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Mishkin’s Musings – Lightning’s Game Rounding Into Form

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

There has been a change in the Lightning over the past several games. And not just because the Bolts put their six-game winless skid behind them, although their improved record over the past five games is a by-product of this change. It’s something you can sense when you talk to coaches and players. Everybody is in a much better mood. The team is rounding into form. How and why? Here are the three main reasons.

A High Compete-Level and Relentless Play

This is a topic I focused on in last week’s column, in which I detailed the reasons why the Lightning played so well in their win at Florida on February 16. Head Coach Guy Boucher drew a distinction between ‘working hard’ and ‘competing’. He wanted his players to do more of the latter; fighting tooth-and-nail to be first on puck and when that fails, battling with the same determination to get the puck back. Going hand-in-hand with a high compete-level is a mind-set of relentlessness. When the players are relentless in their actions on the ice, they’ll maintain that high compete-level.

We’ve seen this on-ice intensity from the Bolts all week, even in their losses to Boston and Pittsburgh. Boucher, when asked about that Boston game, spoke plainly: “If we had played them two weeks ago, (when the game was postponed by the snowstorm in Boston), we would have gotten our (behinds) kicked.” That’s because, at that point in the season, his team wasn’t exhibiting a high compete-level regularly. But on Thursday in Tampa, the Lightning played shift-for-shift with one of the top teams in the league. Shots were even, as were scoring chances. The Lightning didn’t play a perfect game, but neither, for that matter, did the Bruins, who allowed two goals and were bailed out by Tuukka Rask on a couple of occasions. The most important aspect of that game, at least to Boucher, was that his players stayed with the Bruins because of their willingness to compete. The same could be said of Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh. Yes, the Lightning made some critical mistakes in the first period and fell behind, 3-0. But the Lightning continued to compete throughout the game, firing pucks at the Pittsburgh net even as the final buzzer sounded. There were reasons why the Lightning dropped the two games this week, but a low compete-level wasn’t one of them.

This willingness to compete, in part, was borne out of the necessity of snapping out of the winless skid. Everybody enjoyed the Lightning’s 6-1 start, but there was a belief within the organization that some of those victories may have come a little too easily. Frankly, a high compete-level wasn’t needed in some of those wins. So ironically, it was the losing streak that provided the elixir; the Lightning had to the re-learn the hard way what it takes to win games in the NHL.

Culture And Identity

Getting a chance to talk with Boucher on a regular basis allows us in the media to hear him talk about recurring themes. One of those revolves around the term ‘culture’, which he uses frequently. He mentions, in the same breath, a specific team that has developed a ‘culture’, and the Lightning’s goal to build a ‘culture’. An organization with an established culture has the ability and strength to mold incoming players so that they immediately buy in and contribute to that culture.

Within a culture exists a team’s ‘identity’ – or, the characteristics that make up the culture. The New Jersey Devils, for example, have a culture in which disciplined, structured play is expected. I recently read a comment from Minnesota’s Zach Parise, in which he detailed how things worked in New Jersey. He essentially stated that with the Devils, no matter the situation, players knew exactly where they needed to be and what they were supposed to be doing. The Devils are known as a team that simply doesn’t allow many scoring chances to the opposition.

The Boston Bruins also have an established culture, though a different identity. While the Bruins also play a sound, smart, positional game (one that was on display last Thursday against the Lightning), their identity is as much based on imposing their physical will on their opponent. In other words, when you play the Bruins, you need to be ready to get hit. When fans watch the Boston Bruins, they expect to see a physical game.

Boucher has stated that it takes time to build a culture (neither the Devils, Bruins, the puck-possession-based Detroit Red Wings or any other organization with a signature identity became that way overnight). So, he has said, it’ll also take time for the Lightning, but that is what the organization is working towards.

So what do the management and coaches want the Lightning’s identity to be? Clearly, as I mentioned above, the Bolts want to be a team that competes hard and is relentless. During my pregame interview with Boucher before last Saturday’s game at Carolina, I asked him what some of the other components might be. This was his elaborate answer.

“An identity is something you see most of the time. You’re not going to see it all the time because, obviously, guys make mistakes and you’re not always at your best. But it’s something that should stick out when you watch our team. We’re bigger (this year), but we’re not an overly big team. Boston is (big), for instance, and that’s part of their identity. We’re trying to be better defensively, but we’re not a defensively-minded bunch of guys. It’s the opposite. Right now, we’re trying to make those guys go from offense and care about defense. They do care, but it’s a process to change that mind-frame. So we can’t say were a ‘defensive’ team, either. We’re obviously an ‘offensive’ team, but an ‘offensive’ team – it’s too much of a vague term to really mean anything. I think when we look at our team, the way it’s built, we’ve got speed. We’ve got a lot of speed. We’ve got speed moving the puck and we’ve got speed with the puck. And I think that’s what everything has to be based on. When we look at our systems, we want to play defense … fast. So that’s got to be our identity. We want to be first on puck. We’ve got to push the defensemen from the other team to turn … and turn … and turn … because we’re fast and when we put it behind them, we’re first on puck because of our speed. And so that’s what we want on every line. We want speed on every line.”

This is not some new revelation. I recall at Boucher’s opening press conference in the summer of 2010 when he was introduced as head coach, he said, “Speed intimidates.” GM Steve Yzerman clearly shares the same belief. This belief is represented in the type of players that are being drafted, signed and developed.

So while building this identity may be a work in progress, one of the reasons why the Lightning have been looking better recently is that the players are using that speed, not only on offense, but also on defense. They’re transitioning quickly from defense to offense – and vice-versa. The Bolts have allowed a scant number of odd-man rushes in the past several games. In particular, I thought that against Carolina on Saturday, the Lightning team speed was something, to quote Boucher, that did “stick out”.

Line Combinations

In the last sentence of Boucher’s quote above, he stated that the Lightning want speed on every line. For the first time all season, he’s found forward lines that have pleased him enough that he hasn’t switched them up. All coaches will change up their lines at times, usually because they’re looking for a spark within a game and/or because they feel a set line combination has gotten stale. Boucher happens to have a much quicker trigger finger than many other coaches. If he feels a player is not going well in his first shift or two, he’ll pull that player from a designated line right away.

In the last five games, the Lightning’s forward line combinations have remained mostly intact. Steven Stamkos plays with Teddy Purcell and Cory Conacher. Vinny Lecavalier centers Marty St. Louis and Ben Pouliot. Nate Thompson is with Tom Pyatt and Alex Killorn. And Adam Hall is between B.J. Crombeen and Richard Panik. Boucher did mix up those units in the third period of Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh, but that was the only time he did it all week.

The stability of these lines during these games tells us two things: all four units have some chemistry and all four are playing with speed. Until Sunday, Boucher had no reason to change up the lines because he was getting exactly what he wanted from them.

The lines aren’t just playing well, they’re contributing offensively. Look at scoring breakdown from the win over Carolina. Lecavalier’s line was on the ice for the first two Lightning goals. Panik’s first NHL goal, a highlight-reel beauty, was next. Pyatt scored the fourth goal, on the ice with linemates Killorn and Thompson. Finally, Stamkos, as a power play expired, netted the fifth tally, off a feed from Conacher.

This even scoring breakdown won’t happen every night, but these combinations give the Lightning weapons up and down the roster – and create headaches for the opposition.

Based on what he used in the third period on Sunday, there’s certainly a chance that Boucher will continue to shuffle the lines heading into Tuesday’s game against Buffalo. But he has stated repeatedly how much he likes these combinations and I wouldn’t be surprised if he puts them back together on Tuesday. Even if he doesn’t, he knows he has them as an option whenever he wants to go back to them.

So while the Lightning’s progression continues to be a work in progress, fans can feel good about the important steps the players took in the past week, certainly in the three wins – and even in the two losses.

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