Tampa Bay Lightning: Deja Vu for the Bolts in Game 7 of the ECF?

Bolts celebrate a win in Game 5

When the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy Center Thursday night for the right to move on to the Stanley Cup Final, it will be the second time in two years that the Bolts have faced such a challenge on the road in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Last year the Lightning had the same obstacle when they had to face the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the ECF.

The situations are very similar. Both times the Bolts had a chance to finish off their opponents at home at the Amalie Arena in Game 6. And both times the Lightning laid an egg.

So it comes down to this very important game.

Last year, the Bolts faced very daunting odds when they took on the Rangers in Game 7 in New York. The Rangers had won a Game 7 six straight times heading into their matchup against the Bolts, plus the Rangers had never lost a Game 7 in New York.

Add to that, but the Lightning would also be facing goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who also had never lost a Game 7 matchup.

But the Bolts showed the hockey world that they could beat the odds, as the Lightning shut out the Rangers 2-0. That was the second straight time that goalie Ben Bishop had shut out the Rangers in New York, as the Bolts had also won Game 5 by a score of 2-0.

In that pivotal Game 7, perhaps the Lightning’s best player on the ice was former Ranger Ryan Callahan. No. 24 had missed the first game of the series due to an emergency appendectomy and had gotten better as the series wore on.

Callahan seemed to be everywhere on the ice in the game, and his determination was evident with his excellent play. That game was reminiscent of the game Callahan played in Game 4 versus the Penguins in this series.

Ryan Callahan in Game 5

In the series versus the Rangers, not only were the contributions of Bishop and Callahan huge, so were the performances of several other players.

Tyler Johnson had a big series, as he had four goals (including a hat trick) and five assists. Ondej Palat also had four goals and three assists, while Nikita Kucherov had three goals and four assists.

Steven Stamkos was hot as well, as he had four goals and three assists, while his linemate Alex Killorn had four goals (including the Game 7 game-winner) and three assists.

This year the Bolts won’t have either Bishop or Stamkos in Game 7. Bishop has been out since Game 1 of the series after suffering a lower-body injury, while Stammer has missed the entire postseason for the Bolts due to a blood clot issue he incurred late in the regular season.

Bishop might be able to go again if the Bolts advance to the Stanley Cup Final, while the situation with Stamkos is up in the air. For Stamkos to be able to play, he must be taken off blood thinners. So far, his doctors have not given the go ahead for that to happen.

*** Update: Stamkos will indeed play. No. 91 led the Bolts in goals this season with 36, which included 14 power play goals.

Both Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman of the Bolts know all about playing in the ECF. This will be their third straight year playing in the series that can propel a team to the Stanley Cup Final. Both played with the Rangers in in the 2014 ECF versus the Montreal Canadiens, when the Rangers won in six games.

Both came to the Bolts via free agency last season to join their former teammate Callahan, as the Bolts advanced all the way to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final last year.

So, who can head coach Jon Cooper of the Lightning count on in Game 7? As the Bolts well know, it all starts at the goalie position. That is why 21-year old Andrei Vasilevskiy has to come up big in front of the net, just like Bishop did last year in Game 7.

But his defense has to help him as well. On average, Vasilevskiy is facing nearly 40 shots a game in this series. That is far too many. Defensemen like Stralman, Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Sustr, Matt Carle and Slater Koekkoek have to really help protect Vasilevskiy in the defensive zone.

Hedman has had a very good postseason overall this year (13 points), but in the last two games, he has not played well. Especially on defense at key times.

The Bolts have allowed their defensemen to help out quite a bit in the offensive zone in this series, but that does come at a risk. Especially when the Pens can  get out on a break with talented scorers like Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin ready to take advantage of a defensive miscue.

The same holds true with the talented forwards that the Bolts have. Players like Kucherov (19 points), Johnson (17 points), Killorn (13 points), Palat (10 points) and Jonathan Drouin (13 points) can all put the biscuit in the basket with the best of them, but they have to play all 200 feet of the ice. That and keep turnovers to a minimum.

To win Game 7, all of the players on the Bolts have to play with the mindset that Callahan and Boyle play with each and every game. That is, battle like crazy in the corners and on the boards for loose pucks and skate every shift as hard as you can.

So who will be the hero if there is a victory?

Nikita Kucherov

Will it be Kucherov, who is the leading candidate for the Bolts in the Conn Smythe Award sweepstakes? No. 86 always seems to score his goals at critical times, especially late in the third period. That happened again Game 5 in this series, as he tied the game late and then saw his team win in overtime on a Garrison shot he assisted on that deflected off Johnson’s rump.

Kuch also had another goal in that key game.

Johnson has also shown the ability to come up big in the postseason, both last year and this year. The problem with Johnson, and with Drouin at times, is that both players get careless with the puck at times while trying to create a scoring play.

Killorn is a player to watch as well. It was No. 17 who got the Bolts back in Game 5 when he blasted a rocket of a shot to make the score 2-1 in Game 5.

The Pens had a 3-2 lead in that game heading into the third period. Pittsburgh was 46-0 this season when they had a lead going into the final frame. The Bolts made it 46-1.

Or will someone like Callahan, Boyle or Stralman come up big in Game 7?

But maybe the biggest player for the Bolts in Game 7 , beside Vasilevskiy of course, is Hedman. If Hedman plays like he did in Game’s 5 and 6, the Bolts will most likely lose.

But if No. 77 plays like he has for the most part throughout this postseason, then the Lightning have a real opportunity to win. He’s been that good at times.

Victor Hedman

The Bolts have always had pretty good success when they play in a Game 7. The Lightning are 5-1 in Game 7s. Their only loss was to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the ECF in 2011, when the Bolts lost 1-0.

The Lightning have only allowed three goals in the six Game 7 games they have played.

By the way, one of those Game 7s was against the Penguins in Pittsburgh in 2011. Goalie Dwayne Roloson shut out the Pens 1-0 in that series-winning game. Neither Crosby (concussion) or Malkin (knee) played in that game for Pittsburgh.

Sean Bergenheim scored the only goal of the game for the Bolts.

This is the fourth time the Bolts have played in the ECF, and this is also the fourth time the series has gone seven games.

When the Bolts won the Stanley Cup in 2004, Tampa Bay defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games in the ECF.

Bottom line, the Bolts have a pretty good history of coming up big in Game 7. Will it be another case of deja vu for the Lightning this time around in Pittsburgh, similar to what occurred in New York last postseason?

If that indeed happens, than the Bolts will be taking on the San Jose Sharks on the road Monday night in Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

The Bolts Will Face Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5

Fleury vs. Callahan

The Tampa Bay Lightning will be facing the same goalie in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday night in Pittsburgh that they saw in the third period of Game 4 in Tampa.

That would be Marc-Andre Fleury, who came in for Matt Murray. Head coach Mike Sullivan of the Penguins confirmed that Fleury would be starting Game 5 this morning with reporters.

Fleury did seem to spark the Pens in that third period, as Pittsburgh scored three unanswered goals. Fleury was tested early, but no biscuits found the basket for the Bolts in the third frame. Still, the Bolts hung on to win 4-3 to even the series at 2-2.

In his career versus the Bolts, Fleury is 16-11-4, with a .903 save percentage and a GAA (goals allowed average) of 2.61. Fleury has also shut out the Lightning twice in his career, while allowing 83 career goals.

In the 2015-16 season, Fleury was 0-1-1 against the Bolts, with a .769 save percentage and a whopping 5.91 GAA, as he allowed nine goals.

Fleury has also played against the Lightning once in the postseason in 2011, when he had a 3-4 record, as the Bolts came back from a 3-1 series deficit. Fleury had a .877 save percentage and allowed 17 goals.

Sullivan is hoping that the change at goalie will again cause another spark. But based on how the Bolts have handled Fleury recently, Sullivan should be careful for what he wishes for, as the spark might go the way of the Lightning.

Tampa Bay looked much more like themselves in Game 4, thanks to the efforts and leadership of Ryan Callahan.

We shall see if that same type of play for the Lightning exhibits itself on the ice tonight in Game 5. This time against Fleury, a goalie who helped lead the Pens to a Stanley Cup title in 2009.

But that was seven years ago. In the last two seasons versus the Lightning, in four games, Fleury has allowed 14 goals. That’s a 3.50 GAA. The Bolts would take that tonight. Especially with the way Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing in front of the net for Tampa Bay in this series.

Ryan Callahan Helps the Battling Bolts Bounce Back

Ryan Callahan

Going into Game 4 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pens had a 2-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final. Just looking at the scores, the series appeared to be very close, as Pittsburgh had scored eight goals, while the Lightning had scored seven.

But the shot differential was a different story. Going into the game Friday night, the Pens had out-shot the Bolts by a whopping 124-69 margin.

The Pens obviously dominated in that category, as well as being able to force a number of ill-timed turnovers by the Lightning. Add to that, the Bolts were not coming up with the puck in the corners or the boards very often and their puck possession was definitely below their usual standards.

If the Lightning were going to change those things in Game 4, something had to give. Enter Ryan Callahan. Callahan talked to Pierre McGuire of NBCSN before the game and he acknowledged to McGuire that the Bolts had to get more physical and aggressive.

Callahan put his money where his mouth was very early in Friday night’s game. No. 24 tipped a shot by Victor Hedman just 27 seconds into the game for a goal and a 1-0 lead for Tampa Bay.

The goal by Callahan electrified the crowd at Amalie Arena, as well as his teammates.

“You heard the building,” the also physical Brian Boyle said of Callahan’s goal.

“That’s the start we needed,” head coach Jon Cooper said.

Ryan Callahan II

Callahan wasn’t done. He battled hard along the boards. He scrummed with aggression in the corners. He stood out once again on the penalty-kill team. He hit anything that moved in a Pittsburgh jersey.

Just ask Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh, who Callahan put on his keester after a hard check in the defensive zone of the Penguins. That check also forced a rare turnover by No. 71.

Or ask Trevor Daley of the Pens. Callahan hit Daley hard with a clean and legal check into the boards in the second period of the game. Daley had to be helped off the ice with a lower-body injury and was never able to come back into the game.

Callahan was a one-man wrecking crew for the Bolts.

“I go to the dirty areas,” Callahan said.

That you do, Ryan. That you do. And your teammates know it too.

“Playing against him for many years, (I’m) obviously happy to have him on (my) team now,” Hedman said. “He lays it on the line every night. That’s what you need on a winning team … just great energy.”

That energy propelled the Lightning to a 4-0 lead, as Callahan was joined by Andrej Sustr, Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Johnson in scoring a goal.

Everyone seemed to be getting involved in the scoring. Hedman, Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov all had two assists. Ondrej Palat and J.T. Brown each had one.

But it was all started by Callahan.

Ryan Callahan III

When things started to get a little frisky in the game when Kris Letang flicked a puck at Drouin after the whistle blew, Boyle went after Letang to give the proper response. As in, the Bolts will have none of that.

The Bolts had a 4-0 lead going into the third period and had out-shot the Penguins by a 30-22 margin.

Then head coach Mike Sullivan of the Pens made a goalie switch. He put in Marc-Andre Fleury in place of rookie Matt Murray. It was Fleury’s first appearance since March 31.

His appearance in the game definitely sparked the Pens, as they out-shot the Bolts by a 16-7 margin in the period and scored three unanswered goals. Still, the Bolts hung on to a 4-3 win, as goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was very impressive once again with some key saves late in the game.

Bottom line, the Bolts had evened the series at 2-2 and the Bolts had found their identity again.

The Lightning were shown who they were by Callahan and his all-around performance in the game.

“You can’t say enough about Ryan Callahan and his positive effect on our team,” Cooper said.

Callahan gets to lead by example again on Sunday night, as the Bolts take on the Pens in Game 5 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

A Scout’s Take on the Status of Mike Neal

Mike Neal

It’s now getting into late May and Mike Neal is still looking to see who his employer will be for the 2016 season in the NFL. Neal is an unrestricted free agent who has put together a pretty solid resume the past three years as a player with the Green Bay Packers.

In those three years, Neal has played in every game in each of those seasons and has averaged 39 tackles and 4.5 sacks per season as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defensive scheme the Packers utilize.

Neal started out his career in Green Bay in 2010 as a defensive end, as he was 6’3″, 294-pounds coming out of Purdue, when the Packers drafted him in the second round that year.

The former Boilermaker showed flashes of being pretty solid on the defensive line for the Packers, but due to injuries to his shoulder and his knee, only played in nine games in the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Neal was able to play in 11 games in 2012 as a defensive end and had 4.5 sacks that season. However, Neal missed the first four games of that season due to violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

But from 2013 through the 2015 seasons, Neal dropped some weight (down to 262 pounds) and moved out to outside linebacker. No. 96 has always been solid versus the run and occasionally puts pressure on the opposing quarterback.

Plus, he left behind the injury-plagued start of his career and became a player who would consistently be there for the team each and every game.

Still, the Packers looked at other options during free agency and the draft. First the team re-signed outside linebacker Nick Perry to a one-year deal and then also drafted outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell of Utah State in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft.

Adding to that, on the weekend of the draft, director of player personnel Eliot Wolf said this about Neal’s situation:

“I think it’s a priority,” Wolf said talking about adding to the defense. “Obviously with B.J. (Raji) retiring, we lost some guys up front, and Mike Neal’s moved on so it just looks like something that we addressed as need, and we’ve been able to fill it so far. Couple more picks to go.”

Later on, general manager Ted Thompson backtracked a bit talking about what Wolf had said about Neal.

“I wouldn’t characterize it like that,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of different things that can happen during the course of an off-season that would change things. So I wouldn’t be strong enough to say that.”

If the Packers have indeed moved on without Neal at outside linebacker, Green Bay still has solid depth at the position. This includes Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Perry, Jayrone Elliott, Lerentee McCray and Fackrell.

Mike Neal III

Neal recently spoke with Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel regarding his uncertain future  in a recent story.

Neal will not hold any grudges against the Packers if they do not bring him back.

“I’m not here to throw anyone under the bus,” Neal said. “I love Green Bay. They’ve started my life off great, so how can you ever be mad at that? You know what I’m saying? You can never be mad at that. That’s just a business, that’s what they choose to do. I’m in a good place. I couldn’t be in a better place.”

Neal has visited the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions, but left both places without a contract. One reason perhaps was because Neal was named in an Al Jazeera report which accused a number of players of PED use.

Neal was asked if that situation has affected his free agency status.

“I think it influenced it heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily,” Neal said. “And that’s just from meeting with other teams and hearing what other teams have to say. You have to take everything into account. If you don’t, then you’re kind of cheating yourself out of the whole ordeal.

“I think that when you look at it, out of all the people that they had reported that are playing in the NFL, who was the only one that was a free agent? It was me. You know what I’m saying? You don’t see guys getting cut or anything like that because they’ve already signed a contract.

“I was the only one hitting the free-agent market out of that group of guys. I think that that affected it because most teams wonder what is the league’s position on everything. To be quite honest with you, I would never even know. Never once have I been contacted by the NFL about anything, about what’s going on. Not once.”

Mike Neal II

Knowing that Neal lives in the Tampa area in the offseason and also that the Tampa Bay Bucs are looking to add some depth along the defensive Front 7, I wanted to talk to NFL scout Chris Landry about the current situation with Neal.

I was able to talk with Landry on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig show on Wednesday. As I asked Landry about Neal, I mentioned that he was solid versus the run and that to me, Neal was more a 4-3 defensive lineman, as opposed to a 3-4 outside linebacker. I also mentioned that the Bucs have a need for some quality depth on their defensive front.

“I think he’s a really good run-defender,” Landry said. “High motor. I think he’s a good player. I agree with you. I think he’s a good rotational guy. He doesn’t give you a lot in the pass rush, which hurts him.

“But I definitely think he’s got a place in the league. If the Bucs aren’t interested, he’ll find a home. They have certainly done some things to improve their defensive front in Green Bay, so he may get caught out in the wash.”

Tampa Bay Lightning: Sweet Memories of the Stanley Cup

Dave Andreychuk with Lord Stanley

The Tampa Bay Lightning are once again on the doorstep of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, as they will host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena Wednesday night.

The series is tied 1-1 heading into this very important game. If the Bolts can win the series, they will advance to their second straight Stanley Cup Final. In the 2015 final, the Bolts were defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

Had the Bolts been healthy last year, it might have been a different story. Goalie Ben Bishop suffered a groin tear in Game 2 of the series and missed part of that game, one entire game completely and played hurt the rest of the series.

Bishop had been outstanding in the playoffs last season, as he had shut out both the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers in a pivotal Game 7 situation when the Bolts faced them earlier in the postseason.

Even with his groin injury, Bishop still had a 2.2 GAA (goals against average) and had a .919 save percentage versus the Blackhawks.

Center Tyler Johnson, who was a Conn Smythe Trophy contender heading into the series due to his excellent play in the previous three matchups, broke a wrist early in the series with the Blackhawks.

Coming into the final, Johnson had 12 goals and nine assists. Versus the Hawks and after his wrist injury, Johnson had just one goal and one assist.

The Bolts also know something about the injury bug this postseason, as center Steven Stamkos has not been able to play due to a blood clot. The good news is that Stammer appears to be getting closer to playing.

Defensemen Anton Stralman finally was able to play in his first game of the postseason in Game 2 in Pittsbugh, after breaking a leg late in the season. Stralman contributed a goal in his first game back.

Anton Stralman getting congratulated

Bishop also suffered a lower-leg injury in Game 1 versus the Penguins, but he also looks to be back at some point, which is very surprising based on how bad the injury looked and because he was stretchered off the ice.

The 2016 Lightning have been a very resilient bunch and I like their chances of advancing to the final for another chance at winning Lord Stanley. Just like they did in 2004.

Which takes me to a story I wrote, which was first published by JoeBoltsFan.com when it was still in existence and then later by Bleacher Report when I wrote for the site.

I am re-posting the story again here:

The Stanley Cup run in 2004 was something truly unforgettable. I was fortunate enough to go to one game in each playoff series in that run, and the Bolts won each time I was there.

The Islanders
The Lightning started their trek to Lord Stanley by facing the New York Islanders in the first series. The Bolts had a 3-1 series lead as they played Game 5 at the St. Pete Times Forum. I was there with a couple of buddies and the Lightning had a chance to clinch the series. Nicolai Khabibulin had been terrific in goal all series long, as he had three shutouts going entering the game.
Game five went to overtime, and Marty St. Louis was “Mr. Clutch” again and won the game with a fairly long slap shot from the left side. The crowd went wild. It was great to be there as the teams did the handshakes at the end of the game, which is a custom in the NHL after a playoff series ends.

The Canadiens
Thanks to my friends at 620 WDAE, The Sports Animal, I had tickets to Game 1 of the next series vs. the Montreal Canadiens. My most vivid memory before the game was a couple of mouthy Montreal fans who kept telling anyone that would listen that Bolts fans did not know hockey and that they were the resident experts.

Vinny Lecavalier
The Lightning ended up winning Game 1 as Vinny Lecavalier had two goals and an assist in a 4-0 whitewash. My buddy and I saw the same two mouthy Canadian fans after the game in the plaza, but they were hightailing out of there in a hurry. We also ran into another obnoxious Canadiens fan a little later, but after I told him to “Shut your yap” John Tortorella style (okay, there were other colorful words used), the guy meekly went away.
The Lightning ended up sweeping the Habs four games to zip in the series, including a fantastic finish in Game 3 in Montreal, when Vinny Lecavalier scored his fifth goal of the series with 16.5 seconds left to force overtime. Brad Richards then won it in overtime to shock the crowd as the Bolts won 4-3. The Bolts then finished off the Habs 3-1 two nights later.

The Flyers
The next series was against the tough Philadelphia Flyers for the Eastern Conference crown and the right to play for the Stanley Cup. I went to Game 1 with friends, all big Lightning fans, but a couple were former Flyers fans, ironically. As one expected, the Flyers fans in attendance at the Forum were loud and obnoxious, but the Bolts and their fans had the last laugh as the Lightning won 3-1.
The rest of the series was a knock-down, drag-out type of war. The Flyers were led by Keith Primeau. Richards paced the Bolts with two game-winning goals in the series. The Lightning ended up winning in seven games, after an excruciating loss in Game 6 at Philly, losing 5-4 in OT, in a game the Bolts should have won.
The Lightning came back to win game seven at the Forum by a score of 2-1 as Khabibulin was brilliant again. The Lightning now would be playing for the Stanley Cup championship.

The Stanley Cup
The Bolts’ opponent was the tough Calgary Flames, who were lead by Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. But nothing was easy in this series, as the Bolts lost game one at home 4-1, but bounced back to win by the same score as Khabby was excellent, and Richards played lights out again.
Kiprusoff shut out the Bolts 3-0 in Game 3 and the Lightning had their backs to the wall going into Game 4. But once again, Khabibulin was phenomenal, as the Bolts won 1-0 as Richards again scored the game winning goal. Also, this game also had the moment when Lecavalier had his head rammed into the side glass by Calgary’s Ville Nieminen.
That win set up Game 5 at the Forum. However, the Bolts lost 3-2 in OT, sending the Lightning to Calgary in a do-or-die situation behind three games to two. Game 6 was one of the greatest hockey games I ever saw. The Lightning ended up winning 3-2 in the second overtime, as Richards had two goals in the game, but it was St. Louis that hit the game winner in the second overtime to set up Game 7 at the Forum in Tampa.

Ruslan Fedotenko

A friend of mine was able to get his hands on some very pricey tickets for game seven, as two friends and I went to the game. As I sometimes do, I called Steve Duemig on his show on WDAE on the way to the game. Steve and I discussed the keys to the game, and that’s when I had my Nostradamus moment. For some reason, I said Ruslan Fedotenko would have a big night.
Fedotenko did have a big night, as he scored the Bolts only two goals in a 2-1 victory over the Flames. Khabby was brilliant yet again, and Richie ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. But the biggest prize was seeing the Bolts win the Stanley Cup and lifting the trophy high in the air and passing it from teammate to teammate.
Dave Andreychuk was the first to get Lord Stanley, as he had just won his first Stanley Cup after 22 years in the NHL. Then everyone else got their chance.  Vinny, Richie, Marty, Khabby, Fedotenko, Dan Boyle, Fredrik Modin, Tim Taylor, Darryl Sydor and all the other members of the team all got to lift Lord Stanley and skate around.  The crowd erupted when coach John Tortorella lifted the Cup.

That game had to be the biggest sports moment of my life, as I was there to witness the event in person. I have seen similar things in football and in baseball, but actually being there for a championship game, and being at home, made it so special. I was fortunate to be one of the 22,717 that night at the Forum.
The journey for Lord Stanley started on April 8, as the Bolts played their first playoff game against the Islanders. But the journey didn’t end until the Bolts had won 16 playoff games, including the last one for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup on June 7. It was a two month ordeal. Some say the most difficult obstacle in all of sports.
I will always treasure the memory.

The Tampa Bay Lightning: Resilient, Committed and Competitive

Brian Boyle

Brian Boyle scores the game-winning overtime goal in Game 3 vs. the New York Islanders

After the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the New York Islanders 4-0 in Game 5 to clinch that second-round series, Pierre McGuire of NBC Sports spoke with winger Brian Boyle of the Bolts, who had scored a goal in the victory.

McGuire asked Boyle to describe the characteristics of the Lightning.

“We’re a pretty resilient team,” Boyle said. “We’re a pretty committed team and we want to win. We’re competitive. It starts with those three and everything falls in place.”

Boyle should know. It was Boyle who had the game-winning overtime goal in the 5-4 victory by the Bolts in Game 3 in Brooklyn. This was after he put a resounding legal hit on Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey with his shoulder. After the hit on Hickey, Boyle rushed towards the net and won the game just seconds later.

Hickey was in Boyle’s sites for a reason. Earlier in Game 3, Hickey had leveled Jonathan Drouin with a thunderous (but legal) hit that forced Drouin from the game for over a period.

In Game 2, Hickey had also gone after the knees of Alex Killorn late in the game with the Bolts well ahead in the score.

Plus, Hickey had elbowed Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman in the head late in the season which forced Hedman to miss some games.

Boyle knows that the Lightning can’t afford to see players like Drouin, Killorn and Hedman be off the ice due to injuries. The Bolts have already had to play without key players like center Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and defenseman Anton Stralman (broken leg) through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Superb fourth-line winger J.T. Brown also has missed almost all the postseason action as well, after suffering an upper-body injury early in the first-round series versus the Detroit Red Wings.

Still, the Lightning were able to defeat both the Red Wings and the Islanders in five games in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Why? Almost everyone has played a key role. Tyler Johnson has chipped in 13 points to lead the team. Nikita Kucherov has 12 points, including a team-leading nine goals. Hedman and Killorn each have nine points.

The new wave triplets of Johnson, Kucherov and Killorn have been magnificent, not only in points, but in overall play. Johnson and Kucherov are both +11, while Killorn is +10.

Hedman has been tremendous on both sides of the ice, as he is averaging 27:30 minutes a game. Hedman had two goals in the Game 5 clincher versus the Islanders at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop

Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop

But a hockey team is only as good as it’s goalie, and the Lightning are no different. Ben Bishop has been truly splendid in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Big Ben is 8-2 and has a 1.89 GAA (goals allowed average). Bishop also has a save percentage of .938 and has two shutouts (both in series-clinching games) to his credit thus far this postseason.

It’s no wonder that Bishop, Hedman, Kucherov and Johnson have had their names mentioned in the conversation about who may win the Conn Smythe Trophy this year.

Plus there have been contributions by players like Boyle, Ryan Callahan,  Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula  and defenseman Jason Garrison, who had the game-winning overtime goal in Game 4 versus the Islanders.

The Lightning will face a huge test in the Eastern Conference Final versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins were the hottest team in the NHL down the stretch in the regular season and have made it through their first two rounds as well, including defeating the Washington Capitals in the second round in six games. The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best record in the NHL.

Like the Lightning, the Penguins skate fast and have multiple weapons. This includes players like Sidney Crosby, Evgini Malkin and Phil Kessel. Pittsburgh also brings the best power play in the NHL to the ice. The Penguins were 11-for-40 in the first two rounds with their power play.

The Penguins also have a rookie goalie in Matt Murray, who is playing like he is definitely not a rookie. Murray is 7-2 and has a 2.05 GAA. Murray also has a .935 save percentage and has one shutout.

Bottom line, when the series versus the Penguins starts on Friday night in Pittsburgh, the Lightning will have to be at their best.

It won’t hurt the team if they can have back some of their walking wounded in the series either. Both Stralman and Brown took part in their first full team practices on Wednesday since getting hurt.

Stamkos continued to practice in a red non-contact jersey on Wednesday and is still on blood thinners.

“I feel like I can play,” Stamkos told reporters. “It’s just (getting the) word now.”

Time will tell on whether Stralman, Brown or Stamkos will be back anytime soon. Until then, the Bolts will have to play the same way they did in the first two rounds, when they go up against the Penguins for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Final.

That would be playing resilient, committed and competitive hockey. If those three things happen, just like Boyle said, the victories will follow.

A Scout’s Take on the NFL Draft Preparation for the Packers and Other Teams

Ted Thompson 2016 Combine

Last week, the Green Bay Packers completed their 12th NFL draft with Ted Thompson running things in the front office.

I did a couple of stories on the aftermath of the 2016 NFL draft for the Packers. First I did a piece on the first three picks by the Green Bay in the draft, and then I also wrote an article about recapping Day 3 of the draft for the Packers.

In 2005, when Thompson was given full authority over football operations by then Packers CEO Bob Harlan, Thompson started his drafting tenure with a bang, as he selected quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick of the 2005 NFL draft.

Rodgers has certainly made that selection look very good, as he has become the highest-rated passer in NFL history, along with winning two NFL MVP awards, as well as being MVP of Super Bowl XLV.

Since then, there have been some other very good picks by Thompson and his scouting staff. There have also been a few picks that haven’t worked out to well. First round selections like defensive tackle Justin Harrell in 2007 and offensive tackle Derek Sherrod in 2011 come to mind.

But all in all, Thompson and his staff have done a very good job supplementing the roster of the Packers through the draft. In fact, the Packers are the poster child of the NFL in terms of being a draft-and-develop team.

Since the hiring of head coach Mike McCarthy, which occurred in 2006, the Packers have gone 104-55-1 during the regular season (.653 winning percentage) and have won five NFC North titles. The Packers have also been to the postseason eight times in McCarthy’s ten years in Green Bay, which includes seven straight times now.

The Packers have been 8-7 in the postseason under McCarthy, which includes three appearances in the NFC Championship Game, as well as a victory in Super Bowl XLV.

As one looks at the current roster of the Packers, there are 43 players on it who have been drafted by Green Bay. That is almost unheard of in the NFL for the most part.

Scouting college prospects is a lengthy routine. The Packers have 16 people in their scouting department. Some scouts focus on NFL players on other teams, while others focus strictly on college prospects.

Just prior to the 2016 NFL draft, Thompson talked about what it’s like to have a meeting with the various scouts on the team.

“It’s good. It’s not always comfortable because there are disagreements where people, rightfully so, think differently. They’re paid to do so. They’re encouraged by everybody, myself included, to make sure their voices are heard. … You still want to have the passion and energy to stand on the table and say, ‘This is what we need to do, and this is the reason we need to do it,’ Thompson said.

Thompson learned the ropes on scouting from Ron Wolf, when he was brought into the Green Bay organization 1992. Ironically, Ron’s son Eliot, is now the is director of football operations under Thompson with the Packers.

Eliot and Ron Wolf

I wanted to get an in-depth look at how this scouting process works in terms of looking at college prospects.

To me, there is nobody who could shed better information on how this evaluation method works than NFL scout Chris Landry.

Landry is one of the best in the business, as he served as both a pro and college scout for the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans, while also serving as the Coordinator of their Scouting department.

Landry was also selected to serve as the Coordinator of the NFL Scouting Combine in 1993 where he oversaw the selection and operation process of the top draft prospects.

Chris began his NFL career with the Cleveland Browns working on the coaching staff as well as in both pro personnel and college scouting.

Landry began his coaching career as a student assistant at LSU in the mid 1980’s, working his way up to a full time position before being hired by Bill Belichick and the Browns in 1992.

Currently, Landry operates his own coaching and scouting consulting business serving both NFL organizations and college football programs.

Anyway, I had a chance to talk with Landry this past Wednesday on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show. I wanted his take on how this whole process works in terms of NFL teams scouting college prospects.

“Here’s how it works,” Landry said. “The first meetings in December are different than the meetings you have in the spring. Here’s why. Most teams now have 10 scouts and they break it down into regions. So your area scout will report on a player. We have what we call a cross-checker.

“We’ll take the west coast guy or the midwest guy and we’ll cross them at the midpoint of the season. So you have two eyes on every player that you have a grade on that you have deemed draftable. You start out with a list by either Blesto or National and you go into every school accordingly and you do all your work on that.

“Then you have regional scout, a national scout or a college scouting director, or in case like in Green Bay, Ted Thompson is out on the road a lot. So he will have a scouting report on the top 100 or so players. So you have a number of people and you’ll individually read their reports and put them up on the board.

“That’s when the coaches become involved, as they go to the all-star games and the combine. When you have the spring meetings, you’ve already set your board pretty much. What you are doing is updating any information. The coaches give their reports, as this is the first time they have had a chance to evaluate the players.

“You will also, after everyone had read the reports at the meetings, you will put up tape. You have what is called a profile tape for 40 to 50 players, with cutups of the player, so everyone can see and get a visual. Somebody that is outside the area (of the player) will get to see them.

“Basically it’s a way to make sure you have everyone up on the board. Once you set your board up, if you have a discrepancy about a player, like the coaches like him a lot more than this guy, then what you do is take all those guys and take game film and as a staff you look at them and you hash it out. Like what are you seeing that I’m not seeing.

“That’s ultimately in a short quick way in a long process that you get your draft board set. Then you determine how you put your board together and where you put the value on the players.”

Bottom line, with the Packers under Thompson, drafting a player is the most important aspect of building the roster of the team.

Because of some excellent insight from Landry, you can see how this long and drawn-out process unfolds for the Packers and other teams in the NFL.

Recapping Day 3 of the 2016 NFL Draft for the Green Bay Packers

Jerry announcing the pick

According to NFL scout Chris Landry, the Green Bay Packers did quite well for themselves on the first two days of the 2016 NFL draft. I wrote an article about that on Saturday before Day 3 of the draft.

I had a chance to talk with legendary guard Jerry Kramer of the Packers a couple of hours before the draft began on the final day of the draft. Kramer was in Green Bay, along with former Packers great Dave Robinson, to announce the selections that the team made in the 4th and 5th rounds of the draft in Vince Lombardi’s “office” in the Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field.

Kramer asked me if I had any insight about what the Packers might do on Day 3. The first thing I told Jerry was that I expected the Packers to select an inside linebacker. I also said that I thought the Packers would add one more offensive lineman and one more defensive lineman.

I said that football games are won in the trenches more times than not. Nobody knows this better than No. 64. After all, Kramer was part of five NFL championship teams in Green Bay, plus was named as the only guard on the NFL’s 50th anniversary first-team.

In the 1967 NFL Championship Game (better known as the “Ice Bowl”) versus the Dallas Cowboys at frigid Lambeau Field, Kramer made the most famous block in the history of the NFL.

It all came down to 13 seconds to go with no timeouts at the 1-yard line of the Cowboys. The Packers could have kicked a field goal at that point to tie the game at 17-17.

But coach Lombardi decided to go for the win. If the Packers run the ball and are stopped short of the end zone, the game is over.

Bart Starr called a 31-wedge play in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, Starr decided to keep the ball after conferring with Lombardi on the sideline about the play.

Starr thought it would be better to try to get into the end zone himself due to the slippery and icy conditions near the goal line. He followed Kramer’s classic block on Jethro Pugh and found a hole behind No. 64 to score the winning touchdown.

Kramer was also a huge part of the signature play of the Lombardi Packers. The play was the power sweep. The opposing defenses knew the play was coming, but there was little they could do about it.

Kramer, along with Fuzzy Thurston and later Gale Gillingham, would pull either left or right and create gaping holes for the running backs, as they would venture out in the open field and knock over linebackers and defensive backs.

A lot of the games that the Packers won in those days were won because of the stellar play at the line of scrimmage, by both the offensive and defensive lines of the Packers.

That is also why defensive end Willie Davis, defensive tackle Henry Jordan, center Jim Ringo and offensive tackle Forrest Gregg are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There is absolutely no question that Kramer deserves to have a place in Canton besides his teammates.

It’s true that players like Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Wood and Robinson received most of the headlines on those great Green Bay teams, but it was the play inside the trenches which created the opportunities for a lot of those big moments.

Back to the draft. It was somewhat coincidental that the first player who the Packers drafted in Round 4 was inside linebacker Blake Martinez of Stanford. Kramer did a splendid job in announcing the 131st pick of the draft, which was a compensatory pick for Green Bay.

Blake Martinez

Blake Martinez of Stanford

Martinez was certainly the best option the Packers had in selecting an inside linebacker at that point of the draft, especially after Joe Schobert of Wisconsin and Joshua Perry of Ohio State had been picked earlier in the 4th round.

The 6’2″, 237-pound Martinez had been a two-year starter for the Cardinal. In those two years, Martinez had 243 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, 12 passes defended and had five picks.

In 2014, Martinez was named honorable mention in the Pac-12 at linebacker, while in 2015 was named first-team All-Pac-12.

Landry said this about Martinez in part of his scouting report on the former Stanford star:

Quick reacting and instinctive, he finds the ball. Physical at the point of attack. Good hand use, able to stack at the point. Good ability to shed blocks. Solid tackler. Reads pass well, gets depth with his drops. Keeps good position, has good receiver awareness.

Martinez ran a 4.71 in the 40-yard dash as the NFL Scouting Combine, but he improved that mark to 4.67 at his pro day.

With the second compensatory pick the Packers had in Round 4, the 137th pick of the draft, Green Bay selected defensive end Dean Lowry of Northwestern. Kramer also announced that pick for the Packers.

The 6’6″, 296-pound Lowry had a very solid career for the Wildcats as a three-year starter. In his career at Northwestern, Lowry had 134 tackles, 31.5 tackles for a loss, 12.5 sacks, 21 passes deflected, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Dean Lowry

Dean Lowry of Northwestern

Lowry has the prototypical size desired to play defensive end in the 3-4 defensive scheme that the Packers utilize. Lowry was also named second-team All-Big Ten in 2015.

At the combine, Lowry ran a 4.87 40-yard dash, plus had 30 reps in the bench press drill.

This is part of the scouting report Landry did on Lowry:

Very good height with the frame to get to 295+. High motor. Quick to key and diagnose. Has strength and power at the point. Good hand use, can shed. Takes good pursuit angles. Flashes as a pass rusher. Top competitor. Might not have the best natural tools, but he gives you everything he has. He is instinctive and technique-sound. Is best suited to play defensive end in a three-man front.

In the 5th round, the Packers selected wide receiver/kick returner Trevor Davis of California with the 163rd pick of the draft. Robinson announced the selection.

The 6’1″, 189-pound Davis really opened some eyes due to his great performance at the combine.

Trevor Davis

Trevor Davis of Cal

At the combine, Davis ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash (third-best among receivers), plus leaped an outstanding 38.5 inches in the vertical jump. Davis also did an outstanding job in all of the drills, especially catching and tracking the football.

When the Packers worked out Davis themselves, he was timed in the mid-4.3 range in the 40.

Davis originally played at Hawaii in 2011 and 2012 and had 45 catches for 601 yards. He then transferred to Cal and redshirted in the 2013 season.

In 23 games including 11 starts with the Bears in 2014 and 2015, Davis had 1,071 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on 64 catches. He also had 1,110 return yards on 45 kick returns. He also returned punts as well, as he had 115 yards on 14 returns.

The Packers are always looking for more big play options, especially if the player can help quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense.

“Any time you can get a weapon in the fifth round, you have to try and do that,” said Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf. “He was still sitting there on the board and we were fortunate enough to pick him.”

Wolf also talked about how the Packers may utilize Davis offensively.

“He ran a lot of bubble screens there for Cal and took some pretty big hits in there. And pretty good after the catch as well,” said Wolf. “A lot of the guys we’ve had in the past have been returners in college and those guys are always better at the YAC, and that’s something that we look for.”

In the sixth round, with the 200th selection in the draft, the Packers picked offensive tackle Kyle Murphy of Stanford. I had the Packers selecting Murphy in my final mock draft, but I had the team taking him earlier in the draft.

Kyle Murphy

Kyle Murphy of Stanford

The 6’6″, 305-pound Murphy started at both left and right tackle for the Cardinal. He was named first team All-Pac-12 in 2015 at left tackle and second team All-Pac-12 in 2014 at right tackle.

Landry had Murphy ranked at No. 97 on his horizontal draft board, but the former Stanford star lasted until to pick No. 200. That’s what I call excellent value. This is what Landry said about Murphy in his scouting report:

A former five-star recruit, Murphy was named to the All- Pac-12 first team in 2015. He was a third-team All American. He is a solid football player who does everything very well. He had 34 career starts at Stanford, including all 27 his junior and senior seasons. He can get off the ball quickly, has explosiveness on contact, gets movement with run blocks and gets and keeps good position in pass protection. He plays with a natural bend and can anchor. Murphy is athletic enough to pull and play in space. He just needs to get a little bigger and stronger.

Bottom line, it sure appears that Ted Thompson and company did another fine job on Day 3 of the 2016 NFL draft in adding some talent to the team that Mike McCarthy and his staff will coach in 2016 and beyond.