Ah, the Gateway Arch over a late-winter St. Louis (pronounced Saint Lewis), Missouri. The Gateway to the West is the starting point of the Bolts foray through the Western Conference in February; 12 games to be played and all will be against opponents from the Central and Pacific divisions. While some of those forthcoming foes aren't exactly looked upon as contenders this season (road games against the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes), there are more against the top-of-the-pops of the Conference than not (the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, are all part of the upcoming schedule).
Only one game at a time should be focused on, though, and not an entire month of challenges. While the opponent of the moment in the St. Louis Blues needs to be concentrated upon, I can't help but think of the last time Tampa Bay was in the Gateway City: March 4th, 2014. It was the last game of the season played on the road in the Western Conference, it didn't go so well, and it was the last time then-captain Martin St. Louis (pronounced San Louie) would ever wear a Lightning team uniform during game play.
A year later we're playing the Blues with another transaction hanging over the heads of the roster, but this one isn't as unsettling as last year's. Evgeni Nabokov passed through waivers yesterday and has been assigned to the Syracuse Crunch. If he accepts assignment or retires is yet to be determined though. There's no reason to think the Bolts will play extra-tense tonight against the Blues like they had played last year's game... That doesn't mean they'll cruise.
Much like the Lightning, St. Louis is formidable from the crease out through the blue line corps. This enables the offense - through faith in their defense and responsible two-way play. The Blues have scored 160 goals and given up 120 - that's 7 better than the Bolts 166-133. The Blues are also roaring at the moment - 9-0-1 in their past 10 games and on a 5 game winning streak. Brian Elliot, the Blues is the Blues centerpiece in the crease with a sub-2.00 GAA and a .927 save percentage. That's a hell of a lot more dominant than Ben Bishop's numbers this season (a 2.32 GAA and .915 save percentage) but you know the Bolts play well in front of Bishop more times than not (26 of the Lightning's 32 wins had Bishop in the crease for the Lightning). And today is the man's homecoming; he'll likely start in net for the Tampa Bay.
Vladimir Tarasenko leads the Blues in scoring with 50 points - an even split of 25 goals and 25 assists. While Steve Yzerman has shown faith and patience in their 2010 1st round draft pick Brett Connolly, Tarasenko is one of the few (so far) what-could-have-been draft passes from Yzerman and company. Connolly has 10 points this season, 9 goals, 1 assist, in mostly bottom-6 ice time.
Four Blues players (Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk - who is sidelined with an abdominal injury - and Jaden Schwartz) have cracked the 40 point plateau. While nine players total have more than 20 points in 49 games played or less, there's a noticeable drop-off from the final 20-plus point player (Paul Stastny with 27) and the next offensive cog on the roster (Patrik Berglund with 16 points).
From a very shallow overview, it looks like depth might outrank potency in this contest... Of course, that depends on shots on goal by the Lightning who will have to trump a wall in Elliott.
That could be a challenge: St. Louis only allows 27.5 shots on goal per game. The Blues own potency comes in to question as the Lightning only allows 27.3 shots per-game. Both clubs are in the top 5 of the league in limiting shots, which puts even more focus on the goalies tonight.
If this game goes to special teams, the Blues have one of the most potent power plays in the NHL right now, converting better-than 24% of their opportunities, a stark contrast to the Bolts frustrating man-advantage performance of late - all that firepower and yet the club only converts on 18% of their opportunities.
Tampa Bay's penalty kill does out-rank St. Louis' at the moment; the Lightning are ranked 12th in the NHL with a 82.3% kill-rate. St. Louis is 21st in the league, with an 80.2% effectiveness staving off opponents.
Other Game Coverage:
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Full coverage on SB Nation
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