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Vancouver Canucks at Tampa Bay Lightning: Winning is good, winning the right way is better

The Lightning know they need to play better, why not start now?

Vancouver Canucks at Tampa Bay Lightning: GAME# 54

Time: 7:30 pm Eastern Time

Location: Amalie Arena

Broadcast/Streaming: SunS, RSNE

Opponent SBNation Site: Nucks Misconduct

A team that is sitting atop the NHL with a league-leading 36 wins shouldn’t be looking at a February game against the Canucks as a must-win game. Yet, here we are. The Lightning open up a brief two-game homestand on Thursday against the lowly Canucks in need of not only a win, but a convincing, 60-minute, full-effort victory.

In seasons past, a 5-3 road trip through the central division and western Canada would be cause for celebration. This season it there seemed to be more relief than joy. Yes, they won five games, but would any of them be considered dominating wins? Probably not. Several of them could be considered shaky at best.

Even their most recent win, a 4-2 victory over the Canucks, looks good on paper, but in actuality was way closer than it needed to be thanks to a third-period let down that saw them get outshot 17-9. If it wasn’t for Chris Tanev hatcheting Cory Conacher in the face with his stick, the Lightning could conceivably have blown a 3-1 lead. Conacher was money on the ensuing penalty shot and the Bolts escaped with the win.

The power play has lost its might. What was once a strength for the team and featured players whipping the puck across the ice with supreme confidence is now tentative and ineffective. Since the first of the year they’ve had 40 extra-skater opportunities and converted only 6 of them (that includes Conacher’s penalty shot). For a team that boasts the offensive talent that the Lightning have, a 15% success rate is unacceptable.

Also unacceptable is their defensive zone coverage. Formally the top defensive team in the league (by goals allowed per game) now gives up over 30 shots a game regularly, as in the last 9 games in a row and in 13 of 15 games since the calendar flipped to 2018. A lot of those shots are coming from unmarked players right in front of the net.

Their top line has also chosen a bad time to go ice-cold when it comes to goal scoring. All-world winger Nikita Kucherov hasn’t scored in 11 games while Steven Stamkos only has two goals since January 1st. Stamkos’ last power play goal came on December 31st. Kucherov’s last goal with the extra man? October 26th. Don’t believe me? Go look it up. I’ll wait....

Now, what was once a comfortable lead in the Atlantic Division, has been whittled down to just one point over the Boston Bruins, a team that has forgotten how to lose over the last few months. More importantly, the Lightning aren’t playing a type of game that is successful in the playoffs. Sitting back and hoping your goaltender stops 30 to 35 shots a night isn’t a great path to success. They have to find a way to get back to the aggressive, relentless attack that propelled them to the top of the standings earlier in the season.

Enough doom and gloom though. Despite scuffling along they still sport the best record in the league. They also have a league-leading 19 road wins. After what seems like an eternity spent on the road, the schedule swings back into their favor with 14 of their next 20 games at home (good luck with that, Matt!).

The lack of scoring by their top line has been offset by the performance of some of their depth players. Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde have picked up the slack and kept the Lightning at the top of scoring charts. And Andrei Vasilevskiy has, well...stopped 30 to 35 shots on most nights, stealing a few wins for the club along the way.

Kucherov and Stamkos seemed more like their old selves in recent games. The Edmonton McDavids might have stolen the show in their last game, but for the first time in what seemed like forever Kucherov found open ice. He generated at least two glorious scoring opportunities, one that was thwarted by Cam Talbot and the other he rang off the post. In the past, games like he had in Edmonton have presaged a goal-scoring binge. Now would be a good time for him to go on one of his “5 goals in 4 games” hot streaks.

The choppy nature of the last month included their league-scheduled “bye” week followed by the All-Star break and all of its surrounding hoopla. Now, with less than 30 games to go, they’ll be playing on a regular basis with little breaks. Hopefully, that helps them rediscover the cohesiveness on offense that was a trademark for their success earlier in season.

A full-game effort against Canucks would be a good place to start.

Comparison chart: JustinG.’s Happy Fun Time Video Hour

Brock Boeser has a chance to win the Calder Trophy this season. If he manages to pry the award away from Mathew Barzal it would be the second time a Canuck has been named as the best rookie in the NHL. The first - Pavel Bure. Bure, to this day, is the fastest skater I’ve seen in the NHL. Not only was he fast with or without the puck, it seemed to only take one or two strides for him to get to full acceleration. If he had even a half-stride advantage on his opponent it would be over. Granted, it helped that he rarely ventured into the defensive zone, but still, few players have been blessed with his breakaway speed.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Lines from practice on Wednesday:

Line-up Notes: Dan Girardi is skating at practice again and expects to be back in action soon. The Lightning are better with him in the line-up. We don’t know why, but they are. The Stamkov line was reunited against Edmonton and showed some flashes of their old magic. It might be best that Coach Cooper leaves them together. Kucherov in particular plays better when he has consistent linemates.

More line-up Notes: Adam Erne was just recalled from Syracuse so perhaps Cooper is trying to spark its moribund power play, or a different forward can’t skate.

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Louis Domingue

Vancouver Canucks

Forward Lines:

Henrik SedinDaniel SedinBrock Boeser

Sven Baerstchi — Bo HorvatThomas Vanek

Markus GranlundBrandon SutterLoui Eriksson

Brendan GaunceSam GagnerJake Virtanen

Defense Pairings:

Alex Edler — Troy Stecher

Ben Hutton — Chris Tanev

Michael Del ZottoErik Gudbranson

Goaltenders:

Jacob Markstrom

Anders Nilsson