With Tampa Bay and LA leading the league early on, it’s a brave new world indeed.
There’s a song that invokes Aldous Huxley’s title often played at the start of Kings’ games. Not many of the words are understandable, so I’ll supply my own: “It’s a brave new world, with Stamkos and Doughty facing off. It’s a charge; it’s a thrill; it’s bound to excite your soul.” I know “soul” doesn’t rhyme with “thrill,” but none of “pill,” “hill,” and “will” seem right. So there you are, and the point is made anyhow—who would have thought that the Kings and Lightning would come into a game, even early in the season, fighting for the league lead?
I’ll tell you some people who would have—the execs who drafted Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty numbers one and two in 2008.
Three years later, they can point to a goal-scoring title and a Norris nomination amongst the accomplishments of these two young men. Perhaps more important is the feeling each player gives his team that there is hope for the future, that the choices made (Tampa Bay picked before the Kings that year) were right, and right for each squad.
Stamkos came into the league on a team which was in turmoil, with an owner who believed he could put plays on the chalkboard and have the team do what he said and a coach who lasted just the first six weeks of the season. That owner is now history, and the coach the kid plays under now, Guy Boucher, is anything but a Barry Melrose, who was famous for his positive thinking guru-style of leadership. Rather, Boucher is a man with a simple philosophy—play offense first. But there’s much more to the guy than that.
Talking to him after the game revealed some dimensions not apparent when one gazes at him from the distance of the press box, and the impression is all positive.
The short version: as the visiting coach, he comes into LA, watches his team lose, and has a heated moment when one of his players gets tossed. But despite the emotion and the disappointment of the game, he makes himself available for as long as the West coast media wants to ask him questions after the game. This might sound like he’s just doing his job, but few out-of-town bench bosses are this accommodating, nor are they as candid as Boucher.
He began with a smile and the calm reassurance that while he had been riled up at times during the game, particularly during one incident (about which more below), “That’s OK. I don’t think the game was played there [in that scrap]. It was a playoff game, and nobody’s going to give each other an inch as far as some offense. It was going to be who’s going to make that mistake, and we made that little mistake, and they capitalized on it. I strongly believe we deserved at least something out of this one. It was a hard-fought battle, and it’s one of those games that I’ve got to be proud of my players.”
Press reports out of Tampa Bay this week have him explaining his methodology in simple terms, saying that 80 percent of his team’s practice time is spent working on the offense. The “system” the team plays is based on an aggressive attitude in their own zone which sees them working hard to free up the puck and start it back up ice.
After Thursday’s game, he described the team’s adjustment to his method by saying, “There’s obviously things we can do better, but as we get some of our top guys back [four were out], it will make a difference in our offense. This was the first time we were shut out, and before today, we were first in the league in terms of average of goals per game.”
What’s so clever about that? Nothing. It doesn’t have to be clever. It just has to work, and it does. In fact, talk to Mel Bridgman, who played for the Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s, and he’ll tell you the same thing.
“We thought about one thing and one thing only,” Bridgman said last season in a game-night chat. “Scoring goals. Even if we were in our own zone, 180 feet from the other guys’ net with a faceoff, we thought about only one thing—how do we get that puck in their net. Nothing else mattered.”
The Lightning look like that’s exactly what’s on their minds, but there’s something else notable about their play. Their puck-control style is complemented with a notable chippiness which backs off the opponent.
Actually, this makes a lot of sense. They’ve got a hybrid thing going—half Boucher buzz, half Yzerman-Detroit puck control. This is perhaps why they sit tops in the east, but it’s also why their penalty kill is good (third coming into Thursday night), their power play too (fourth), and their super-youngster Stamkos is on top of the league with 20 points in 11 games and with four of his ten goals on the power play, to tie him for the league lead.
What’s kind of interesting as a side note is that Stamkos’s name doesn’t appear anywhere on the top eleven in shots taken in the league. The high is Patrick Sharp, with 62 and 14 goals. Stamkos with ten goals is tied with four others at 43 shots, and he’s relatively low on the shooting percentage list, at 16th (again, coming into Thursday night). About one out of four of his shots goes in. For Sharp, it’s about one in four and a half, though, so perhaps that number doesn’t mean much.
Thursday night in the Doughty versus Stamkos battle, if there was one, it was disadvantage Doughty. For one reason, he was returning from a six-game absence due to a concussion. For two, his amazing puckhandling and passing abilities were hampered, as were those of every player on the ice, by perhaps the worst conditions seen in a long time in LA.
The weather has been hot in SoCal this week, reaching the mid-90s today downtown, where Staples Center is. The Clippers played at the arena last night also, and the wear and tear of the changeover had the puck bouncing uncontrollably, of course, always at just the wrong time.
On this night, it was Stamkos, and more particularly his team, which came out hard from the start. The first period ended 0-0, despite the Kings having a five minute power play (they did nothing, recording just to shots, weak wristers from the blueline by Davis Drewiske).
Doughty knocked Stamkos down in front of the Kings’ net at one point late in the period, but that was the only encounter of the two to that point.
LA picked it up in the second, making some more plays, though two fewer shots (seven as compared to nine), and Stamkos upped his minutes total to 12 while recording a shot to go with his one in the first period. Doughty meanwhile was on the ice for eight minutes to lodge his total at 17, and he blocked a couple of shots. Neither team scored, though, but that was mainly due to Jonathan Quick’s steady play.
The LA goaltender had taken a hard wrister to the gut in the first couple of minutes of the first period, a shot that came quickly and might have caught him not quite set. He stayed down for a moment after, then adjusted his equipment. The effects were not lasting, as he was the goaltender of the two on the ice who had to be sharper, both on long-range shots and up close, though the first two periods.
Doughty found himself more involved in the third period when he took a charging penalty for pushing Steve Downie down. No matter that Downie had been wreaking havoc all night, itching for a fight with Kyle Clifford at one point in period one. Never mind that Doughty’s offense seemed to be little more than a shove from behind in open ice which pushed pest Downie’s helmet over the front of his face.
While Doughty sat, his team rallied, keeping the puck out of their zone for the first minute and seeing Dustin Brown go down the left side of the ice in the last ten seconds and launch a wrister into goalie Mike Smith’s midsection. His save looked exactly like the one Quick had been shaken up on in the early going, though to no ill effect.
Fans in the sold-out arena cheered the team as they finished up the kill, and the Kings, by this point playing with a 1-0 lead, kept the pressure on. That goal had come off of a giveaway by Mathieu Roy. He threw a puck off his own player’s skate, Ryan Smyth grabbed it, and he fed it to Justin Williams. He made a complete turnaround as he glided left to right across the front of the net, and he made four separate touches of the puck as he put it behind the goalie.
Boucher’s take on the goal was simply regret for the mistake of the call-up, Roy. “It’s too bad. You don’t want it to happen to him, because he makes a mistake on the goal. But I think he played well before and after. We needed him out there; it’s just too bad it was him that made that little mistake there.”
Stamkos, for his part, couldn’t work any magic as the game wound down. He ended the night shut out, as did his team, despite good pressure in the late going of the third period. His minutes on the night were over 20, topped only amongst Tampa Bay forwards by Martin St. Louis. Stamkos had three shots.
Late in the game, Doughty took one more bit of abuse from Downie, a running check that partially missed. As they left the corner, each jawed at the other, as they went back up the ice, Doughty punched out at Downie. As they carried on up to center, Willie Mitchell came flying up behind Downie and decked him with a check. They then fought. It wasn’t exactly a punch up, but enough to make the point that the man from Tampa Bay needed to quit. Immediately after the fight, as the linesmen separated the two, Downie kept yelling at the ref and pointing at him. He was given a fighting penalty and a misconduct. The latter came late enough that ten minutes put him out for the duration.
Boucher was up on the bench yelling at the referees in defense of his ejected player, as he should have been. The reason it’s mentioned—because it makes his calm after the game, and his willingness to discuss the matter, the more remarkable.
The rough stuff continued, with Sean Bergenheim colliding with Michal Handzus at mid-ice with the puck nowhere close, and then Bergenheim taking a slashing penalty in the corner behind the Kings’ net. At this point, there were about five minutes to go. Neither team scored again.
This Tampa Bay squad is clearly not your father’s Lightning, but more a clone of the Ducks of a couple of years ago or those same Flyers of the 1970s discussed earlier. They’re chippy and tough. Boucher said, “We’re an aggressive team, yeah. We’re tough to play against. We don’t give much on the rush, as you saw tonight. But both teams gave nothing on the rush to each other.”
His style, as indicated, is to demand a lot of aggressive play. The question is natural, then, how this will affect his guys as the season gets to fifty, sixty, and eighty games. When pressed on this, he told IH that he gives his team breaks, a lot of days off, so that they can recharge.
His team does not skate on game days most times, and he said about that, “I’ve been doing it for years. I just feel that if we have practices the day before, the day of the game, to me, it’s sometimes a waste of time and a waste of energy. If we’ve done what we have to do to prepare for the game, you don’t need a morning skate. If we need it because we’re traveling the day before, or we didn’t get a practice or a good practice, we’ll use the morning skate.”
He may have given the biggest clue as to his method, and his personality, by saying, “To me, it [the skate] can’t be a routine. I hate routines in life. I don’t want to be a slave to a routine. If we need it, we use it; if we don’t need it, we don’t use it.”
He also said, in answer to another question, “I love to change things. I hate to throw the same thing at the other team every time, and I’m obviously going to add on some stuff.”
Concerning Thursday, Boucher summed up by saying, “You know what, I think it was a great game. I think the fans enjoyed it. It was a great show. It gives you the sense that you get playoffs before the playoffs. We become a better team because of it, and I don’t think you get more battling than that.”
West coast fans can concur with all that the coach claimed. The game was entertaining, as much for its content as for the surprise factor that this version of the Lightning brought with them.
Should they be back this year, it won’t be until the Stanley Cup Final. Nobody would argue with the rightness of that happening, if it should, but neither would LA fans take anything for granted—not what the visitors would offer, and certainly not the outcome.
Scott Parse came off of IR with Doughty and played Thursday night. Scratches were Brayden Schenn, Peter Harrold, and Kevin Westgarth. Scratching the latter was a mistake on Murray’s part, as this Tampa Bay club is much more aggressive than those in the past.
Downie particularly, but not exclusively, played a game that might have been settled down had a bruiser been in the lineup. On the other hand, as St. Louis pointed out after the game, the Tampa Bay team does not use a designated enforcer.