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Defense-first Lightning set to unveil new mentality tonight

Improved defensive coverage has been a point of emphasis for the Bolts throughout training camp

by Bryan Burns /

When Tampa Bay Lightning players and coaches spoke to the media for the first time in the 2019-20 season on the opening day of training camp, they talked about their need to get better defensively and, to that end, eliminate the number of minor penalties taken each game.

The Lightning felt their defensive play regressed as last season progressed. The backslide wasn't necessarily noticeable because Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy masked a lot of those breakdowns and the Bolts continued to find ways to win games en route to a historic 62-win regular season. But their defensive issues came to a head in a first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and when Vasilevskiy could no longer bail the Bolts out, a four-game sweep and stunning early playoff exit was the result.

Now with the 2019-20 campaign set to get underway, starting with tonight's opener against the Florida Panthers at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop), the Lightning are eager to show they've made the necessary adjustments defensively to become a more well-rounded team.

Video: Cooper on excitement for tonight

And also, to prove this team is better built for success over the long haul of a sustained playoff run, should they get back to the postseason.

"I think for any team, everybody's looking to improve," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "When we looked deep inside ourselves, there are details in our game that had to get better. Are those a couple of them? Yes. Did we get better at it in the preseason? I would say that we did but we're also not facing near the same team as we are tonight. And so, I think things can look a little better than they are. But did our guys have the right intentions in everything they were doing? They did and that was a good sign. Now they just have to carry that into tonight against a little better competition."

The Lightning's training camp points of emphasis continued to be a concern once the preseason games got underway. Against Carolina in the preseason opener, the Lightning took six penalties and gave up a power-play goal in a 3-0 loss. Tampa Bay committed five minor infractions a night later in a 2-0 defeat to the Hurricanes in Raleigh.

The Lightning collected 97 penalty minutes total in seven preseason games, seventh most among NHL teams.

Tampa Bay's defensive improvements were evident over the final two games of the exhibition schedule against Florida, the Lightning holding the Panthers to just two goals total in a 4-2 win in Sunrise followed by a 1-0 shootout loss at AMALIE Arena in the preseason finale. Once the Bolts whittled their roster down to the players that would be with the team for opening night (or were still fighting to make the squad) the defensive structure looked sound and the results bore that out.

But that was preseason.

Now the games start for real, and although the Lightning's opponent is the same it's been for the last three games, the challenge to become a better defensive group collectively becomes more difficult.

"It's not something that you just flip a switch," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "There are some bad habits that have crept into our game over the years that we have to try to get better at. I thought as the preseason progressed, we took less penalties, which was nice. We're still giving up some Grade-A chances from the slot. We'll look to keep addressing those. But it's little steps. Staying more disciplined for sure has been an Achilles heel for our team over the past three years. We'll look to stay out of the box, especially the first game, guys are amped up. If we can stay 5-on-5 or get our power play going early, it always creates some momentum."

Video: Maroon on Bolts debut

More than anything, the Lightning's defensive improvements as well as their ability to stay out of the penalty box will be a work in progress. What the team looks like tonight against Florida might not necessarily be how they look toward the end of the regular season.

It'll take time to get where they want to be. It might not manifest itself tonight. But by the end of the regular season - and while they're gearing up for what they hope to be a lengthy playoff run - the Lightning should be a well-oiled defensive machine that doesn't commit silly infractions.

"We're still learning," said Pat Maroon, who will make his Tampa Bay Lightning debut tonight. "Obviously we can get better in those areas, but it's a step in the right direction for this hockey club. The focus in training camp was to be better, be better all around, defensively, sticking up for your teammates, doing the little things that make teams successful. I thought we did a good job, but we're still moving in the right direction."

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