Following his assignment to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL for conditioning while continuing to rehab his ankle, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback made his Crunch debut last night in Syracuse at the War Memorial, his first AHL game action since the 2011-2012 season when he appeared in a pair of games for the Milwaukee Admirals as a member of the Nashville Predators organization.
The move comes as Lindback's stock with the Lightning appears to have hit an all-time low. Acquired in June of 2012 and heralded as the young future in net, Lindback faltered with too much work early in his Lightning career and eventually gave way in net to Mathieu Garon, and then Ben Bishop after Steve Yzerman acquired Bishop from the Ottawa Senators.
This season has seen a downward trend continue, with his NHL save percentage a dreadful .880, putting him near the bottom of the league (73rd out of 84 ranked goaltenders). At times he's looked awkward and unsure in net, making puzzling technical errors and opening up holes in his 6'6 frame as he moves around in his crease.
So Lindback entered last night's action against the top AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins with an opportunity to hone his game at a lower level. It was also a chance to rebuild the confidence he almost certainly has lost after what has been a disastrous 18 months as a member of the Lightning that has seem him become an all-too common scapegoat for fan ire.
And how did he respond?
Fantastically. Lindback looked superb in a 30-save shutout effort, shutting the door early on an aggressive Penguins attack and then holding the fort from then on as the Crunch started to pile on the offense, eventually chasing goaltender Jeff Deslauriers early in the second period.
Lindback was calm, collected, and confident in net. He was tracking pucks well and making one save enough by either trapping shots to his body or kicking them harmlessly to the corner where they could be moved along by the defense. While Syracuse played well in front of him, there were still a handful of breakdowns and extended zone-time shifts for the Penguins, who got their fair share of scoring chances. Lindback stopped them all, and outside of a gaffe handling the puck midway through the game, played a near-flawless game.
He also seemed to be playing deeper in his net than he had been this season with the Lightning, but it's unclear if this was intentional (with fewer high skilled shooters to worry about and more time to adjust to passes) or just perceived. His movement was quick and smart, getting his pads down on low shots to direct them to the corners or getting his shoulders up to stop high shots, but the motion was always economical and controlled. Unlike some games this year with the Lightning, he wasn't sliding out of control across the crease, leaving the weak-side wide open and over committing.
After Lindback and the Crunch weathered the early barrage from the Pens, the offense woke up -- off the stick of Richard Panik, who was coming off a four point game last weekend in a back-to-back sweep of the Hershey Bears. Paired with Tanner Richard on the de facto top line (with Vlad Namestnikov up in Tampa Bay), Panik was strong and smart with the puck. He looked confident carrying it on his stick and regularly looked to make plays through the neutral zone with it, a noted change from how he's looked in Tampa this season, most floating back and forth on the wing and never touching it.
He set up both of the first period goals for Syracuse, both on nice zone entries. The first saw him draw the Penguins' defense to him along the wall at the attacking blue line before feeding a streaking Tanner Richard for a partial breakaway, which he buried top shelf. The second was another entry where he shielded the defender and led Matt Taormina into the zone with time and space for a quick shot that beat Deslauriers.
Both Lindback and Panik ought to be back with the Lightning this season, so it's good to see a high level of play at the AHL level. A more confident and technically sound Lindback will allow the Bolts to rest Vezina-candidate Ben Bishop more as the playoffs loom in a crowded Eastern Conference. If Panik can continue to create offense and bottle this type of effort with the puck at then next level in a limited, bottom-6 (8-10 minutes per night) role with the Bolts, he could easily unseat current bottom-6 wingers like B.J. Crombeen and Ryan Malone, who have offered next to nothing offensively this season.