With the injury bug biting the Tampa Bay Lightning, last night's team was missing four top-6 forwards and one third-liner. All of these injuries forced the Lightning into calling up five of the Syracuse Crunch's top players over the last few days: Forwards Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden, Joel Vermin, Mike Angelidis and defenseman Luke Witkowski. All but Angelidis drew into the lineup last night in Tampa. All of them had varying levels on NHL experience going into the game ranging from Blunden's 105 NHL games to Vermin making his NHL debut. I viewed the game from the stands and had some thoughts on how each player did.
RW Jonathan Marchessault
Marchessault does not have the size to play a fourth-line role in the NHL but that has mostly been where he's gotten his opportunity with the Lightning thus far. Last night, he got his first real taste of being higher in the lineup serving as the right winger for center Valtteri Filppula and left winger Alex Killorn. Filppula and Killorn are bona fide top-6 talents with Filppula being a playmaker and Killorn being a grinder/power forward combo. Marchessault's been a sniper in the AHL with 102 goals in 326 career games, surpassing 20 goals scored in each of his full AHL seasons.
This opportunity to play with more offensively gifted linemates could be the chance that Marchessault has been waiting for to show that he belongs in the NHL and perhaps even secure him a spot with the team even as the injured players begin to return to the lineup. He had 13:19 of TOI with 1:59 of that coming on the power play. His 13:19 was also a career high for him, with his previous high being 12:50 in his NHL debut in 2012-13 for the Columbus Blue Jackets. He had 3 shots, 2 missed, 2 hits, and a takeaway. He's been getting his chances, but what he really needs to do is start finishing them. He did receive an embellishment minor when he was hooked on the power play. Honestly, I think that was a very loose call by the referee that shouldn't have been made, but I can see a little bit of the logic from the referee as he was spun down by the hook rather dramatically.
LW Mike Blunden
Blunden had 8:18 TOI with 2 shots and 2 hits. He was signed in 2014 as a depth option that would provide some veteran leadership and scoring ability to the Syracuse Crunch. When called up to the NHL, this is exactly what you expect from him. When he's in the lineup, you're looking for him to play a simple game. Get the puck in deep, forecheck, try to create some dirty scoring chances, and defend well when you're in your own zone. That's what he did. At 6'4" and 215 pounds, he's also a big body to boost things physically. Most of his shifts were taken with Joel Vermin and with Brian Boyle in the middle, but they occasionally mixed in Valtteri Filppula to give Boyle a spell. Blunden didn't particularly stand out to me and that's okay.
RW Joel Vermin
It was his NHL debut, but Vermin didn't look like it was his first game. In his first shift of play, he came out with his hair on fire and maybe was a bit too amped up, but he settled in and played solidly for the rest of the game. He finished with 10:14 of ice time including 1:02 on the power play. He took Marchessault's spot with the first unit when Marchessault went off on his minor penalty. At that point, there were few options left that weren't already on one of the power play units. The other options were J.T. Brown, Erik Condra, or Blunden, so Vermin made the most sense. While the team didn't score, he did what he was supposed to do and was a presence around the net. He ended up with 1 shot, 1 shot blocked, and 1 hit.
Overall, a solid debut for Vermin. He's in the last year of his entry level contract and his performance thus far with Syracuse has him trending up and looking like he'll earn another contract with Tampa Bay.
D Luke Witkowski
Witkowski was called on for 16 games last season with Tampa Bay and was a solid third pair defender for the most part. His biggest weakness was his breakout passes and decision making which needed work. Last night he was better, but still not strong enough to suggest that Cooper would choose to use him over Andrej Sustr on the third pair. The biggest take away from Witkowski's performance though was that he helped keep Sustr's minutes down under 14 minutes for the night. Witkowski ended the game with only 7:15 TOI with 1 shot attempt blocked and 1 hit.
There's a Syracuse Crunch alumni member whose performance against the Rangers is worth noting on top of the current 'Cuse regulars and did the Tampacuse name proud.
RW J.T. Brown
That was probably his best game of the season and probably one of his top five performances in his NHL career so far. He had 14:56 TOI and five hits. While he only had one shot towards the goal, which was blocked, he was constantly in scrums and had players going after him. I'm still baffled at how he got a roughing penalty when Keith Yandle had him locked up and Dan Boyle came in and punched Brown. That one just escapes all logic. But that's the kind of player you want Brown to be. You want to see him hitting everything that moves, being a pain in the rear, pissing the other team off. When he does that (and this goes for Cedric Paquette when he's in the lineup too), it fuels the rest of the team. His energy was off the charts last night and he needs to figure out how to bring that night in and night out.
With the way he had previously played, Brown was looking like a guy that might be lucky to make it to 300 NHL games as a fourth liner. Granted, that's still a successful career for most players. However, if he can harness what he did last night and bring that every game, he can last in this league for a long time. You always need those kind of complementary players on a championship team.
Pete Choquette over at BoltProspects.com mentioned in their game recap last night about how the Syracuse Crunch play a much different style under Rob Zettler. Here's what Pete had to say.
Honestly, maybe it was a blessing in disguise to have the Crunch's forwards up. People who haven't seen Syracuse the last couple of years might be surprised to know the speed/skill level in the Lightning's AHL pipeline isn't what it was in the Norfolk and early Syracuse days. They play a much different style in Syracuse right now than they do in Tampa Bay, and their offense comes from working hard and manufacturing goals the honest way. If some of that rubs off from the callups onto the Lightning's veterans up top, all the better.
I wholeheartedly agree with Pete's comments here. This team has gotten too fancy at times, trying to make one too many passes. Color commentator Brian Engblom said on the broadcast after an early rush that Nikita Kucherov chose to pass when he had a good shooting opportunity. When he got back to the bench, assistant coach Steve Thomas came over to Kucherov and told him "Shoot the puck!" If the team can get into the habit of working harder than the opponent and creating the dirty goals, then it will open up more room for the fancy goals because other teams will respect the Lightning's ability to do so. Until then, they'll be able to sit back and keep the Lightning away from the high danger scoring areas.