Possession and control; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Washington Capitals preview

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Controlling the puck controls the action on ice, and the Lightning would do very well to remember that. Anders Lindback is sick while the Washington Capitals are looking to climb out of the NHL cellar.

WHERE: Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
WHEN: 7:30 PM EST | | TICKETS: Check Availability
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 970 WFLA (radio)
OPPONENT COVERAGE: Japers' Rink, Rock the Red

Maybe the Lightning are playing too much pregame soccer for their own good? And no, I do not say this while thinking of Ryan Malone aggravating an injury during the "activation" session. No, it's something else entirely that brings soccer to mind.

Soccer to North Americans, football to the rest of the world, the sport is the one that more closely compares to hockey in its offensive movement and how quickly the ball can move around the field and switch possessions from second to second.

But in the North American version of football, even with its clear difference to hockey in general game play, there is a factual similarity between the two - turnovers can kill you and possessing the ball / puck limits opponent opportunities. A simple yet dominant stat in football is time of possession - how long a team's offense has control of the ball.

There is no time-of-possession stat in hockey, and while there is zone-entry and zone-starts advanced stats to track, that goes beyond the point I am trying to get at today. It's been on my mind for a time now, since before this season, but the Bolts hot start made me forget about the issue... While it's sub-mediocrity for most of Tuesday's game against the Montreal Canadiens made it a point where I couldn't un-see the problem.

The Lightning, for all their speed and guile, are not putting a premium on controlling the puck.

Be it simply losing control of the puck while racing from zone to zone, being pushed off the puck, giving up the puck in the neutral zone, bad passes, ill-timed passes, and other carelessness... Play has not been about controlling the puck, but making due with limited opportunities.

That's part of why you're seeing Tampa Bay try to play catch-up so often, and partly why they're being outshot so often. Sustained offensive attacks are few lately, or happen too late to bank on. While this team controlled the puck and dominated play early on, they seem wishy-washy to the idea now and generally will put off the concept until the 3rd period (if at all).

It's cliché to suggest the Bolts need to play 3 periods of hockey, 60 minutes of hockey, blah blah blah... That's a no brainer. What seems to be more urgent is the team actually showing that the rubber disc known as the hockey puck actually has value. You control it, and you limit opponent chances. When you don't value it, when you're dumping it in or turning it over, generally just giving it away at will, you're offering opportunity to your opponents time and again.

Value the puck, gentlemen. It'll do wonders for your game and your record.

***

Last time we saw the Capitals (and the last time they saw us), the promise of the new season was still ripe on their lips. Adam Oates had revamped the power play; the thought was Alex Ovechkin would excel under the new direction of the team's offensive philosophy.

Flash forward three weeks and the Capitals are sharing the basement of the NHL with the New York Islanders; 9 points in 13 games played, a 4-8-1 record, and a -10 goal differential (36 goals scored, 46 allowed) to their credit.

Ovechkin may not be lighting the lamp prolifically, but 10 points in 13 games isn't anything to write off. And while things didn't click immediately in the Capitals power play, they are among the top 10 in the NHL right now with a 25.5% conversion rate. Working against them though is the other side of special teams: a 74.1% penalty kill rate is a liability.

Despite the Caps position in the standings, no Lightning fan should look at this game as a walk-in-the-park against a pushover opponent. We've been the lowly team playing against the Caps far too many times, and have seen what energy these games bring out from both clubs. The Caps are also on the heels of a high-flying affair in Sunrise: a 6-5 win against the Panthers.

It'll be Braden Holtby in net for the Capitals, which may or may not be a welcome sight for the Crunch Bunch. Anders Lindback appears to be ill and did not skate this morning, Mathieu Garon will start in net. Freshly re-acquired goalie Cedrick Desjardins may be backing him up. The usual suspects (Marc-Andre Bergeron, Brendan Mikkelson and Pierre-Cedric Labrie) will be scratches for the Lightning.

And my final question is: Can the Bolts halt their winless streak at 5 games? We'll find out shortly.

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