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Bolts working to find the right mix on the back end

The Lightning experimented with different defensive pairs at Monday's practice

by Bryan Burns /

As the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to search for consistency in their game and the right lineup combination that will produce the best results, the Bolts switched up their D-pairings during Monday's practice session at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

For most of practice, Victor Hedman was partnered with Erik Cernak, a duo we have yet to see as Cernak has played pretty much his entire NHL career with Ryan McDonagh.

Kevin Shattenkirk spent his practice time with McDonagh on Monday, and Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev a familiar combination, made up the third pair for the Bolts

After the training session, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said not to read too much into these revamped defensive pairings.

"It's hard when you have seven (defensemen), so it's a little different," Cooper said.

Video: Cooper | Post-Practice

Still, the Hedman-Cernak pairing is intriguing and one we're likely to see at some point as the Lightning experiment.

Cernak is a stay-at-home defenseman who plays a smart, simple, physical game, which, combined with Hedman's natural offensive instincts and ability to drive the play once inside the zone, should make for a nice mix.

Cernak has benefitted from being under McDonagh's tutelage since joining the Lightning and becoming a NHL regular in November of 2018. That duo was the Bolts' shutdown pair last season and the start of this season. But maybe now's a good time to see if Cernak can develop chemistry with Hedman too?

"All the guys are really good players, so it's an easy adjustment for them and especially for me," Cernak said. "I just have to play my game with whatever partner and be good all the time."

Shattenkirk and McDonagh played one game and the first period of a second game together when the two were with the New York Rangers to start the 2017-18 season but were split up for the rest of the season, McDonagh eventually being traded to the Lightning at the trade deadline.

Although they haven't spent much time as a pair in the NHL, they do have a history.

"We used to play together a while back when I was in the U.S.A. program and Ryan would come join us for the international games," Shattenkirk said. "I definitely have a feel for his game. I've watched him plenty, but this will be the first time in a long time we'll be back together."

The Lightning are looking for consistency after looking really good in dismantling Toronto 7-3 to start their Canada swing and looking really mediocre in a 4-2 loss at previously winless Ottawa. Although shuffling pairings might not seem like a good way to achieve consistency, it does allow the team to see what combination of players might work best. For example, McDonagh and Cernak have been an outstanding pairing for the Lightning, but Hedman and Cernak might work just as well or even better, Cernak being the right-handed D that gives Hedman the best chance to be himself. And maybe the chemistry Shattenkirk and McDonagh have developed playing internationally together gives them a good chance at success as well.

"Yeah, you have to be flexible. That's on all of us. That's our job," Shattenkirk said. "Your responsibility doesn't change when you go out there. The chemistry's something that you have to adjust to and try to figure out on the fly. It's early in the season, so I think I was expecting some shuffling and I'm sure these guys have done that before as well. With a new group back there, you have to see what works. Obviously today was different pairings. Could change tomorrow, you never know, but just got to be prepared."

No matter who he's paired with, Shattenkirk said the way he plays the game remains the same, which should make switching partners an easy adjustment.

Video: Erik Cernak on defensive pairnings

"I try not to change my game too much (depending who the partner is)," Shattenkirk said. "Mac will probably tell you the same thing. We know what makes us good hockey players, and I can't stray away from that because my partner changes. It's probably a little different for him just knowing that he's got a guy who's maybe going to jump into the rush a little more with me, but for both of us, it's staying within our game and figuring out how to play with each other. And it's really the breakouts and where guys are when you get the puck, those little things are where you start to develop chemistry, where he is on the ice, and I think that's where you just need reps."

Maybe they'll get those reps when the Lightning take on the Canadiens Tuesday at the Bell Centre.

Maybe they won't.

But the Lightning have shown a willingness, at least early in the season, to try to unlock that perfect combination of pairings by mixing things up.

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