That didn’t go quite as planned

I can take a hint from the universe.

Unfortunately the nudge didn’t come until the first period of Game 6.

OK, maybe that was actually the first period of Game 5 when Ben Bishop made a bonehead play leading to an empty net goal by Patrick Sharp. I already booked my flight before that game. It was too late.

As I waited in the terminal at the Hagerstown Regional Airport, I watched the first period and a half of Game 6. My flight was already delayed by two hours. There was no way I’d make it for any watch party and Amalie Arena already announced they weren’t letting anymore people through the doors.

Steven Stamkos dashed in on a breakaway and didn’t have enough moves to beat Corey Crawford. What was worse was that when he couldn’t coax himself to corral the puck, back up and roof it. He was too in-tight and just flubbed it against the pad.

It was done by then and the score was still 0-0.

Just before the plane lifted off the runway, I checked the score one last time. 0-1 Blackhawks in the second.

The WiFi-less flight left me wondering what is happening. As soon as we touched down in St. Petersburg, the alerts popped up. Blackhawks are Stanley Cup Champions. Duncan Keith is Conn Smythe Winner. Ben Bishop has a torn groin. Tyler Johnson has a broken wrist. And Tampa Bay had shattered dreams.

Health and luck are big parts of winning a championship and when you’re battling a two-time Cup champion, so is experience.

There’s not much I would change on the Lightning’s end. I would have isolated the team in a hotel at home, adjusted the power play with personnel and shuffled the lines more.

But most of all, I would have found a way to take players to the box. There wasn’t anything of significance between the whistles. A certain amount of gamesmanship was missing not having a fourth line player taking Toews are Kane to the box for roughing for two minutes.

There wasn’t enough nasty to warrant a fight. We weren’t even in the same galaxy of having a Lecavalier-Iginla type bout. I enjoyed the frenetic pace but there wasn’t enough boom with the pow.

A Stamkos-Toews fight would have absolutely turned the series even if Stamkos would have lost.

Next year, the Bolts will be filled with more skill and speed. Vlad Namestnikov is likely to be here full-time while Brenden Morrow coming back is iffy. Jon Drouin will see more ice time, too, but God help us if he gets gritty. We’re all just hoping for five more pounds of muscle.

The blueline is pretty gritty and no matter who steps in from within the organization, that won’t change.

Aside from all the black-and-blue business, the Lightning need to get Stamkos a winger. Maybe his defensive play improved without having an elite passer like Marty St. Louis by his side. Who knows. It didn’t look like Drouin and Stamkos clicked right away but they weren’t lined up much either in practice. He could be the answer.

Things were starting to click with Valteri Filpulla and Alex Killorn but more so for the other two players. It opened up more opportunities for Stamkos but he couldn’t bury them yet, it lumped two of the better centermen on one line.

Stamkos-Killorn-Callahan was Stammer’s most frequent line during the regular season while Callahan-Filpulla-Stamkos was the second most.  Did wonders for Ryan Callahan tying a career high in points being in a Mike Knuble-like situation but you still need one more finesse player on that line. In most cases that was Fil, but he needs to help spread out the offense on the other lines.

Something’s gotta give and we have the offseason to dream what it’s going to be.

Then the regular to test it out. And the playoffs where things better be damned solidified and perfected.

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See you soon Tampa

If my flight doesn’t get delayed anymore, I’ll probably be in a St. Pete watering hole catching the conclusion of Game 6.

I’m going to be glued to my iPad on the plane watching the Lightning preventing an early end to the season so I can be part of something special: Game 7 in Tampa for the Stanley Cup.

I don’t want a touchdown at PIE to lead to a letdown when I hit the road to find the nearest TV. Hell, that just mean going over to the Clearwater Ice Arena just to see the end of the game. 

Tampa Bay doesn’t deserve disappointment on the national stage. The city and region, frankly have been resilient over the last six years, watching home values finally climb back after a nasty housing collapse. Seeing hope being built from Channelside, north to a new ice rink complex in Wesley Chapel, bustling retail and amateur sports boom in Sarasota to the south and craft beer breweries bubbling up in every neighborhood in between. 

Tampa didn’t arrive in 2004. Metaphorically, that championship crowned a race to the top by everyone chasing the dollar before the party came crashing down hard. It’s appropriate that the lockout wiped away the following season. And it only got worse in terms of diminishing results for the Lightning to a point where new ownership came in to make it seemed like Florida Man was running the team’s news ticker.

Now, you have everything in place that makes Tampa an exciting hockey market, place to live and work with hopefully a fully realized arena district.

I owe it to the Lightning for making hockey exciting for me again. When I moved away from Maryland, my frustration with the Caps were at an all-time high. I watched a Lightning team in transition that reminded me a lot of the Caps when Glen Hanlon was writing his own pink slip as George McPhee stocked the organization with enough talent to win two Calder Cups in Hershey in short time thanks to an up-and-coming coach who could coach goals to pour out of his roster. 
Guy Boucher was in a similar position with a defensive system that also grew old and in came Calder Cup prospects and eventually Jon Cooper. The key difference is that Cooper quickly learned he needed defensive adjustments and having a veteran of an associate coach like Rick Bowness sped up that learning curve as well as having guys from Andreychuck to  Yzerman supporting the organization.

I don’t have tickets for Game 7, nor could I afford them. Would I do anything to get in Amalie Arena for free? Of course but being in the streets of Tampa to celebrate, to be in the moment is all I’m asking for. 

Thats all we should ever want, too: 

Be in the moment. Be in the clouds.

Be the thunder.

Storylines aplenty for Tampa Bay Lightning in Stanley Cup Finals

Whether the Tampa Bay Lightning face the Anaheim Ducks or Chicago Blackhawks, there will be as many storylines as goals scored in a high-octane series.

  1. The Bolts would have a chance to be the first team to beat four of the Original Six teams en route to win a Stanley Cup. They would be the first team in history to face four Original Six teams in a playoff year, according to Pierre LeBrun.
  2. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks are the only ’90s expansion teams to have won a Stanley Cup. Somebody could claim its second.
  3. A Bolts-Ducks Sunbelt Series would draw the ire of the Canadian media, writing columns and stories of how much parity in the league is a joke and all this is just a sham to not have a Canadian team to win a Cup (hey, Vancouver made an appearance a few years ago) and hear even more demands for expansion to Quebec.
  4. The same Sunbelt Series ought to help dispel myths that nobody watches games in Anaheim and Tampa and nobody plays hockey there outside of the NHL. Anaheim is further ahead of Tampa in terms of grassroots hockey (hello, Emerson Etem) but Tampa still outdraws Anaheim in attendance. Tampa Bay averaged the ninth highest attendance average this year while Anaheim was 20th, some of which is because of the capacity. So, when looking at percentages Anaheim had 98.3 percent capacity at 18 while Tampa Bay is right behind at 98 percent capacity in 19th. That’s still better than playoff teams St. Louis Blues, Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders. I hope the media relations staff from both Tampa Bay and Anaheim team up with the NHL to tell these stories to the national outlets.
  5. A Blackhawks series would also see Brad Richards in consecutive Stanley Cup Finals and the Lightning faces not only another former Bolt, but the guy who carried the Lightning through the 2004 championship run winning the Conn Smythe.
  6. Against the Ducks, the Bolts would face former Bolt Nate Thompson. The Bolts were very close in also seeing former Bolt Eric Brewer until he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in March after he returned from injury.
  7. Ben Bishop and the Ducks’ Jakob Silfverberg were briefly teammates on the Ottawa Senators in 2012-13.
  8. Behind the bench, Dwayne Roloson is the goaltending consultant for the Ducks. He the ageless wonder who took the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011 where they lost Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, the eventual champions against the Vancouver Canucks, which had Rick Bowness behind the bench
  9. A Ducks series would also include former Canucks Ryan Kesler, Jason Garrison, Rick Bowness.
  10. A Flyers connection exists with Matt Carle, Brayden Coburn, Kris Versteeg, Kimmo Timmonen and Daniel Carcillo. All of them played in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, but Versteeg played for the Blackhawks in that series winning the Cup. Versteeg would play for the Flyers in 27 games in 2011. Patrick Sharp also played for the Flyers from 2002-2006.
  11. Somewhere, the Washington Capitals are either smiling or crying with Bruce Boudreau and Tomas Fleischmann if the two get to a Stanley Cup Finals before Ovechkin and Backstrom.
  12. LeBrun with another nugget: Brenden Morrow’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 15 years since he was a rookie with the Dallas Stars when they won it all against the New Jersey Devils.

And I’m sure there are tons more of minutia that will not have an impact on the games themselves. But it’s fun to know.

Watching the Bolts’ Stanley Cup Playoff Run From Afar

Seeing the Tampa Bay Lightning’s continued Game 7 heroics during this year’s playoffs has been nothing short of inspiring.

It’s a feel-good story that hurts not to be in Tampa Bay to experience the run. I was kidding myself when I moved back to Maryland thinking the  Washington Capitals would make a deep run. Not just by looking at the standings, but the visual test showed that the Bolts were clearly the better of the two teams I’ve come to support.

You always hear about the Florida transplant sports fan conundrum—how much do you weigh balancing the support between the teams you grew up with from home and the ones that are in your new home city. But nobody talks about how it is to leave your adopted team.

You go back home (ish) and hope for the best, but you look over your shoulder and have that feeling that you just left the best place to be.

In terms of living a hockey life, somehow it got worse moving from Florida back to Maryland. I’m no longer 30 minutes away from the closest ice rink—now an hour through rolling hills and mountains. I’m no longer an hour drive to see NHL hockey where I can pull up 100 yards from the arena and pay $4 to park on the street. Instead, it’s a 90-minute drive to a Metro station and a 45-minute ride to Verizon Center or instead, a two-hour drive to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh to see the Bolts and Caps stop by next season.

The worst is moving in the middle of a season when you see that the Lightning is going to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Here’s the uplifting part: I made a promise before I quit my job in Bradenton that I’d visit my friends on one of two conditions. Either the Washington Caps meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs or the Lightning reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

I have to live up to my promise, even if it’s for a day, and it’ll be great to get back in such a short time. (And hey, I still have my Disney seasonal pass that I can use until August.)

Will I be able to get to see a game in person? No, and I knew it’d be a long shot. The Lightning restricted sales on Ticketmaster to those with a Florida billing address (I already switched over three months ago) and out of curiosity I checked to see what the cheapest ticket would be. All the bottom two or three tiers were gone. I’d have to pony up $347. That’s on top of a flight, rental car and hotel to get there.

When I get down there, I’ll be there for either Game 6 or 7 depending how tonight’s Ducks-Blackhawks game shakes out. You just know this thing ain’t going to be done in five games.

To be there on Channelside Plaza with thousands of other fans watching the game outside for a chance of the ultimate victory would be just as much of a thrill.

Not all of us are fortunate enough to be part of something this special, even a Stanley Cup Game. And we all have to accept that.

Instead, we have to be there in spirit, be the best fan you can be and of course, Be The Thunder.

What if turns to what now for Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards

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Despite my lobbying for a Hollywood ending for Marty St. Louis’s season with the Rangers, the script flipped and well, the movie itself ended in Hollywood when the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup.

The Rangers didn’t look like themselves against the Kings as they did in other series. The Kings just had that special gear.

So now the Bygone Bolts in St. Louis, Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore have to sit and wonder about what if. But let’s look at what now for two of Tampa’s favorite sons.

What now for Brad Richards. The St. Louis-Richards reunion could be short lived. After seeing a resurgence in the playoffs when him and Marty started to click again, everything seemed to going back to the days of old. But when he started showing that he was getting old his name quickly resurfaced as a compliance buyout candidate again.

On Media Day before the finals, Richards’ future and past became a theme. Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo Sports detailed how refreshed Richards felt when Sather came to him last summer and said he wouldn’t be bought out that year:

Richards recommitted himself in the off-season. He went on a 12-week program of diet and exercise under trainer Ben Prentiss, who worked with his old Tampa Bay teammate and friend, Martin St-Louis. When he arrived at training camp, he had a clean slate. Teammates saw a difference in his legs and his attitude – a little quicker, more confident, more positive.

Still, his slow foot speed resurfaced in the playoffs at times and was glarring against the Kings. As fast as his runningmate Marty could pump those giant, short legs, it’s not enough.

Luc Robitaille was never the fastest player. In fact, he was famous for being a slow skater that somehow racked up points. Maybe Richards needs to see how he can be more effective at a slower speed instead of thinking that he has the speed that he used to. To that end, where ever he ends up, I wouldn’t put him on the point or the high sidewall on the power play. He couldn’t get to errant passes directed to him fast enough and the puck would quickly go the other way for a chance. Position Richards lower in the circle for both one-timers and to feed cross-crease passes. Give him room so he can set up behind the net.

I’d like to see him work with Dave Tippet and Mike Ribeiro again in Arizona and get to work with Mike Smith again in goal. He also has Shane Doan to lead the way and a great group of young players. His Tampa in New York reunion didn’t go as well as it should, but he might see a better result with a Dallas in Glendale reunion.

What now for Martin St. Louis. I’ve had to read over Tom Jones’ column a few times to let everything sink in with the comments by St. Louis. “Was anymore more loyal?” Probably not. Note how Jones said in his interview St. Louis asked that plenty of what he said would be off the record. Some of the background, not-for-attribution stuff made it in, confirming that his being left off Team Canada for a second time was the impetus of demand a trade when he did.

I understand what it’s like when you’re thinking about leaving a job, quitting your employer and looking to move, but you’re not quite sure. Then that one thing happens and you’re like, Oh yeah, it’s time to go. That’s what this is.

But let’s fast forward to next season because this is going to be rehashed in 2014-2015 about four more times. St. Louis will have to play against Tampa in the regular season, with two of those dates at home. I hope the schedule maker has a twisted sense of humor and makes the Tampa home opener against the Rangers. Fresh off the Cup loss, first game back in Tampa, first game of the year–DO IT.

Honestly, I’d be looking at his teammate and former Bolt Benoit Pouliot thinking what did this team do to not get that type of performance out of Pouliot? To be fair, Pouliot didn’t do much in four past seasons of playoff experience in his career. Just was a break-out year.

With Richards likely headed for a buyout, it’s time for Marty and Rick Nash to work together in the off season to see if they can click and if Marty can adjust to a different power play formation. Marty had looked lost for awhile not being in the low circle ready for a one-timer. Footage kept showing how he would feed players from there on the Rangers and lesser players couldn’t handle a pass or one-time. Rick Nash has that ability, and his sniper status desperately needs to be restored. The Rangers PP might as well use Coach Cooper’s formation for Marty to get the most points out of him and Nash to call it a day.

 

It’s time to give Martin St. Louis the movie ending he deserves

I’ve realized that Martin St. Louis is either clairvoyant or is incredible in writing his own script that nobody wanted to read.

When the grumblings that the Tampa Bay Lightning captain wanted out became true, you could feel Tampa Bay shake with heartbreak and anger on both sides of the Sunshine Skyway.

Why now, fans thought? Why can’t you win with the Lightning–the team was rolling, fans also pondered.

St. Louis told reporters he wanted another kick at the Stanley Cup and specifically wanted to go to the New York Rangers. Brad Richards is there–the Conn Smythe winner from 2004 he carried the Cup with. So are familiar faces and former Bolts Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore.

Lightning fans, including myself crowed over Ryan Callahan potting points after the trade while Mighty Marty looked lost in the Big Apple.

Instead, crow is being served during the second course. The Lightning were bounced in four straight by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round with Ryan Callahan struggling to find the net while Marty found his groove in the playoffs. He’s been able to find the empty space at the far face-off circles again and even more important, his teammates now know where to look for him.

During the second round, his other France St. Louis had a heart attack and died. Somehow, the guy was able to focus and on pure heart and emotion he stepped up his game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then just like 10 years ago, he met Montreal in the playoffs and devoured them with the help of buddy Brad Richards. He’s tied for eighth for playoff goals this year with six, has 15 points and has an OT winner.

Marty also said during his Tampa farewells he wanted his family to be closer to their offseason home in Greenwich, Conn., and allow his sons to play better hockey plus watch them play. Nobody would have thought he would have to put all his family planning into place this quickly–especially for unexpected tragedy–but he was in the right place at the right time.

Sure, Marty could instead be sitting in Tampa instead if he were still with the Bolts when his mother died. The attention from media wouldn’t have been as strong because it’s the offseason he would have probably been at his home in Greenwich anyway, and in a lot of ways it would contributed to a different story–a sad one of playoff heartbreak, a grumpy captain who wanted out and death.

That’s not the script Marty is writing. He’s becoming increasingly inspiring, and I wish some fans here in Tampa Bay would look at the bigger picture.

You are potentially watching a generational story of hockey lure unfold. The guy everybody counted out, even the Calgary Flames, rises to be a dominant player and champion, ages and becomes the villain when he finally his captain and says he’s checked out and will only go to one team. He picks his team, deals with the death of his mother and now is four wins away from a Stanley Cup.

This is what sports documentaries are made of. This is the story you won’t mind watching for the 500th time during the summer NHL Network hiatus.

This movie will end at a maximum of seven games, and Marty has certainly proven he’s the director. Nobody wants to see the alternate ending, either.

Marty: Give us the ending we’ve been waiting for.