Now all coach Guy Boucher and his team have to do is find a way to bottle this kind of lightning and unleash it on the road.
Once again, the Tampa Bay Lightning proved they can take care of business against the leagues elite, as evidenced by their decisive 4-1 victory Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins came into the St. Pete Times Forum leading the Eastern Conferences Atlantic Division at 11-4 and as good as any team in the NHL. But even though they outshot the Lightning 34-18, they couldnt handle the steel-wall home defense or rattle the cage of 42-year-old goalkeeper Dwayne Roloson.
Pittsburgh left town after the loss in second place behind the Philadelphia Flyers, who lost 2-1 in overtime to Tampa Bay last Wednesday at the Forum. And only one week earlier, the Bolts felled the best team in the Western Conference at home, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime -- a team that leads the Central at 12-4.
Thanks to that inspired play before its home crowd, the Lightning currently find themselves in third place in the Eastern Conferences Southeast Division at 9-7-2 with 20 points -- right on the heels of first-place Washington (10-6, 21 points) and second-place Florida (9-6-3, 21 points).
Their home record is a near flawless 6-1. Unfortunately, the team hasnt been able to muster similar success on the road, where they have struggled to a mark of 3-6-2. Of course, a good portion of that damage came in the first week of the season, when the Lightning stumbled out of the gate to a 1-4 road record.
Still, the squad simply hasnt played with the same intensity and consistency away from home. Cases in point: the recent back-to-back losses at St. Louis (3-0 last Saturday) and Winnipeg (5-2 on Monday) following three straight home wins.
The winning combination Thursday for the Lightning was a suffocating defense, which blocked 25 shots, while Roloson was rock-solid with 33 saves -- coupled with a pair of Vinny Lecavalier goals and two more on power plays. The victory rekindled memories of last seasons opening round of the playoffs, when the Lightning upset the Penguins in seven games -- including the 1-0 defensive and Roloson gems in Game Seven in Pittsburgh.
Some days ago we played against Chicago here -- they were the best in their conference, Boucher said. We knew it was going to be very hard. They have a lot of speed and skill and a hard defense to get through. We had the same type of challenge (against Pittsburgh), where I thought probably this is the best team in the league.
Theyve got everything. They basically have no weaknesses, so if youre going to beat them then you almost have to play almost perfectly defensively. And I think our players were dedicated defensively to block shots and pay the price. The penalty kill did very well and the power play, too.
Were at home. On the road its a different story. But at home, weve been doing that since the beginning. And we want to continue to do that and catch up on the (home) games.
Indeed, the good news for Tampa Bay is that it has already played 11 road games and only six at home -- due to 40-million Forum renovations that led to the heavy dose of away games during the opening phase of the schedule. But that will even out gradually, including this next week with visits Saturday by the Devils and Tuesday by the Maple Leafs to round out the welcome three-game home stand.
What accounts for the markedly better home play so far this season?
Maybe its great cooking by our wives and some of the young guys cooking for themselves, quipped Roloson. We have to get this mindset and philosophy and do whatever weve got to do to win hockey games on the road.
Roloson, of course, was as big a reason as any in the recipe for success Thursday.
Thats the Rolly thats at his best, Boucher said. Theres no way you beat that team if your goaltenders not at his best.
Roloson, however, passed the credit to the defense.
From our so-called scorers to our so-called grinders, everyone played defense and blocked shots and did the little things, he said. As clich as it sounds to win a hockey game, in reality thats all we did was do the little things.
And when the shots did come his way, Roloson came up big.
Our guys did a great job allowing me to see the puck, he said. And the ones I didnt see, they were blocked.
Boucher, meanwhile, praised his teams approach to that phase of the game. The thing we know about our team since the beginning of last year is that the guys buy in to blocking shots, he said. We were No. 1 last year in the playoffs. I havent checked lately, but its the same story this year.
It's especially true in penalty kill situations, such as Thursday night when the Penguins wound up 0-for-7 in power plays.
Youre going to pay the price physically to block shots, and we have that, Boucher said. Theres other things we need to work on. But that weve got.
What they dont yet have is an answer on how to replicate their prowess away from Tampa. "I'd love to give you something about that so then we could get the coach away from us about it," Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer said. "That would be nice, but I really don't know.
For now, theyll try to stay hot at home -- and hope their winning Forum formulas will eventually begin to rub off on the road.