Put a Bolt in it

LANCE HORNBY, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:28 AM ET

With Steven Stamkos in the hunt for 50 goals and Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier both likely to exceed last year’s point totals, there’s not much for Tampa Bay Lightning coach Rick Tocchet to worry about up front.

But there’s a hole in the backyard fence that’s allowing playoff points to slip away. Goaltenders Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki aren’t doing enough to get the Bolts into eighth place, never mind survive a first-round series against Alex Ovechkin.

“They (Smith and Niittymaki) will tell you, we’ve had some average goaltending the past 10 games,” Tocchet said Thursday before taking on the Maple Leafs. “They know they have to get better and our defence knows they have to clear the net better.

“Montreal had five goals (in Tuesday’s 5-3 win) from six feet in. That can’t happen in the NHL. We have to box out six-foot goals.”

The Leafs faced a similar task with Stamkos Thursday night. Many of his goals are from a deadly release within easy access to the goal, much like off-ice mentor Gary Roberts taught him. Toronto coach Ron Wilson said the combination of the Lightning forward’s skill, shot and modern-day stick technology could make him as lethal a weapon as the the NHL has ever seen.

“Play right in his face before he has a chance to get going,” advised Toronto coach Ron Wilson before the game. “He’s not as dynamic as Ovechkin yet, or as strong. If he is back in his own end, get close to him, so when he gets the pass and looks up, you’re only a couple of feet away. I think (Team) Canada showed that against Ovechkin: Got in his face and frustrated him and that’s the way to play guys who are talented, quick and have a good shot.”

Refreshed from a home-cooked meal at the family residence in Unionville, Stamkos improve on his nine points in seven games against the Leafs by adding a goal and an assist Thursday.

“We have to start winning some games here,” said Stamkos, whose club had dropped six of seven before Thursday. “It seems teams aren’t making good plays to beat us. We’re coughing it up and they’re putting it in the back of our net. We can only blame ourselves.”

Toronto shapes up as a rare ‘light’ opponent on the schedule for Tampa, with a cramped set of games including Washington twice, plus Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Buffalo in the mix before the next non-playoff foe, Florida, comes up March 21.

“The schedule opens up for us again in April, but we can’t worry about tomorrow,” Tocchet said.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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