Seven tenths and a shootout

Last night: home opener, big to-do, the unfortunate inclusion of thunderstix, promotional swag flowing freely. Full introduction of the team and staff as they came out onto the ice, complete with light shows and smoke cannons. I'm not sure what the attendance figures were, officially, but from where I sat the place looked about two thirds full.

For fifty-nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds things looked good. Devils scored, Lightning scored more. Stamkos got two goals, Marty got two assists. (I am starting to think that, no matter what it says on paper, the top line is the one that Marty's on.) Nets were crashed off the posts a few times. Malone took a bounce off Brodeur's head, and both he and his stick went spinning into the air. Bolts outshot the Devils by a healthy margin. Hedman proved that he is, in fact, mean on the inside, and took his defensive duties seriously.

Then Smith went down. You can see what happened in the recap here: Malone tried to check Langenbrunner and they both hit Smith with enough force to knock his mask off. The fans -- except for the Token Obnoxious Drunk Dude -- went quiet at this and thought about concussions. It's impressive how quiet several thousand people can be, when they put their minds to it. Turns out he'd wrenched his spine in the impact, and picked up a cut on his face. After this was tended to he got back up. Crowd cheered, net was hoisted back into place, and the game went on.

Things looked good until there were 0.7 seconds left, when the Devils picked up a muffled bounce and slipped it past Smith. Nobody knew what happened, at first, as the goal came from a scrum in front of the net and the in-house replays couldn't agree on how much time was left. The Jersey fans thought it was in with enough time; the Tampa fans disagreed with all the profanity they could muster. The refs phoned Toronto, who ruled the goal good, and at that point I think we all knew what would happen.

For the other fifty-nine minutes the team looked pretty solid. Surprisingly so, considering the fiasco of last year and the fact that there's still some sorting-out to be done, this early on.

Hey, I know. Crazy stuff can happen at any time and you never leave your seat until the players are off the ice. Still, we're three games into the season and already I'm sick of shootouts.

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Second verse, same as the first

One game, one loss, six goals against, and one injured defenseman. Not the best start.

Playing with five defensemen most of the night, the Lightning allowed Atlanta time and space, a deadly no-no for a team with talent like Ilya Kovalchuk. But even the weak, timid play at the blue line didn't cause too many issues. Atlanta's strength came from a seemingly porous Lightning defense once established in the zone, with far too many cross ice passes making it through without a hitch. It was blatant on Atlanta's second goal, as well as most of its power play chances. And despite some odd bounces that produced two of Atlanta's goals, Smith could have been better.

But, it is only one game. The big three all got in on the scoring, and Malone played a strong game. Stamkos was flying around the ice and both top lines produced consistent pressure. While Downie looked at times unable to keep up with the creativity of Vinny and Tanguay, he did provide quickness and aggressive skating to the group. The power play also looked good, even when it didn't score.

The team could have netted five or six in this game, and will need to bury some of those chances going forward. Vinny and Stamkos each had tough but opportune shots at open nets that went wide that could have changed the game in the first. That said, the Lightning doesn't want to trade chances all game, and tighter play in its own end likely produces a win.

Both promising and disappointing. But only one game.

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The worst seat in the house

My seats in the upper level may not place me all that close to the ice, but I still have some inherent advantages over guys like Jaroslav Halak when they visit the St. Pete Times Forum.

You see, Halak is one of those guys that always cheers for the opponents, while I root for the home team. Halak invariably wears the other team's jersey, while mine matches that of the Lightning. My seat is made of hard plastic.

But Halak is stuck on a stool.

You see, most nights Halak plays second string to Carey Price in the Montreal net. But when Halak is the backup on the road in Tampa, he gets to feel like the dunce of Les Habitants by sitting in the corner, away from the boys, between two sections stands, where the guy launching T-shirts between periods usually resides.

So is the life of the visiting backup goalie in the Forum.

I can't quite recall when this began, but for at least a couple of seasons now, the visiting team's backup goalie is relegated to this unceremonious position. He is surrounded by Forum ushers and security, as though he's being held for questioning. He generally hangs with some member of his team's staff, as though he's there to represent his client.

I have a good view of this spot, and I rarely see any conversation between the nearby fans and the backup. In fact, fans in those neighboring sections are often allowed to walk through that area to reach the concourse, meaning Halak and company can't even get an unobstructed view.

So to all fans in 103 and 104, just remember when you're walking on by:

Down in front, eh?

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Summer Roundup

Zenon Hanson Konopka would like to remind you that the season is starting soon and he will crash as many nets as it takes. HE CAN DO THIS ALL DAY, PEOPLE.

I was going to ask Dave if we should do a set of "What We Did On Our Summer Vacations" essays, but there's no point. He got engaged, I've been sick a lot. At least one of us is having fun.

Anyway! On to the hockey things, in no particular order except that with which they occur to me.

Prospal bought out and signed with the Rangers: boo. I don't like it, he don't like it, Lecavalier don't like it. People who are happy with that include the owners and the fans who fail to see how every goal is better when there's a screaming crazy man on the wing. (Really, they are. Crazy Czechs for the win.) Farewell, V20, for the fifth(?) time; we shall always remember how you tried to shove it up Tortorella's butt.

Tanguay has been signed; COINCIDENTALLY Artyukhin has been shipped to Anaheim, in exchange for an angry-looking Zamboni, which in Russian is called "the thing Ovechkin drove through New York." Fans hope for a Vinny-Marty-Tanguay line they can lovingly call the 'French Connection' to replace the now-defunct MVP line. Vinny likes having Tanguay around, but he is sort of wondering who will be on the wing there.

Mike Smith is healthy again, hooray. He will be playing in the preseason game tonight vs. Atlanta, woohoo. He refuses to wear a mouthguard, useful in preventing concussions, because he will eat it -- oh. Oh dear. He also got beaned on the head by a shot from a twelve-year-old at some point over the summer. Tampa media joked about this; Canadian media took all the jokes seriously and once again raised the point that we don't know how to hockey down here.

Our new Finnish Backup Goalie is named Antero Niittymäki and there is absolutely no way I will remember which two letters in there are doubled, nevermind where the umlaut goes. He differs from Smitty in being, as mentioned, Finnish; also by having 100% less bro-fro. Odds on his running away to Siberia at the end of his contract? Feel free to chime in, that's why we have comments.

Speaking of umlauts, Mattias Öhlund took part in the 2009 FanFest charity scrimmage, which was all retooled at the 11th hour to be in honor of a Tampa police officer killed in the line of duty. Shenanigans at said Fest included a yard-sale of used gear, a scrimmage where the fans laughed almost as much as the players, and cheap beer. Öhlund said, during one of the interviews at the fest, that he was impressed by the turnout and the fans. If you are interested in all things Öhlund, there is a blog all about him.

In news of other Swedish imports, Victor Hedman made his defensive debut last night. Clocked an impressive 27 minutes of ice time, which has had the hockeyblogosphere going "wait, wait, what?" all day yesterday. Hedman says he plays better when he plays a lot, so this is of the good.

Oh yeah, something else. They actually had a training camp this year, not a summer camp. During the offseason most everyone went up to Minnesota for various sorts of conditioning. Stamkos spent weeks having ex-Bolt Gary Roberts work with him. Steve Downie got to an astonishing 7% body-fat in training camp. So they've all been busy, unlike the Melrose Error Era Experiment. One hopes they will be less prone to massive season-ending injuries like half the team got last year.

(A notable exception to this, as with many things, is Mike Smith, who spent his summer in the company of dogs, lumber, and power tools. I am told this is perhaps not the thing to do when recovering from a head injury, but since he is skating now, it apparently worked.)

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Larry Hirsch on the air? Can I get a Yessir!?

The Lightning's first ever playoff series carries many memories. A 2 games to 1 lead as the 8th seed. Records crowds to ever see an NHL game. The breeding ground for what is now a multisport rivalry between Tampa and Philadelphia. Even the guy in section 306 that shouts "Flyers Suck" regardless of the opponent owes a little something to that 1996 playoff matchup. But as is the case for many great sports moments, it's the call of the announcer, in this case the call of Lightning radio man Larry Hirsch, that resonates immediately with the mind.

The story begins in Game 2 in Philadelphia. After the Lighting is dominated in its first ever playoff game, Darren Puppa steals the show with his last great performance in net, keeping the team within striking distance and getting the game to overtime at 1-1. Hirsch, an energetic and emotional play-by-play man who's worked various sports for teams throughout the country, sought soothing words at the end of regulation to calm his high-strung nerves. They came from his wife, Susan, who calmly informed his nervous husband that Brian Bellows would win it for the Lightning in overtime.

And sure enough, Bellows scored in overtime. Lightning win 2-1.

So when the Lightning made a late third-period comeback against the Flyers in Game 3 to send that match to overtime, Hirsch again sought Susan's comfort. He relayed the Game 2 story of his predictive wife during Game 3. He then shared - on the air - his wife's latest look into the future. Again, no need to worry. She said it will be Alexander Selivanov scoring the winner this time. Hirsch said if it happened, he would take his future-seeing wife to Vegas.

And it wasn't long after that we heard one of the lasting play-by-play calls in Lightning history:

He scores! He scores! Selivanov! The winner! The winner! Yes sir! Yes sir! Yes sir! And I'm taking my wife to Vegas!

Why the story? Hirsch, the play-by-play radio announcer with the Lightning back in the 90s (the 93-94 through 98-99 seasons if memory serves) spent the past week on the AM radio in Tampa on ESPN 1040. Hirsch filled some substitute time for the station's regular afternoon drive-time host.

Hirsch is known for that energetic catch phrase "Yes sir! Yes sir! Yes sir!" after a Lightning goal. His calls were - I believe - the first time the team ever used its radio voice in marketing materials, as they often do now during pregame videos.

I only caught a couple of his radio broadcasts this past week, but they were both fun and reminiscent as Hirsch mixed the regular sports issues that fill most of the Tampa summer (Rays baseball) with anecdotes of Lightning broadcasts and other great announcers. In his last show, he had an emotional but interesting conversation with Marty Brennaman, a fellow play-by-play radio man and longtime voice of the Cincinnati Reds, who shared some of his memories as a broadcaster.

No word, through, if Larry ever took Susan to Vegas.

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Reasons for optimisim actually exist

The Lightning essentially played four separate seasons last year - The Melrose Era, The Second Training Camp Era, The Lightning Era, and The Injury Era. Compare the point totals during these four eras.

The Melrose Era - The first 16 games of the season, in which the Lightning finished with only 5 wins while Barry played with his mullet.
14 points
16 games
72 point full season projection.

The Second Training Camp Era - Games 17-28, three weeks worth of time for Tocchet to install his system, about the same length as a training camp.
6 points
12 games
41 point full season projection

The Lightning Era - Games 29-53, a real coach coaching a moderately healthy roster.
27 points
25 games
89 point full season projection

The Injury Era - Games 54-82, the point at which the team lost Mezaros, Ranger, and Smith, its top-two defensemen and starting goalie, within a week, for the rest of the year.
19 points
29 games
54 point full season projection

After the Melrose debacle and time for Tocchet to implement an actual system, and before the team became decimated with injuries that would cripple any team, the Lightning was actually, well, not bad. Not great, but ok. The 27 points in 25 games projects out to 89 points in a full 82 game season, which last year would have been good for 11th in the Eastern Conference (or tied for 9th in the West), just 4 points out of a playoff spot.

Sure, being optimistic about almost missing the playoffs is a little lame, but expectations need to be real. If next season, the Lightning are within 4 points of a playoff spot with a week to go in the season, I'll take it.

Aside from high draft picks, it can be hard to find a silver lining in such a dismal season. Excuses aside, finishing 29th in the league and being completely irrelevant for two straight seasons is bad in any light. But consider the what happened when Tocchet coached the best players available, then consider the upgrades thus far in the summer, and you can see why things could get better in a hurry.

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