Following an opening weekend home-and-home, back-to-back set against the Florida Panthers, the Tampa Bay Lightning were forced to re-examine what they were doing defensively and re-evaluate why they were giving up so many scoring chances.
Florida scored eight goals over the opening two games of the season against the Lightning and had countless more scoring chances. The only reason the Lightning were able to garner two points from both games was the outstanding play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Since then, the Bolts have, little by little, improved defensively and drastically reduced the number of quality chances allowed.
"We obviously weren't too happy with the way we played the first two games against (Florida)," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We felt like we stole two points out of that two-game series. We kind of went back to the drawing board and went over a lot of stuff and since then our record's been tremendous. But the way we've been playing is very satisfying. That's what we want to keep building on. It's a long season. You're going to have your ups and downs, but if you can lean back on playing good defensively and knowing what to do in your own end, it's going to help you win a lot of hockey games."
That improvement continued Monday in Sunrise, despite giving up five goals to the Panthers in an 8-5 victory. Florida registered just 23 shots on goal in the loss. Two nights earlier, Anaheim put up only 21 shots, the fewest the Bolts have allowed this season.
The scoring chances too have been going way down of last.
"(The scoring chances) were right in the range we like to see," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said of Monday's defensive effort. "The goals against were not what we like to see, but that's going to happen in games. But if we can limit a team to the chances like that every night, we'll be in pretty good shape."
Vasilevskiy, who's won nine-straight starts and can set a Lightning all-time record for consecutive victories in decisions with a win in his next start, also sees the defense in front of him getting better with each outing.
"Maybe the first couple of games we were a little bit shaky, but I think the last five, six games, we've played very well defensively," Vasilevskiy said. "And it's been huge getting the goal support."
LINE SHUFFLE: During Wednesday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum, the Lightning switched up their forward lines a bit, moving Tyler Johnson between Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan on the third line and going with a fourth line of Alex Killorn, Gabriel Dumont and J.T. Brown
Part of the reasoning for the move could be attributed to the play lately of Dumont and Brown, who have been rotating in and out of the lineup and each finding success.
Another reason could be the Bolts' offensive explosion in Sunrise after going with a 12 forward/6 defensemen lineup for the first time since the start of the season.
Or, the line shuffle could just be a temporary wrinkle in practice.
"As a coach and as a staff, we never stop trying to make the team better or see what chemistry might work," Cooper said. "Put players in better positions to succeed, that's what you're always trying to do that's going to help us win. Nothing's set in stone, but that's how we went today."
GIRARDI FITTING IN: After practice, Hedman was asked how well defenseman Dan Girardi has assimilated into his new team.
Hedman's face lit up.
"Great guy, great teammate," Hedman said. "Plays with his heart out there. Blocks tons of shots. Tough to play against and a great guy to have in the locker room. He's been a great addition for us."
Girardi has been the Bolts' best shot blocker this season, which is no surprise considering he leads the NHL in that category since coming into the league during the 2006-07 season. He skated in his 800th career NHL game in Saturday's 4-1 home loss to Anaheim.
Cooper said after last season, the Lightning were searching for specific players who could add a number of elements the Bolts were missing.
Girardi was one guy that could give them a little bit of everything.
"Our penalty kill was a little inconsistent last year," Cooper said. "We wanted somebody on the back end that can help with that. Check that box off. Looking for somebody that's been in the league, knows the players: Check that box off. Somebody that's a proven leader in the room, team guy: Check that box off. And then you're looking at Dan Girardi, and that's what he's done for us and we couldn't be happier to have him."
ICE CHIPS: Tampa Bay's second line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde has developed great chemistry early because, as Cooper explained, they never give up on a play and they're all highly-skilled players. "They've been an exceptional line," Cooper said… Vasilevskiy said Monday's 8-5 win at Florida was his toughest game of the season despite collecting his league-best 10th win. "(The Panthers) didn't shoot very much, just they're good players and they had a couple opportunities and they scored on them," Vasilevskiy said. "It's a tough game for a goalie, but guys played really well and gave me huge goal support. So that's why we won." Cooper was asked what his kids dressed up as for Halloween. "I don't want to even answer that because my son went as me," he laughed. "That was tough to walk around and watch little mini-me wheeling around, it was kind of funny." Jonathan Cooper wore a suit, chewed gum relentlessly like his hockey-coaching dad does famously and even had a fathead cutout of his father's face to complete the look.