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Lightning blue line shows it can contribute offensively, too

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning
There’s a good chance that the offensive contributions chipped in by the Lightning blue line during Thursday’s 6-5 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks would have gone unnoticed had one not looked closely at the final score sheet.

Perhaps lost in the back-and-forth high-scoring affair, a game in which Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos each had two goals, was that several Lightning defensemen generated a number of solid scoring opportunities in the contest just as much as the team's usual suspects at the forward position. In fact, when asked if the defensive unit's offensive effort was its best of the season, head coach Guy Boucher rightfully agreed.

"Yes, I would say that it was," Boucher said. "The defensemen we've got, they all have that offensive mentality. They jumped in at the right moments, so it was real impressive to see."

In Thursday's contest alone, Victor Hedman tied a single-game career-high with three assists and Brendan Mikkelson also had two helpers, good for his first pair of points as a member of the Lightning. Eric Brewer helped set up a goal too, as the Bolts' blueliners combined for a total of six assists on the night.

Victor Hedman tied a single-game career-high with three assists on Thursday night.
For a team that has tied a season-high record by scoring six goals in a game just twice, and which at times has struggled with getting secondary scoring, Thursday’s spike in production from the defensive corps was a major plus.

Following the team’s morning skate on Saturday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Boucher had nothing but praise for certain individuals, even though the offense from the blue line still comes mostly by committee.

Since being acquired from Calgary just more than a month ago in exchange for forward Blair Jones, Mikkelson has bolstered the Lightning blue line with a little more size, some physicality, as well as a lot of poise with the puck that reaffirms his reputation as a mobile defenseman.

There’s also Hedman, who according to his head coach, hasn’t seemed to skip a beat even after missing 13 games due to a concussion.

“He’s been terrific,” Boucher said of the imposing Swede. “Real solid.”

Factor in the steady play of late from Bruno Gervais, who with Mikkelson has seen time on the power play, and per Boucher, “you know exactly what you’re going to get.”

What you get is some help up front, which comes secondary to recognizing that the defensemen’s primary responsibilities are in their own zone. But, with the club in the midst of an intense playoff push, receiving production from the blue line is more crucial than ever.

“We all know what we can bring to the game, so we just have to take advantage of our offensive opportunities,” Gervais said. “At times, it can be a great challenge, but you still have to go out there and do everything you can to help the team win.

That’s being in position, it’s blocking shots, but it’s also scoring some goals now and then too.”

Gervais helped lead a surge that saw the Bolts’ blue line corps lead the league in total goals by defensemen early on through the first month of the season. That number has since dropped into the bottom third of the NHL rankings, but perhaps partly as a result of Boucher’s focus on a defense-first mentality, as well as the decline of a power-play unit that entered Sunday ranked 29th in the 30-team league.

Still, the production the team received from the back end on Thursday served as a positive sign that the Lightning are striving to evolve into a more complete team.

Boucher was pleased, too, and conceded his desire for it to continue, of course with one small catch.

“I’m fine with it,” Boucher said. “Our problem has never been jumping into the attack. I just want to make sure we defend well, too.”

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