In a lopsided March 23 loss to the Ottawa Senators, head coach Jon Cooper and Steven Stamkos said the Tampa Bay Lightning learned “tough lessons.” After a much better effort in the following game against the Boston Bruins on Saturday, the Lightning took note of those lessons, playing a complete game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday for a 4-0 win.
After losing their last four, for a 4-5-1 record in their last ten games, the Lightning needed to focus on what Cooper and the coaching staff have emphasized as areas of concern for the team to get back on track. The Lightning focused on the message and played the most efficient game in recent memory against the Hurricanes. “We’ve played the two best teams in the east the last couple of days,” Cooper said after the game. “I thought we took some steps forward, and I thought the guys got rewarded tonight for how they played.”
Playing “Lightning” Hockey
When the Lightning have played their best in past seasons, they have been the ones to dictate play, not their opponents. This has not happened in recent weeks, culminating in a lopsided loss to the Senators, that had Cooper saying, “They love to play off the rush, and we talked about it at length before the game. Just don’t feed their rush. And what did we do? We fed their rush. That was it.”
“Lighting hockey” involves a tight-checking style that minimizes mistakes and capitalizes on their opponent’s miscues before they shut them down completely in the third period. In these games, they limit shots and attempts against and maintain possession. They did that against the Hurricanes, whose 31 shots on goal didn’t give goalie Andre Vasilevskiy much concern, as the Lightning did very well in limiting high-danger chances.
Lightning Must Play Physically, But Smart
After the loss to the Senators, the Lighting came out against the Bruins with some edge to their game. While the increased physical play and energy did not result in a win, they did much better with their tight-checking, shot-blocking, and physical style, leading to so much recent success. This effort also helped create a short-handed goal from Victor Hedman – the first short-handed of his career. Hopefully, this will provide a spark for the former Norris Trophy winner to become more productive in the offensive zone.
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The Lightning have been among the league leaders in penalty minutes for the past few years. The excess in penalties has resulted in the team spending too much time on the penalty kill, such as in the first period against the Bruins. In this game, multiple penalties kept Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point on the bench for most of the early portion of the first period, disrupting any chance for the team to gain any offensive rhythm. In defeating the Hurricanes, the Lightning played their tight-checking, physical style without taking unnecessary penalties, which was the main reason they won.
Bolts Must Limit Turnovers
When they struggle, an issue for the Lightning is that they have been careless with the puck, leading to many turnovers. After only 482 giveaways in 2021-22, they have already amassed 702 turnovers this season, which has resulted in too many odd-man rushes and high-danger scoring chances. Their sloppy play has also led the Lightning to give up 11 short-handed goals, which is the third most in the league. No matter how good Vasilevskiy is, no goaltender can play his best when the team is not playing well in front of him.
Against both the Bruins and the Hurricanes, the Lightning minimized their turnovers. This drastically reduced the number of high-danger chances against, allowing the Lightning to stay competitive in both contests. “We didn’t give them many chances,” Cooper said after the victory over the Hurricanes. “That was the big thing for us. It is all about defending your net. That’s how we’ve got to play if we want to do anything, you know, in the spring.”
Fatigue might also be a factor in the Lightning’s poor play recently. Their 27 games played over the course of 49 days since the All-Star break, are tied for the most in the league. That includes six sets of back-to-backs, going 0-4-2 in the second half of those sets. Since Feb. 6, the Lightning are 11-11-5, which ranks 22nd in the NHL over that span. The two days off before the Hurricanes game was the most time off they’ve had between games in over a month.
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Going into the playoffs on a hot streak is not always a guarantee that a team will go far. After all, the Colorado Avalanche lost six of their last seven regular-season games before winning the Cup last season. With the Lightning, they needed to regain their identity before the playoffs started in order to give them the best chance for a deep playoff run. After Thursday’s win, they may have just done just that.