Martin Fennelly Columns
Lightning rewarded for jobs well done
TAMPA - So, this is what real, live winning hockey looks like. We'd almost forgotten. The Tampa Bay Lightning are still in a deep hole when it comes to prolonging their season past the standard 82 games. They've won six of the past seven games to climb back to .500.This is how it has usually worked after home wins: Bolts coach Guy Boucher stares at a flat screen, sees the end of the out-of-town games or all those Eastern Conference scores and sees that little or no ground has been gained. Even after all this good work of late, the Lightning remain miles from contention. "You look at the standings and you'll go nuts," Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer said. "It's not my job. We just need to do our jobs." Right now, they are. This is what happens when you get some good goaltending and defense at the same time. There hasn't been a lot that this season. That's not to say it won't come crashing down tonight against Los Angeles or when the Bolts hit the road for three games in four days, beginning with a trip to the Rangers, arguably the best team in the league at present. But Tampa Bay is playing its most watchable hockey of the season in goal and on defense, and that's as important as Marty St. Louis' recent tear (16 points in nine games, a hat trick Saturday against Florida), Vinny Lecavalier's 20 goals and Steven Stamkos' quest for a second Richard Trophy. Finally, this is what real hockey looks like. Understand, the Bolts had nowhere to go but up. Only woeful Columbus has surrendered more goals. But what we're seeing now is a tighter Lightning game, from the goal out. Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson have combined for the worst goals-against average in the league, but Garon has been beyond solid lately, his save percentage sneaking over .900, making most of the stops he needs to make. Roloson, who makes the start tonight against the Kings, turned in his first win in a long time his last time out, in Phoenix. It's always about the goalie. "He leads the way," Boucher said. But there's been something else at work, finally. "We're cutting down on the good scoring chances," Garon said. "It makes it easier for me – easier for everybody. We're cutting down passing lanes, blocking shots, limiting chances." It shows in the Lightning penalty kill, still way down the list at 24th in the league, but which has nonetheless killed 20 of its last 21. "The bottom line is we're giving our goalies a better look at the puck and cutting down on good scoring chances," Brewer said. "It's not just the defense, it's the forwards, too, they're funneling guys to us, closing off routes." "On defense, you've got to play with a vibe," St. Louis said. "Before, we left a lot of guys hanging. Now it's more of a five-man defense mentality, especially in our zone." The first half of this season was missed Lightning chances at one end turning into goals on the other end. "A lot of games we kind of left (the goaltenders) high and dry because we weren't playing defense the way we were supposed to play," Lecavalier said. This is what real hockey looks like: scoring, defense and goaltending. It took long enough, eh? Now the only question is if it will last. Forget the scoreboard, forget the standings, forget the hole. Just do your jobs.