Since coming out of the bye week, the Tampa Bay Lightning have given up just 18 goals over eight contests, an average of 2.25 goals allowed per game, well below their 2.77 average for the season.
The Lightning were a middle-of-the-road team defensively when the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019 but now rank fifth in the NHL for goals against because of the attention they've paid of late to that side of the puck. Combined with their season-long scoring prowess - the Bolts have topped the League for goals and average goals per game for nearly the duration - Tampa Bay has been able to build its lead in the NHL standings because of this lethal combination of offensive firepower mixed with a stingy defensive effort.
"First, we're making sure we all come back to the slot, stop there, make sure there's no one by themselves and if there's a shot, making sure Vasy can see it and if there's a rebound, we're clearing the guys out or putting the puck out," Lightning blueliner Dan Girardi said when asked what's allowed the team to make improvements defensively as the season's progressed. "We're thinking about our D zone a lot more, and that's really helping us out."
Video: Girardi on defensive structure
Tonight's opponent Dallas is another team adept at keeping the puck out of its own net. The Stars are second in the NHL for goals against at 2.50 per game. The last time the Lightning and Stars faced one another on January 15, Dallas limited the Bolts to just 21 shots on net, one of their lowest shot output games of the season. The Lightning were able to make two of those shots count, however, Ondrej Palat scoring off a rush in the first period and Mikhail Sergachev providing an insurance tally in the third.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, put together one of its best defensive performances of the season in Dallas. The Stars were able to muster 35 shots on frame but most of those came from distance. The Lightning limited the amount of Grade-A chances against to basically zero. And the Bolts were able to clear players from the front of the net, allowing Andrei Vasilevskiy to see every puck coming his way.
Vasilevskiy made all 35 stops to record his third shutout of the season and 15th of his career.
And it was arguably his most comfortable shutout because of the job his teammates in front of him did limiting the Stars offensive options.
"Down the stretch here, teams are playing well defensively, goals are hard to come by," Bolts center Anthony Cirelli said. "We've got to be prepared to be in these tight games. I just think we're focused a little more on it, trying to be good defensively, trying to eliminate Grade-A chances. I think a big part is we're just focusing on it a little bit more and being aware."
The Lightning struggled to score out of the break but have since netted 16 goals over their last three games. The attention to detail on the defensive side can lead to more offense, at least the way the Lightning like to play.
Video: Cooper on facing Dallas
"When we come back in our D zone and eliminate guys in the corner and break the puck out quick, our speed can take over from there," Girardi said. "When we catch a team coming into our zone and we're going back the other way, their gaps are going to be off and their coverage and all that. So I think when we're playing quick in our D zone, eliminating guys and moving the puck fast, we're going around their forecheck and able to use our speed."
INJURIES NEWS: Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak practiced for the first time Wednesday since suffering a lower-body injury in Sunrise, but he won't be available tonight when the Bolts host the Stars at AMALIE Arena (7:30 p.m. puck drop). Cooper did say Cernak should be ready to go shortly and maybe as soon as Saturday's game versus Montreal.
Forward Ondrej Palat has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury and is questionable for tonight's contest Cooper said.