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As playoffs near, goals dry up around the league

With the Lightning working to tighten up defensively in preparation for the playoffs, their goal scoring numbers have dipped

by Bryan Burns /

Over the last four games, the Tampa Bay Lightning have scored a combined seven goals, a 1.75 goals per game average that falls well below the 3.83 benchmark they've established this season.

Take out a 6-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks on January 19, and the Lightning have netted just 12 goals over their last seven games.

So what gives?

Have the Lightning lost their scoring punch? A team that was netting goals at a historic pace early in the season suddenly forgot how to put the puck in the back of the net?

Not exactly.

There are a couple reasons why goals have been hard to come by of late for the Lightning. Time of year, for one, dictates the drought. Points are at a premium as teams jockey for playoff positioning. Which means opponents are paying more attention to their end of the net and keeping the Bolts from reaching it.

Video: Gourde on late season intensity

"Every team checks at this point of the year," Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said. "Every team has a great system and they are good in their system because they've been playing it and been in that system for a while. Every team is getting better and tightening things up and games really count this time of year. It really matters in the standings. Nobody wants to leave points on the table. Everybody wants to battle for every single puck, every single inch on the ice. It's much tighter and the intensity just goes higher."

Two, the Lightning themselves are tightening up their own end. Tampa Bay coaches made a concerted effort when the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019 to clean up the team's play in the defensive zone. The Lightning hovered around the middle of the NHL for goals against at the season's midpoint. The coaches want to be in the top ten in the league for goals against. So, the Bolts have been focusing on that aspect of their game, something their lead in the standings has afforded them the opportunity to do.

"I think the big improvement's been the amount of goals we've been giving up and the amount of chances against," Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said. "So, as we come down the stretch here, the more we can tighten up in our own end, I think the better off we're going to be. Some might say is there a correlation we haven't scored as much. I don't think so. We've played some pretty good teams that are top of the list in D zone coverage, i.e. Vegas, the Islanders. When you're playing those teams that play D, you've got to kind of match them, but I think we've done a pretty good job of that so far and I just like the way we've been playing in our own end."

The numbers support Cooper. Tampa Bay is allowing 2.79 goals per game currently, good for a sixth-place tie in the NHL, a noticeable improvement over where the team was early in the season. When combined with the 3.83 goals per game the Lightning are scoring, that combination is a pretty tough proposition for opponents to overcome.

Tampa Bay is one of two teams in the NHL ranking in the top six for both goals scored per game and goals against. The other, Winnipeg, is tied with the Lightning for sixth for goals against and ranks fifth for goals a game at 3.49.

Not surprisingly, the Jets are also one of the top teams in the League standings, sitting in third place.

Video: Cooper on the teams 5 on 5 play

"When you get down the stretch here, these last 30 games are a really important piece of the season for every team, for us to maintain that lead we have in our division and also to just really pay attention to the finer details of the game and get tuned up for what's coming next," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who is celebrating his 29th birthday today. "You want to be playing your best hockey at this time of the year and moving forward. We have tightened things up defensively for sure. We'd like to collectively continue to do that and keep winning games. That's our goal down the stretch."

How do the Lightning continue to improve defensively and get that goals against number even lower?
"Well, it's attention to details in not only the defensive zone which is obvious in terms of being in the right spots and checking and making smarter decisions with the puck, but it's our plays in the neutral zone and offensive zone that sometimes fuel the other team's transition," Stamkos answered. "Obviously have the skill set to make a lot of great plays but it's just when is it appropriate to make those plays, situational awareness like we talked about last game. It's little things like that. It's also little things like face-offs. What are your assignments on face-offs? When you crack it down to the finer details, I think those are the teams that find a way at the end that can really almost master those parts of the game."

The Bolts will continue working to improve those finer details of the game when they host the St. Louis Blues tonight at AMALIE Arena (7:30 p.m. puck drop).

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