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Rangers, Lightning battle early road tests

10/17/2011

It's a tough way to start the season: Five consecutive games on the road while construction is completed on the $40 million renovation of the St. Pete Times Forum. But that's what the Tampa Bay Lightning were faced with to start this season, Guy Boucher's second behind the bench.

Tampa won its season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes and then dropped the next four games in a slow start that hasn't done anything to quiet those who have suggested the Lightning's trip to the Eastern Conference finals last season won't be duplicated this year in an improved Southeast Division.

"We have to improve our play in some areas," said GM Steve Yzerman when we chatted this weekend about the slow start. "We have to tighten up as a team, our defensive play as far as coverages go as a group. But I like the work ethic the team has shown."

Tonight, the Lightning finally play their first home game. Fans will get to see the dramatic improvements pumped into the Forum by owner Jeffrey Vinik -- including a new pipe organ, party deck, suites makeover and indoor lightning -- assuming everything is finished in time.

A win against the Florida Panthers tonight would make the Lightning 2-2-2, which isn't too bad considering the early-season road trip.

"It's a satisfactory start," Yzerman said of the possibility of getting to .500 to start the season.

Remarkably, Tampa is not the last team to make a home debut, with the New York Rangers waiting until Oct. 27 to play at Madison Square Garden, which is undergoing its own renovations. John Tortorella's team is still looking for its first win of the season after losing to the New York Islanders 4-2 on Saturday in a game in which they again couldn't stay out of the penalty box. Up next is a four-game Western Canadian swing that includes games against the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.

It's another big test for a young defense that has been exposed with Marc Staal sidelined while recovering from post-concussion syndrome. Following a strong training camp that suggested a bounce-back year, Michael Del Zotto is still looking for his first points of the season. An injury to Mike Sauer meant even more of a burden placed on Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Girardi is averaging 29:31 of ice time per game so far this season, more than anybody in the league. The strain on New York's defense further highlights GM Glen Sather's questionable decision not to add one more veteran to the blue line to start the season. With Bryan McCabe and Paul Mara still available in free agency, it's not too late.

The duo of Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik is producing as expected so far, with Gaborik scoring twice in three games and Richards leading the team with three points in three games. But other than Richards and Gaborik, only Brandon Prust and Ryan Callahan have goals for the Rangers.

If things don't turn on the current road trip, all the positive momentum the Rangers produced by adding Richards in the offseason will be long gone by the home opener, if it's not already.

After Saturday's loss to the Islanders, a reporter started to suggest to Tortorella that the challenge that comes with a start in Europe and the early road trip isn't helping the cause, but the frustrated Rangers coach cut it off.

"Don't go there," Tortorella said. "There's no excuses."

Kesler closing in on return

Another team that started with a road-heavy early schedule could be getting a big boost during its first homestand of the season. The Canucks host the Rangers on Tuesday in the first of three consecutive home games for the reigning Western Conference champs. Vancouver plays five of its next six games at home to finish October, and when I presented Kesler with an over/under of Nov. 1 for his return, he said he hoped to hit the under. Kesler had hip surgery in early August and was expected to miss 10 to 12 weeks.

"I need to be pain-free and work on that reaction time," Kesler said. "I know when I'll be ready. I'm going to listen to my body, and I'm going to take as long as it needs to take. I know the team needs me; at the same time, I'm going to be hurting myself if I come back too early."

Vancouver's 4-3 win against the Oilers on Saturday put the Canucks at 2-2-1 to start the season. It's a solid start, but not one that reaches the high standards set in Vancouver.

"It's hard for me, because I think everybody knows my personality and the way I play," Kesler said. "I don't like to be sitting on the sidelines. I'm not a patient person. I usually go out and take things. I need to be patient with this, I know that. It's a big-picture thing. I'd rather be healthy for the last 10 than the first 10."

Notes

• One of the simple solutions in the often-debated NHL realignment plan is to swap the Detroit Red Wings and Jets, placing Detroit in the Southeast. It would ratchet up the competitiveness in the Southeast considerably, but Yzerman would welcome his former team, even if it would make winning the division even more challenging. "For a lot of reasons, I welcome it," Yzerman said. "For the division, it'd be good. The Red Wings draw so well on the road. You're helping teams looking to improve attendance." He also pointed out that adding a perennial Stanley Cup contender into the division may ultimately raise the performance of all the teams in the Southeast. "It would be a challenge," he said. "In the long run, the better your competition is, it forces you to get better."

• One of my favorite guilty pleasures is Bruce Garrioch's Sunday notes column in the Ottawa Sun. This week's edition came with the news that Calgary GM Jay Feaster is working hard to try to move some ugly contracts handed out by the previous regime. The most puzzling contract that has handcuffed Feaster is the four-year, $14 million extension signed by Matt Stajan. That one was almost unmovable the moment it was signed, making a trade a big challenge for Feaster.

• Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun pointed out this interesting tidbit: When you add up the salaries of the Anaheim Ducks' top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, the total comes to $15.7 million per year. When you do the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs' projected top line of Tim Connolly, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, you get $14.3 million. Leafs fans won't care about the high prices if Kessel keeps scoring the way he is now. He had two more goals Saturday night to give him five this season, tied with John Tavares and James Neal for the league-lead. Kessel, not exactly known for defense, is a plus-7.

• If Dustin Byfuglien needed a reminder that his play would be much more scrutinized with the move to Winnipeg, it came in the form of Gary Lawless' column that questioned Byfuglien's discipline and game management. Byfuglien is a minus-3 on the season and is still looking for his first points for the winless Jets.