Tampa Bay has started on the road against the reigning conference finalists, and has escaped with a 1-1-0 record. The team has been outscored 5-3 in regulation, which is a far-far cry from the ultra-hot offensive start from nine months ago when the Lightning were scoring at will and with ease.
Of course, we all know how last season ended up: A fired coach, a 14th place finish in the East. Comparing in any way to last season is a folly on my part.
Yet tonight's opponent and last season does bear some acknowledgment. And it's not direct in the reference I'd like to make. Buffalo, winless in their first three games and one of the Bolts new "Flortheast" divisional opponents, is helmed by Ron Rolston. Rolston took over for the fired Lindy Ruff last season. Who is Ron Rolston that bears mentioning? He's former head coach of the AHL's Rochester Americans, the traditional rival of the Syracuse Crunch who was helmed by (ta-da) Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper for much of last season.
The Amerks and the Crunch, despite being neighbors, are in different conferences. That doesn't stop the AHL from scheduling 10 games between the two teams.
My point is that this game has the potential to get ugly in a minor-league sense - overly physical, overly emotional - with thanks also due to being a divisional rival now for Buffalo.
Tampa Bay is coming back from that mess of a thrilling win in Chicago on Saturday night; a win that earned praise for goaltender Ben Bishop (37 saves on 39 shots faced) and raised an eyebrow toward center Steven Stamkos in the faceoff circle. The Lightning's top-line center is at a 30.2 winning percentage in 43 faceoffs so far this season. That's 22.5 points behind Valtteri Filppula and 34+ points behind Tyler Johnson and Nate Thompson. The third and fourth line centers, despite their success rate, have only seen 28 and 17 faceoffs. Stamkos had never been asked in the past to carry the bulk of faceoffs; expectations have always been linked to scoring goals (many many goals). Though his win percentage in the circle is usually above 50%, it was Thompson and former Bolts Adam Hall and Vincent Lecavalier who took a majority of faceoffs for the team in the recent past.
I can't say that Steven's early-going poor results in the circle are cause for alarm, it's only been two friggin' games, but it's something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Keith Aulie was practicing with Eric Brewer during the morning skate today, per the beat writers reporting from First Niagara Center. He'll likely make his first start of the season. No indication if the team is going to use a 12/6 or 11.7 roster split (expect the former, as the Bolts have yet to use the latter). In another lineup note - Teddy Purcell has moved to the line of Johnson and Ondrej Palat, while Richard Panik has shifted to the line of Alex Killorn and Filppula. Does that mean "Top Gun" is no more? Only temporarily, I assume.
Buffalo has taken to not announcing their starting goalies before games, so who starts for Buffalo isn't for sure but look out for Ryan Miller. Ryan's started two of the Sabres three game so far this season and has given up three goals total, giving him a GAA of 1.53 and a save percentage of .963.
And the Sabres are winless?
It'll be Ben Bishop between the pipes for the Lightning. His effort in Chicago has earned him the right to have consecutive starts.
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