Following a hot 6-2 start, including going 4-1 on a recent home stand, the Tampa Bay Lightning have certainly cooled off as of late.
On Thursday night in Newark, the Bolts' recent skid continued as they dropped yet another game to an Atlantic Division team. The Lightning are now 1-4 against the Atlantic Division, with their sole win coming over Philadelphia Flyers backup goaltender Michael Leighton in Tampa Bay.
The Bolts got off to a decent start against the Devils, much better than their last matchup with the Flyers, but still found themselves hemmed in their own zone quite often, something that seems to be happening a lot more often on the road (without last change) than it did during the home stand.
The first period ended scoreless with an 11-8 New Jersey shots advantage.
In the second period, play opened up a bit. Devils forward Adam Henrique broke the scoreless tie three and half minutes into the frame after a harmless Anton Volchenkov slap shot hit Bolts goaltender Anders Lindback and ended up loose in the crease for Henrique to bang home.
The Lightning answered with a quick goal from Nate Thompson from the slot off a nice feed by Martin St. Louis, who picked off a Martin Brodeur clearing attempt and found Thompson in space to score the tieing goal. Thompson saw extended time alongside St. Louis and outside the bottom-6 as head coach Guy Boucher looked to change the fate of this struggling Lightning squad.
With a power play late in the second period and an opportunity to gain the lead for the first time on the current road trip is where the wheels came off.
Deploying what has been an effective 1-3-1 power play formation with Sami Salo at the center point and forwards at each circle set-up for one-timers turned out to be a mistake against the aggressive New Jersey Devils penalty kill, who were prolific scoring shorthanded goals a season ago.
Ilya Kovalchuk picked off a lazy pass by Salo and blazed in alone on Anders Lindback as Salo struggled to get back. Kovalchuck sniped one past Lindback to give the Devils a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Play in the final frame resembled the first, with a slight advantage back to the Bolts' side who were pressing for a goal to tie the game. However the Devils defense clamped down hard, supported each other well, and made clean passes out of their own zone to deny the Lightning sustained in-zone pressure, making the Bolts work extremely hard for quality scoring chances, which were few and far between.
Eventually, with less than six minutes remaining in the game, perennial Lady Byng finalist Martin St. Louis leaned in on a Devils player trying to exit the zone and lifted his stick; the player went down and a trip was called on the rarely penalized Lightning winger.
On the ensuing penalty kill, Lightning forward Adam Hall wound up to clear a loose puck in the zone and his follow through caught Devils' forward Travis Zajac in the face but did not draw blood or cause injury. Zajac proceeded to skate around the rink rubbing his face in pain, resulting in a 2 minute hi-sticking call to Hall which gave the Devils a 2-man advantage for more than a minute and a half, even though it appeared as if the puck was touched up for icing just seconds before and Hall was in the process of being slew-footed by Zajac as he attempted to clear the puck.
Lightning head coach Guy Boucher vehemently disagreed with the call, as he thought the contact with Zajac was incidental and as a result of a legal attempt to shoot the puck out of the zone.
Rule 60.1 of the official NHL rule book states:
60.1 High-sticking - A “high stick” is one which is carried above the height of the opponent’s shoulders. Players and goalkeepers must be in control and responsible for their stick. However, a player is permitted accidental contact on an opponent if the act is committed as a normal windup or follow through of a shooting motion. A wild swing at a bouncing puck would not be considered a normal windup or follow through and any contact to an opponent above the height of the shoulders shall be penalized accordingly.
Boucher's argument that the contact was part of a normal windup or followthrough of a shooting motion; the refs disagreed, deeming it a "wild swing" and sending Hall to the box. When Boucher continued to aggressively argue the call, he was slapped with a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct, resulting in overlapping 5-on-3 power plays for the Devils in a 2-1 hockey game.
As expected, this did not spell good things for the Lightning, who allowed consecutive goals on the consecuitve 2-man advantages and were clearly deflated by the calls.
With just a few minutes remaining in the game, the Bolts mounted an almost-comeback; Matt Carle scored on a wrist shot to make it 4-2 and Vincent Lecavalier was denied on a partial breakaway that would have made the game 4-3, but there wasn't enough time left or enough energy from the Lightning squad to come back and they ultimately lost the game 4-2.
The 5-on-3 goals were easily the difference. At even strength, they actually were one goal better than the Devils (2-1) but gave up two 5-on-3 goals and a shorthanded tally to lose 4-2.
The Bolts will go back to the drawing board to try to figure out how to win both on the road and against the Atlantic Division.
Thankfully, their next match only meets one of those criteria – on the road to face the Northeast Division leading Boston Bruins, Saturday afternoon.
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