TORONTO – The Tampa Bay Lightning had a lot of question marks entering the season, but not many people wondered whether they’d be able to score goals.
However, after posting a 1-3-3 record though seven games, the Lightning are averaging just 1.53 goals per game, worst in the NHL.
That will change in a hurry if the top line of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Prospal continue to play like they did against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
“I thought the big line was excellent,” said Lightning coach Barry Melrose. “I thought that was by far their best effort and best game of the season – all aspects of the game, defence, offence.”
Lecavalier had a pair of goals against the Leafs and Prospal drew the first assist on both.
Last year, under coach John Tortorella, Lecavalier and St. Louis played heavy minutes. Lecavalier said spending a few more minutes per game on the bench has been a bit of an adjustment.
“If you’re used to playing 23 minutes and then you start playing 17 or 16 minutes, you feel like it’s tough to get in the game so, that’s what I find,” said Lecavalier, who saw 17 minutes 49 seconds of ice against Toronto, third most among Tampa forwards behind penalty-killing linemates Prospal (19:42) and St. Louis (19:54). “So I wish I played a couple more minutes, maybe, but it’s something we’ll see in the future. We got a win tonight and that’s the most important thing.”
Melrose said he’d like to pull the reins back Lecavalier a bit so he has a little more left in the tank during the late stages of games.
“We don’t him to play as much as he did last year, he was playing 25 minutes last year and they were the poorest team in the NHL last season in the third period,” said Melrose, who’s back behind an NHL bench for the first time in 13 years. “I would like to get his minutes – all those guys – to 21, 22 minutes and then they have something left in the third period when we need them.”
One of the big questions surrounding Tampa in the off-season revolved around goaltending, but Mike Smith has been stellar between the pipes.
He had a 2.13 goals-against average and an NHL-leading .941 save percentage heading into Tuesday night’s action.
Now, if the offence is kicking into gear, he’s bound to pick up a few more wins, too.
“He’s been, from training camp on, he’s been like this,” Melrose said of Smith, whom the Lightning picked up as part of the package that sent Brad Richards to Dallas late last season. “He hasn’t played a bad game this year. He moves the puck well, you all saw that, I think he’s as good a puckhandler as there is in the NHL today.
“If we scored one more goal a game, we’d have 10, 12 points and Mike Smith would be leading every goaltending category in the NHL.”
Some might wonder if Tampa’s sluggish start had something to do with playing its first two regular season games in Europe, both 2-1 losses to the New York Rangers. But in addition to having a nice break upon returning to North American soil, Tampa also played its next five games at home.
“I don’t want to use that excuse of, ‘we were in Europe,”‘ said Lecavalier, whose team had five days off between its last game in the Czech Republic and its first game in Tampa Bay. “I think we had a great schedule for that, we had a lot of days off in between games so you can’t blame that.”