After an offseason spent overhauling the coaching staff and re-focusing the roster on a team committment to defense, it was the power play that cost the Lightning their 2013-2014 season opener against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on Thursday night.
Throughout the preseason, head coach Jon Cooper and assistant coach Rick Bowness (brought in from the Vancouver Canucks) have been preaching defense to a team that was top-5 in the league in goal scoring a season ago but bottom-5 in goals allowed.
In spite of a much-improved 5v5 effort from the Lightning to start the season, however, the Bolts still managed a way to fumble the game away against the defending Eastern Conference Champions.
Cooper made his mark on the team early on the penalty kill. With Matt Carle in the box for interference, Cooper's first two forward pairs were Steven Stamkos-Ryan Malone and Martin St. Louis-Valtteri Filppula, which is a big change from how Guy Boucher has used the top Lightning forwards in the past.
After a successful kill, the Lightning got a power play of their own and a chance to take a lead with special teams on the road against an elite even strength team. Instead Mark Barberio, playing in place of late scratch Sami Salo, coughed up the puck in the neutral zone and denied Chris Kelly a clear opportunity to score as the Bruins forward skated in alone on Lightning netminder Anders Lindback.
Kelly was awarded a penalty shot and scored on a nifty dangle, tucking it behind a sprawled Lindback for a 1-0 Bruins lead.
Chris Kelly on his first career penalty shot: "How's Lindback supposed to know what I'm doing when I don't even know?"— Ty Anderson (@_TyAnderson) October 4, 2013
The Lightning had more chances on the power play late in the period following an Adam McQuaid penalty for cross-checking and a fight between Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Shawn Thornton, which Labrie won handily, taking experienced scrapper Thornton down with relative ease. Continuting to use a 4 forward, 1 defenseman alignment on the power play in an umbrella alignment proved unfruitful though as they were unable to capitalize on undisciplined play by the Bruins.
In spite of the setbacks, the Lightning closed out the first period with a strong effort at even strength, particularly from the new second line of Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula, and Teddy Purcell. The Bolts actually led the Bruins in shots by a mark of 15-6 at the end of the first period, demonstrative of some improvement in what was an abysmal puck possession game a season ago.
That line kicked off the scoring for the Lightning this year, as Alex Killorn moved a puck in transition up to Eric Brewer, who deked around a sprawling Bruins defender on a 2-on-1 break and dished the puck out of Tuukka Rask's reach where Filppula hit the open net, tying the game at 1-1.
But with just a minute remaining in the middle frame and the Lightning poised to enter the third tied with one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, a nice transition play by Milan Lucic and David Krejci saw Lucic end up with the puck in the slot where he beat Lindback top corner to send the Bruins into the dressing room with a 2-1 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Despite the one-goal deficit, the Lightning failed to generate much sustained action around Rask in the third. He stopped all 10 shots he faced in the third and finished with 32 saves on 33 shots for a stellar .970 save percentage for the game. "Running into a hot goalie" is not an excuse you'll see any of the Lightning players or coaches lean on, but it was at least partially true here tonight.
- Anders Lindback played well, despite the final numbers (.880 save percentage). He had some issues tracking the puck early but seemed to improve as the game went on, and seems to be at his best when relying on instincts and athleticism to challenge and make saves. His even-strength save percentage was an outstanding .950 in this game.
- Sami Salo was a late scratch with an upper-body injury. Andrej Sustr skated with Victor Hedman in his place and played well, getting 20:03 of ice time, most of it at even strength. Salo's status for Saturday's match-up with the Chicago Blackhawks is unknown.
- Radko Gudas fought Jarome Iginla after an open-ice hit on the former Calgary Flames captain in the second period. Gudas finished the night with 7 penalty minutes.
- Tampa Bay finished with 53 shot attempts (33 on goal, 12 blocked, 8 missed), Boston with 54 shot attempts (25 on goal, 16 blocked, 13 missed), but Tampa Bay carried play and outpossessed Boston for most of the night.
- Valtteri Filppula comes as advertised. Adding to the goal he scored in the second period, Filppula was a zone-entry beast with the puck on a string through the neutral zone. He finished the night a team-beast +11 Fenwick (shot attempt differential, not counting blocked shots) and his linemates Teddy Purcell and Alex Killorn similarly impressed.
- Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, despite controlling a good percentage of shot attempts in this one, were effectively neutralized by Boston's top defensive pairing anchored by Zdeno Chara.
- Matt Carle and Radko Gudas had a pretty brutal first outing as the 2nd defense pairing. Both were -7 Fenwick and there may be some chemistry issues with the defense pairings that still have yet to be worked out.