This is a tough pill to swallow. For the first time in franchise history the team has lost a series where I really believed they were the better team.
Johan Holmqvist allowed 3 goals on 26 shots in the loss. He did allow a bit of a softie on the short side for Jersey's first goal, but he was good. After his horrible Game One performance, I think Johan did a lot to regain the confidence of the franchise going into an offseason where decisions need to be made concerning the netminder's job. Brad Richards had both Lightning goals on the power play. Filip Kuba had a pair of assists in the game to atone for accidentally knocking over Holmqvist after a Tim Taylor turnover that resulted in the game winning goal. Vaclav Prospal and Vincent Lecavalier also had assists.
Going into the offseason, I feel a lot better about the team's blueline than I did 3-4 months ago. Dan Boyle is one of the best defensemen in the league and Filip Kuba earned every penny of his free agent deal from this summer. I was impressed with how Shane O'Brien quickly factored into the mix and Paul Ranger will be approaching 250-300 pro games by the end of next season so he should start to really hit his comfort zone as a player. It will be difficult if not impossible to retain Cory Sarich and the team might do well to find a younger, more mobile replacement for Nolan Pratt. Now is the time for one of the Lightning's young defensive prospects like Matt Smaby or Vladimir Mihalik or Mike Egener to step up as a player.
In net, Holmqvist probably did enough in the playoffs to earn the starting job going into next season. Marc Denis' nearly $3M per year contract is unsustainable from a budget standpoint and he may be traded or even bought out before next season. That leaves young Karri Ramo in the Lightning's backup role and, mark my words, he could be a Calder contender next season.
I think the most amount of work for this team needs to be done up front this summer. Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis showed why they're paid premium dollars in this playoff series. The core is sound. The supporting cast, however, is horrible. There was no greater endictment of the Lightning's lack of offensive depth than the fact Andreas Karlsson spent all of today's game playing on the Lightning's second line and second power play unit. What do you do if you're the Lightning? That's got to be the biggest question of this offseason. They have some decent fourth line type pieces (Andre Roy, Nick Tarnasky, Evgeny Artyukhin) and some decent third line type pieces (Ryan Craig, Eric Perrin, Jason Ward should they retain him). The question is whether they can find a couple of more forwards with the skill to play on the scoring lines and possibly a natural third line center.
It's going to be an interesting offseason. If I was a young forward who hasn't fully established himself as a scorer in the league, I'd take a long hard look at Tampa. I have a feeling Lecavalier and Richards could make some young man a lot of money if they latch on here.
Game sheet from NHL.com.
Prince George 2 @ Vancouver 6
Vancouver leads best-of-7 series 2-0
If the Prince George Cougars are going to win this series, they're going to have to come from 2-0 down for the second series in a row - not a small task. On Saturday, Wacey Rabbit had a first period hat trick and added a fourth goal in the 3rd to lead the Giants to a 6-2 win. Vladimir Mihalik was scoreless and had an even rating for Prince George. Game 3 is in Prince George on Tuesday night.
In Game One, on Thursday, Russia lost to Sweden 3-2 with Koshechkin allowing 3 goals on 29 shots faced. Anton But was scoreless with 2 penalty minutes in the match. He played on the 4th line for Russia while fellow Lightning property Evgeny Artyukhin played on the team's second line.
In Game Two, today, Russia once again fell by the slimmest of margins. The Swedes defeated Russia 4-2 with a late empty net goal padding their margin. Koshechkin made 20 saves on 23 shots faced. But was moved to the third line in the match while Artyukhin was moved to the team's 4th line. The European Hockey Tour Finals was, in some ways, a warm up for the upcoming World Championships.
Prince George 2 @ Vancouver 3
Vancouver leads best-of-7 series 1-0
Vancouver held off a late Prince George charge to beat the Cougars 3-2 and take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-7 Western Conference Finals series. The Giants outshot Prince George 37-21, but the Cougars were able to cut the Giants lead to 3-2 with 4 minutes left in the game. Vladimir Mihalik was scoreless and minus-1 for Prince George. Game 2 is tonight in Vancouver.
And now the Lightning will be swimming against the current in Game Six.
Johan Holmqvist allowed 2 goals on 13 shots. Yes, just 13 shots. The Lightning trounced Jersey in shots by a 31-14 margin. However, the bounces were not going the Lightning's way tonight and Brodeur's confidence seems to be growing. It's hard to get angry about how the team played. They outplayed the Devils by all objective measures. Shots. Scoring chances. Zone time. They all favored the Lightning greatly. Still, the team finds itself behind the eight ball trailing 3 games to 2 going into Sunday.
The good news is, the Lightning have survived this test before. Recall, the team rallied from a 3-2 series defecit to defeat Calgary for the cup in '04. The Lightning have some experience to draw on. But they need to get back to finishing their chances.
Game sheet from NHL.com.
Recently signed Lightning prospect Vladimir Mihalik and the Prince George Cougars will meet their B.C. Division rival, the Vancouver Giants, in the 2007 WHL KAL Tire Western Conference Championship Series. Though it's considered a rivalry, it was rather one-sided this season as Vancouver was 7-1 against Prince George, with one of those wins coming in a shootout. Mihalik was scoreless and minus-6 with 12 PIM in the 8 games vs. Vancouver this year.
Despite word yesterday that Johnstown Chiefs coach Frank Anzalone may be out of a job this summer, a report in today's Johnstown Tribune-Democrat highlights a message from Tampa Bay General Manager Jay Feaster saying "Frank Anzalone is under contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning through the 2007-08 season, and we have no plans of making a coaching change in Johnstown.â€
For the full article, see the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.
Honest question: how does Don Waddell keep his job every year? It took him eight seasons to finally get the Thrashers into the playoffs and they embarass themselves. Thoroughly. Look, Espo managed to get the Lightning into the playoffs by year four on a pittiful shoestring budget. Waddell gets resources out the ying yang and somehow manages to make hamburger on a steak budget.
Then again, maybe it's just payback for a certain Thrashers fan making sure she rigs the HF rankings every season?
So the Thrashers will definitely lose Tkachuk to free agency. Dupuis looks like a decent bet to follow. Zhitnik is still under contract for another year, but he's also old as dirt. If he's all that's left of trading three first round picks, seriously, how can Waddell keep his job? Because he finally got the Thrashers into the playoffs after nearly eight years of futility? Can Atlanta Spirit LLC really be that gullible? Probably.
Oh, and Marian Hossa continues to cement his reputation as a Yashin-esque playoff choker, followed closely by Ilya Kovalchuk whose raw natural abilities are only matched by his immense, gargantuan selfishness. It's a shame the Lightning didn't get that one more goal in the shootout in the season finale. Atlanta's mental softness has been apparent for years now and I'm not even in the slightest surprised at how easily they were picked apart.
Buckle up, this could be a long series now.
Johan Holmqvist allowed 4 goals on 37 shots in the loss. He was great tonight though. No complaints. Gomez's OT winner was just a great shot. Martin St. Louis led the way with 1 goal and 1 assist. Eric Perrin and Vincent Lecavalier had the Lightning's goals. Filip Kuba, Brad Richards and Vaclav Prospal added assists.
The good news? New Jersey still can't stop the Lightning's big guns. They have no answer for Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis. None.
The bad news? On balance this was probably the first game of the series where the Jersey skaters really outplayed the Lightning's skaters. Far too many turnovers by the Lightning to count. They must tighten up going into a critical Game Five.
Game sheet from NHL.com.
In today's Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, reporter Mike Mastovich states the future of Johnstown Chiefs coach Frank Anzalone, one of only four ECHL coaches with 300 wins (332), is in limbo.
â€œIâ€™ve been in Tampa. The hockey operations situation is in the hands of (Lightning GM) Jay Feaster,â€ Anzalone told the newspaper. Anzalone attended the Tampa Bay Lightningâ€™s playoff game against visiting New Jersey on Monday night after meeting with Feaster for his year-end evaluation. â€œI donâ€™t know 100 percent what they are or are not doing. Obviously I will be affected by hockey operations systems, whether I like it or not.â€
To read the full article, see the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.