Finally! Image Source: LightningNHL.com

Game Day Preview # 3. Home Opener Special: Lightning vs. Panthers

Tampa Bay Lightning: (1-2-1) 3 pts. vs. Florida Panthers: (1-1-0) 2 pts.

Opposition site: Bolts By The Bay.

Raise your hands.  How many of you had today’s date circled on your calender the minute the NHL announced it’s schedule? Yea, that’s what I thought.  The Florida Panthers 2011-2012 season home opener hasn’t had this much hype, excitement and promise in years.  As much as we the fans are looking forward to it, you know the players and coaching staff as well as the rest of the organEYEzation is looking forward to it as well.  This is what Kevin Dineen said yesterday after practice (source: Harvey Fialkov, Sun-Sentinel):

“To finally get in front of our home fans to see a regular-season game I know there’s a little buzz from the fan base, but from our locker room our players are extremely excited to get out there. That’s when you start to feel part of a franchise when you get in front of your home fans.”
Playing Tampa?
For me, I come down here and expected there’d be a lot of buzz, that’s our crossstate rivalry, and for us to go out and make a statement, not only in our home opener, but in there’s as well [on Monday].”

Everything comes together once and for all tonight.  The theme of red throughout the arena, the new red home sweaters, the new goal song, the new players.  Mostly though the renewed excitement of the fan base.  I expect a full house, and I expect a loud “house”.  As coach Dineen said , this is a statement game.  Honestly and if you heard our most recent podcast, Dave, Josh and I all agree that this game is a game we must win to get the backing and support of our fans.

We’ve seen the tale of two teams however in two games, and with four days to work out the kinks, and get rid of the “cute” I would expect the Panthers to come out flying in the opening minutes of the game.  We’re in our building and the Panthers will need to set the tone early.  One of the things I talked about recently was that I wanted to see more physical play in both zones.  Finish checks, and play the body in order to slow down Tampa, or any opponent for that matter.  The puck possession style that we want to play can dictate the tone of the game as well.  Control the puck and control the tempo.  With our speed and our talent, we can definitely match up very well against this high scoring team.

The Lightning seem to have some problems that are similar to ours in that they’ve had some scoring chances that they haven’t been able to cash in on.  In the first three games of the season the Bolts scored 11 times, however only three goals came from Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecalvalier.  Digging a bit deeper into that, their 6-5 loss to the Washington Capitals on Monday resulted in only one goal from the top forwards which was scored by Teddy Purcell on a bank shot.  In their loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday Steven Stamkos scored the lone goal on a 5-1 loss, as Tampa may be suffering from the dipsy do’s the Panthers were going through on Tuesday against Pittsburgh.

As you look up and down the forward lines, Guy Boucher has quite a luxury in that he can pretty much roll all four during a game, but obviously he’ll give the extra push to the trio that’s working the best.  Brett Connoly the 19 year old rookie has been placed on the scoring line with Stamkos and St. Louis, forming a dangerous unit.  Looking at their third line of Nate Thompson, ex Panther Dominic Moore and Steve Downie, things don’t get much more grittier than that, and they also have some moderate scoring ability so don’t take them lightly. Defensively the loss of Mattias Ohlund who’ll be out for as much as six weeks due to knee surgery will hurt and forces the smallish Marc-Andre Bergeron into full time duty.  If Tampa has a weakness, defence is it.  Rollie the goalie keeps on keeping on at the young age of 42.  He’s a battler and was largely responsible for almost getting the Lightning into the Stanley Cup final last season.  However Mathieu Garon is expected to start.

If the Florida Panthers are going to achieve any success at all this season, erasing their power play futility is the one area that needs to be corrected.  While I don’t believe in curses, the ghost of Jim Hulton must still be in the room as Florida is one for 10 on the power play in two games.  With my math, that translates into a 10% success ratio, which is not nearly enough to make a difference in games.  The power play was worked on in practice this week, and I would expect to see some improvements tonight.  I don’t mind creativity and looking for the open man, but when I easily count 8 passes before a shot, I have a hard time feeling that something good is coming out of it.  In addition, there are better ways to waste 40 seconds in a game.

I do expect a rebound performance from Tuesday’s somewhat bonehead sloppy loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Being able to use our speed and skill to our advantage will make a difference in our results.  The Panthers need to find that happy medium between the way they played in the opener against the Islanders and Tuesday’s performance.  Dineen’s approach is about control and applied pressure, which is refreshing for a change.  We need to however bury the scoring chances that we get.  I don’t feel that we’re going to be out hustled too many nights.  I think that what could be our achilles heel will be the fancy part of our game, and the mistakes we make due to the early unfamiliarity.  The Penguins are a team that’s been together for awhile,  and this year’s version of the Lightning have a few new faces like us, and communication does play a major role.

I have a gut feeling that the energy and anticipation for this game can carry us through to victory.  The excitement of being at home, working on the “problem” areas the past few days, and wanting to perform well in front of the home fans will catapult the Panthers to what is hopefully a solid win.  Better puck management and better communication, especially by the defence with Jose Theodore, is a given for tonight.  The top line of Weiss, Flash and Steeger has been impressive, as has the energy of Jack “Crash” Skille.

Nerdy Numbers:

* Florida leads the series all time 53-35-10.

* Tampa has yet to play a game at home.

* Each team, Tampa (21 for 21) and Florida (7 for 7) has killed 100% of it’s penalties.

* When Tampa lost Thursday against the Islanders it marked the first time it had fallen below .500 under Guy Boucher.

* The Panthers won four of the six games last season as David Booth was the leading scorer for Florida with 4 goals while Vincent Lecavalier had 3 goals for the Lightning.

* The first meeting between the two teams last season was the Panthers home opener.  Florida won 6-0.

* Unless there’s a lineup change Erik Gudbranson (#BigG) will be making his regular season home debut!

Connections:

Dominic Moore played 48 games for Florida in 2009-2010 and put up 17 points with 8 goals and 9 assists.

Sean Bergenheim played 80 regular season games for Tampa last year with 14 goals and 15 assists in the regular season.  He topped that off with 9 goals and 2 helpers in the playoffs.

As always thanks for reading.  Looking forward to seeing you tonight!

Follow the Rat Pack on Twitter: me @TheRatTrick , David Lasseter @davidlasseter , Josh Luecht @joshluecht, Patrick McLaughlin @PatrickRattrick, Scott Mullin @ScottFMullin, Cameron Tahernia @Lord_Panther, and David Rodriguez @davidbub_2Also, please join our Facebook Fan Page and hit the like button, send us photos, and make some comments.

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Tags: Brett Connoly Dominic Moore Florida Panthers Guy Boucher Jack Crash Skille Jose Theodore Redvolutin Sean Bergenheim Steeger Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning

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