NHL Game Night: 2-4-12 Panthers at Lightning

Party like it's 2004.

FLA-3
TB-6

Mathieu Garon allowed 3 goals on 20 shots for the win.

First Period
TB Thompson (7), (unassisted), 1:37
FLA Fleischmann (17), (Versteeg, Weaver), 3:54

Second Period
TB Lecavalier (20), (unassisted), 1:42
TB St. Louis (14), (Shannon, Lecavalier), 4:22
FLA Samuelsson (6), (Bergenheim), 7:06
TB Stamkos (34), (Downie, Hedman), 12:36
TB St. Louis (15), (Lecavalier, Shannon), 15:08
FLA Bergenheim (9), (Goc, Strachan), 19:14

Third Period
TB St. Louis (16), (Stamkos, Lecavalier)(PP)(EN), 19:39

Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Victor Hedman were the game's three stars. What a great effort by Vinny and Stammer to help make sure Marty's 900th NHL game is one he'll always remember. Vinny's playmaking tonight was spellbinding and breathtaking, simultaneously, and Stammer made the classy move passing up a chance at his 35th goal into the empty net to make sure Marty got his crack at the hatter.

Vincent Lecavalier (pictured circa the old school) clinched his 12th straight season of at least 20 goals. I don't think people appreciate how difficult it is to achieve that kind of consistency. Know who never had 12 straight 20 goal seasons? Mario Lemieux? Never had 12 straight, just 6. Mark Messier? Never had 12 straight, just 10. Steve Yzerman? Sorry boss, you never did it either. The best Stevie Y did was 8 straight seasons. And, remember, Vinny didn't play in the roaring 80's where the NHL looked like the QMJHL defensively. Vinny played the bulk of these 12 seasons in the heart of the clutch-and-grab era when teams like New Jersey and Dallas and coaches like Jacques Lemaire and Ken Hitchcock were king. I hope, some time 10-15 years or so into the future when Vinny's candidacy for the Hall of Fame falls under consideration, that's something that voters realize. He may not come anywhere near 600 goals, but he should have around 500, he's had amazing consistency, and he played in an era where he routinely got mugged without any repercussions.

The other thing I hope is that Lightning fans and the entirety of the hockey media will start to take a step back from the very simplistic way they've viewed Vinny. Vinny is a very complex player from the standpoint that he isn't a Steve Yzerman or a Steven Stamkos type of guy. He's not Mr. Hockey. He's got other interests and he's a more well-rounded person, which in any other business would be considered a good thing, but in sports that gets you labeled as lazy or disappointing. Except he's not, to me. To have 12 straight 20 goals seasons requires that you maintain the proper level of health to make it happen. That's why even Super Mario couldn't do it. And, to get in that kind of shape every season, even with the various offseason surgeries he's had over the years, requires a level of dedication and hard work that the people who criticize him always fail to acknowledge. I respect Vinny because I think he's a lot like 99% of the Lightning fans out there who are reading this blog: when it's time to work, he works. He lifts, he skates, he does his job as hard and as well as he can. And, when he's off the clock, he's off the clock. I get that, and I'm not pounding sand furious about it just because he doesn't have a Michael Jordan-like fixation on being the absolute best to the point that it makes him a jerk of a human being like Jordan is.

To the contrary, part of what endears Vincent to me is that he is so human, and despite the fact he has had quite a lot of unfair and unrealistic expectations heaped on him and despite the fact he's had multiple chances to get the hell up out of Tampa Bay and take the easy way out by going to finish his career in Montreal or Vancouver or the like, he's never whined through the media and he's made Tampa Bay his home. Why has hockey in Tampa Bay thrived while Atlanta U-Hauled it to Winnipeg? The difference is as clear as the difference between Vincent Lecavalier and Ilya Kovalchuk, neither of whom are Mr. Hockey. But, whereas Kovalchuk was a selfish cancer who couldn't play within a team structure, was only out to run up his stats, and took the first chance he could to get out of a Thrashers jersey, Vincent reluctantly took on the role of franchise cornerstone, even though he's not Mark Messier reincarnate. And, along with Martin St. Louis, he has helped build a franchise not out of brick and mortar, but in flesh and bone with the fans he inspired by scoring 20 or more goals a season for a dozen straight years and by learning how to play within the team concept and by embracing his community, to the tune of donating millions to build the wing of a children's hospital. He's now got 44 points through his first 51 games this season and has had multiple multi-point games during the Lightning's recent streak, and I'm thrilled for him, because it's time for Vinny to start authoring the last few chapters that will, hopefully, get him into the Hall of Fame. Hopefully, he can finally earn the respect and the place in history he's due, because besides Phil Esposito, no one's done more to help keep hockey in Tampa stronger than Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. They're the next two bronze statues that go up on the plaza.

And, with all that said, congratulations to Ryan Shannon, for pulling the Willie Wonka golden ticket and getting to play on Marty and Vinny's line tonight when they had one of those magical evenings where everything's working. This'll be a night to reminisce about when the playing days are over.

Victor Hedman's playing the best offensive hockey I've ever seen him play in a Lightning jersey. Maybe we should've whacked him in the head sooner, because he's playing a poised, powerful game offensively now and starting to tap into that mammoth potential. Remember, in his draft year, there were scouts saying Hedman had the potential to be even better than Stamkos. Imagine that.

If the game against Winnipeg was lost on the horrible looking thing alleging to be a power play that the Lightning put out late in the third period, then I'd be remiss in not praising the special teams for having the game winning moment in this game, which belonged to the PK unit. Down a man about a quarter of the way through the third period and protecting a 2 goal lead, that 5-man unit withstood almost a full 2 minute set up in their zone and only allowed 1 shot on goal. At this time of the year, that's the kind of stuff that can be the difference between staying in the hunt and getting your tee times arranged for April. Great stuff by that PK group. Great stuff.

With their win, the Lightning move back to .500 on the season, which, for at least tonight, ends my moratorium on using the "p" word. Sub-.500 teams don't get to talk about playoffs. The Lightning have moved within 8 points of the Panthers for what is, in essence, the final playoff spot in the East. Thank goodness for the weakness of the Southeast Division this year. The Lightning, should they stay hot, could not only sneak into the playoffs, but they could get the 3 seed in the East in the process because the division is so terrible. With 62 possible points still on the schedule, though, the Lightning still need to grab about 3 out of every 4 of those points to give themselves a chance. If Vinny and Marty keep playing like this, and Stammer keeps owning the Richard Trophy race like he has, though, they've got a puncher's chance.

Brett Connolly had 1 hit and 1 blocked shot in 7:10. I think the press boxing was a good thing, as this was his best game in a long while on both sides of the puck. He's now 2 games shy of graduation from prospect status here on Bolt Prospects, too.

J.T. Wyman had 2 shots in 9:23. He made one really nice play to make sure he got the red line and got the puck deep in the third to help the Lightning seal the win.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.