With offensive stars Vincent Lecavalier
, Martin St. Louis
and rookie Steven Stamkos
in the lineup, most Tampa Bay fans and players arguably would have been surprised to find the Lightning at the bottom of the NHL in scoring. What may come as an even bigger surprise is the way the team has decided to remedy it.
By making virtually no changes.
Instead of re-inventing a once potent offense, Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet has instructed his players to keep their play simple, sticking to what they know and, most importantly, getting to the net.
“When things are snowballing,” Tocchet said, “you get tighter and do things out of character. We just tell them to stick with what we’re telling you.”
Tocchet’s logic is that, despite only scoring 57 goals through its first 26 games – a disappointing 2.19 average – the team is close to not only a breakout performance, but a complete breakout from a season-long slump. All that may be needed is a goal from a jab at a bouncing puck, a shot that bounces off a player or a well-timed screen of the opposing goaltender. In other words, the kinds of goals that come from crashing the net - the kind the Lightning haven’t been scoring enough of this season.
“Any coach isn’t happy when things are going like this,” Tocchet said, “but we’re getting better [at crashing the net] than we were three weeks ago. You’re looking for those tip goals, those ugly goals.”
In years past, the Lightning were a quick-strike, free-skating offense that was often most dangerous when using speed to outrace out-of-position defenders. Now the idea is to couple that speed with a bit of grit and toughness around the net.
Lightning players have agreed that the team has bought into the adjusted tactic, despite the difficulties associated with limited ice time between games.
“We haven’t gotten a lot of practice time with it, because we play five games in eight days,” veteran right winger Mark Recchi said. “But we’re getting closer, because we understand the game and the structure of what the coaches want.
“We’re going to get this thing turned around if we just stay positive, stay focused and trust in what Toch is saying.”
For Stamkos, getting goals from in close is as much about showing heart and toughness to opponents as it is about playing smart hockey.
“I don’t think anyone’s doubting our heart to go to the net and we know we can compete in this league and win some games,” the rookie center said. “You’d like to think [that a gritty goal would change the team’s fortunes], because right now it’s snowballing in the opposite direction. If we can get a couple of goals, keep things simple and have a puck or two hit you and go in, we can change the atmosphere with the entire team.”
We’re getting better [at crashing the net] than we were three weeks ago. You’re looking for those tip goals, those ugly goals. - Lightning Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet
Saturday night against visiting Buffalo, the Lightning finally appeared to reap the fruits of their labor. Trailing 3-2 late in the second period and just seconds after a go-ahead Sabres’ goal, Vaclav Prospal went hard to the net to grab a loose puck through the crease. Cutting from right to left away from the goal, the veteran left winger flipped a shot backhanded that eluded goaltender Ryan Miller and tied the score. It was the type of goal Tocchet has been preaching about and its importance, not only on the scoreboard, was immediately felt as it sent the crowd of 17,154 into a frenzy not often heard of late at St. Pete Times Forum.
“We just created a turnover in the offensive zone and puck got to the point, we crowded the net and I was able to turn around, shoot it with my backhand and I hit I think off the post and went to his back and fell in,” Prospal said. “I thought it was a pretty key goal.”
Now the idea is to turn those goals into victories as a third-period goal sent Tampa Bay to another emotionally draining 4-3 defeat.
“It’s Groundhog Day,” St. Louis said, referring to the movie by the same name. “I feel sometimes we deserve better, but you know what … maybe we don’t. It seems right now that the way it’s going, it’s draining physically, it’s draining mentally.
“Sometimes it’s easy to, you know, to just flip the switch. Now it’s getting harder.”