Photo: Nick Moir

Lightning To Strike in Winnipeg

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Much was made of the off-season moves by the Tampa Bay Lightning, as they first brought in Steve Yzerman as GM, who then brought in AHL and Major Junior coaching enigma Guy Boucher as Head Coach. Many trades ensued and free agents were signed, and the result is that the Lightning team that will take the ice against the Blackhawks in Winnipeg may be a little (*ahem*) shocking.

First, to the personnel. Consistent, if past-their-prime forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis return to join young powerhouse Steven Stamkos. Those three players accounted for just over half of the goals scored by the Lightning last year, so more scoring punch was definitely needed. So Simon Gagne was acquired from the Flyers, and Coach Boucher must now fill out the ranks with the least of many evils from the youth and middling veteran talent that remains in camp. Two long-time veterans from the KHL were acquired in the form of Johan Harju and Niklas Persson, but only time will tell if that experiment delivers the jolt it was intended to.

On defense, youngster Victor Hedman is now joined by four relatively steady, but by no means spectacular veterans: Pavel Kubina, Matthieu Roy, Brett Clark, and Randy Jones. Defense was Tampa Bay’s biggest problem last year, allowing 260 goals against, fourth-worst in the league. However it is puzzling to try to figure out what Yzerman’s strategy is, not bringing in a marquee defensive pair to anchor the team. One problem at a time, I guess.

Which brings us to goaltending. To replace the departed Antero Nittymaki, Yzerman has acquired yawn-inducing Dan Ellis, who spent last year with Nashville amassing a barely-winning record and a .909 save percentage over 31 games. Not exactly the kind of guy who can energize a team or its fans. In fact, the biggest headline Ellis has made in his NHL career actually came about because of a comment he made on his Twitter account.

But there appears to me some method to Yzerman’s madness. Believe it or not, it appears that what the first-year GM is hoping to do this season is win using the member of the organ-eye-zation least likely to score a goal, block a shot, or make a save: his coach.

Guy Boucher holds a post-graduate degree in Sports Psychology, and has implemented a radical offensive system not seen before in the NHL with any consistency, called a 1-3-1 forecheck. The first man into the zone pushes the puck to the outside, while the strong-side defenseman and remaining two forwards press to that side three-across, leaving one defenseman to cover counter-attacks.

Boucher has run the system with significant success. In his first year behind the bench with the Hamilton Bulldogs he racked up 52 wins, good for the second-best record in the AHL. The 1-3-1 has been the exclusive focus of the Bolts’ training camp efforts. The specific details are either a big secret, or so complicated that nobody is willing to talk about them and risk looking like an idiot. Even the Tampa Bay press is mostly cloudy on the subject.

Boucher and the Bolts will premiere this new strategy Tuesday night against Dallas. What success they have with it remains to be seen, and it should be noted that the three big offensive threats mentioned earlier will be resting against the Stars to be fresh for when they meet the Hawks in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

So they’re throwing the big guns at us right out of the gate, and word late Tuesday is that Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Duncan Keith, will all be in the lineup for the Blackhawks. Add to that some fully-loaded up-and-comers in Igor Makarov, Viktor Stalberg, and Jeremy Morin, plus Nick Leddy on defense. And Coach Q, not being one to keep the public waiting, is giving us a taste of Marty Turco in his first outing as a Blackhawk. He will split the game with moderately talented and definitely unpronounceable Hannu Toivonen.

So the fans in Winnipeg should be in for a doozy. Or, depending on whether Boucher’s 1-3-1 can work at the NHL level (and if the Lightning players have had enough practice to execute it properly), we may see a game of shinny erupt and a 15-2 Blackhawks victory.

Either way, it will be one Blackhawks fans won’t want to miss. And thankfully, with Comcast Sports Net covering this and two other home games, they don’t have to!

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