the Lightning have given up the most shorthanded goals in the league.  That's ugly.  They also have yet to score a shorthanded goal themselves this season, despite the chances that the PK unit has had.

Jon Jordan (Kukla's Korner)

Highlight: Steven Stamkos picking up right where he left off last year. This kid is such a unique talent and the Lightning are so privileged to have him in the fold (for a long time to come, soon enough!).

Lowlight: Definitely the pre-Roloson goaltending. Even after Roli's addition, as Mr. Ellis proved against New Jersey Sunday. Ick!

Mike Corcoran (ESPN1040.com, Creative Loafing Sports)

Highlight: Winning both games in Philadelphia in unique circumstances.

Going into Philadelphia is not a situation that is conducive to success. Two of the Flyers six home losses have come at the hands of the Lightning. The first win came in the second of back to back games after an emotional win 24 hours earlier in Montreal's home opener.

The second win came in a game where the only thing that was missing was the circus tent. The 8-7 win saw a back and forth offensive slugfest. Lightning teams in the past would have packed it in numerous times over, but this group continued to battle, eventually coming away with the win.

Lowlight: Playing down to the competition.

Historically, this has been a problem for the Lightning, and it does not look like that has changed in the first half of the season. To date, the Lightning have dropped points/games to the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders (losing twice in overtime), Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and New Jersey Devils. In what is shaping up to be a tight playoff race down the stretch, losing any points to teams that are not in playoff position will come back to haunt you.

Nolan Whyte

Highlight: So far, Stamkos' scoring would be too obvious, and frankly it's not even a surprise. We knew he was going be even better than last year, and we knew, after another off-season of working with Gary Roberts, he would be even stronger. The real surprise is who else is scoring, and by that I mean the bottom two forward lines.
 
If we look at the "top six" of Stamkos, St. Louis, Malone, Lecavalier, Downie, and Gagne, we get goal totals through 44 games of 31, 18, 11, 7, 3, and 3. The latter three players have missed time with injuries, but the third and fourth line players Purcell, Bergenheim, Moore, Thompson, Hall, and Tyrell are picking up the slack for the injured forwards, and have put in goal totals of 7, 8, 8, 6, 6, and 4 respectively.
 
That's a balanced attack. That's a constant threat. If these trends continue, we could reasonably end up with as many as ten forwards with double digit goal totals. Has that ever happened in Tampa Bay?
 
Lowlight: I will again eschew the obvious and not rag on the goaltenders, especially since Roloson has joined the crew. While the Smith/Ellis tandem that has taken on the flagrantly abusive nickname "Smellis" has been sickeningly bad, I never really expected them to be that good anyway. Seriously, did anyone think Dan Ellis was the final piece of the puzzle? Or did you really just say, "Huh. Ellis. Well, that will do for now until we can get someone better, I guess." Humorously, the only goalie worse than these two goal-fiends has been Martin Brodeur. Shabby company for a Hall o'Famer, Marty.
 
But the real lowlight, and I'm sad to say it, has been the more glamourous addition that was made in the off-season: Simon Gagne. Yes, he scored a dynamic goal against the Caps the other night, and hopefully that is a taste of an explosive second half of the season for "Gags." But as far as the first half went, he didn't live up to his All-Star Olympian pedigree.

He got hurt in the preseason, and then played hurt and was ineffective. He missed significant time, came back and scored an emotional overtime goal, but was mostly invisible afterward. In 26 games played, he has four goals and four assists for eight points, and is a stunningly awful (and team worst) -20. Suddenly Alex Tanguay doesn't seem so terrible (wait... no, he still seems terrible, good season this year or not).

Maybe Gagne is still recovering from his neck injury, but whatever the case is, he hasn't "found it" yet. And hopefully he "finds it" soon, because if he and the other forwards that have been hurt start sinking their putts, this team could be something really special.

Pete Choquette (Bolts Prospects)

Highlights:

1. The 1-0 OT shutout win over the Washington Capitals on January 4, 2011.

2. The wild 8-7 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on November 18, 2010, including Stamkos' hat trick and Brett Clark shooting a puck through the net.

3. Finally winning against the Vancouver Canucks 5-4 in OT on December 11, 2010.

Lowlights:

1. Blowout losses, including 6-0 against the Florida Panthers on October 16, 2010; 5-2 against the San Jose Sharks on November 6, 2010; 6-3 against Washington on November 11, 2010; 5-1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 12, 2010; 6-0 against Washington on November 26, 2010; 8-1 against the Boston Bruins on December 2, 2010; and 8-1 against Pittsburgh Penguins on January 5, 2011.

2. The "not a penalty" game against the Boston Bruins on December 28, 2010.

3. Mike Smith.

Meredith Qualls

Highlights: Two things stand out to me from the first half. First off, Guy Boucher. Could the Lightning have asked for a better leader, and a better man to fuel this team and get them going in the right direction? I have been impressed with Boucher's concern and compassion for his players all season, and it is obvious that he has been a major force to this team's success.

On the ice, the surprising success from third and fourth liners Nate Thompson, Sean Bergenheim, and Dana Tyrell have been a pleasure to watch. These three, in particular, have shown consistent effort all season long, and exemplify the team's character, doing whatever it takes to push the team forward.

Lowlights: The 6-0 loss to the Florida Panthers in Game 6. After winning the first five games in the regular season, the Lightning collapsed against the Panthers, despite having won against the Panthers in Games 1 and 2, and coming off of two impressive feats against the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers. While there are some games you expect to lose, that one was particularly hard to stomach.

And in case you missed last week's question, check out thoughts on whether or not the Lightning need an enforcer.

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