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Mishkin's Musings: Stingy defense will be key for the Bolts

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Following his team’s 5-0 win over Buffalo on December 4, Lightning coach Jon Cooper commented on his team’s Goals Allowed Per Game ranking. Thanks to the shutout victory, the GA/G improved to 2.50, which was, at the time, 10th-best in the NHL. He was happy about the fact that the Bolts had made it into the top 10, but conceded that coaches “get greedy” and that he’d like to see that number reach the top five.

When Cooper took over as head coach in March of 2013, he knew the club needed to improve defensively. In the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, the Lightning were 30th (3.39 GA/G) and 26th (3.06 GA/G), respectively. Despite ranking in the top 10 for Goals Scored Per Game during both years, the Lightning missed the playoffs. The moral is that if you want to qualify for the postseason, you’d better play good “D”. And if you want to advance deep into the playoffs, you’d better play really good “D”. Last year was an improvement. The Bolts finished 11th in GA/G, lowering the number to 2.55, which was more than half a goal less than the previous season. (Offense wasn’t an issue last year, as the Lightning ranked in the top 10 once again).

Entering this year, one of the team’s goals was to reduce that GA/G number even more. After Tuesday’s win in Philadelphia, the Lightning are at 2.54 GA/G. As we move into the second half of the season, it’ll be a key for the Bolts to get that number down.

What goes into a low GA/G number? Obviously, a club needs good goaltending – and, with the rare exception, the Lightning have received it. Other areas include rush coverage, d-zone coverage, puck management and penalty killing.

Rush Coverage: When a team has the puck in the neutral or offensive zone and loses it, the other club goes on the counter-attack. How a club defends that attack is rush coverage. (Rush coverage also applies following a dump-in and line change, but unless it’s a slow or ill-advised change, the defending club is usually in good position and won’t yield an odd-man rush). One of the most important components to preventing odd-man rushes is having, what coaches call, “a good F3”. What does that mean?

When all five players are in the offensive zone, each of the three forwards has a responsibility. Depending on where the puck is, one of those three forwards (designated as the “F3”) must ensure he stays “high” in the zone (close to the blue line). Should the other team steal the puck, its three forwards will immediately go on the attack. That F3 must be in position to join his two defensemen, preventing a three-on-two rush.

There are other aspects to good rush coverage, such as avoiding bad pinches at the offensive blue line and needlessly surrendering the defensive blue line. But the F3 position is crucial. Not only will it protect against odd-man rushes, it also, with good “back pressure”, gives a team the opportunity to steal the puck back in neutral ice and march again into the offensive zone.

A loose F3 will result in lots of odd-man looks for the opposition. Frankly, there haven’t been too many games where this has been an issue for the Lightning, but it’s still a part of the game that the coaches stress on a regular basis. When the other team is constantly losing the puck in the neutral zone after exiting its own end, that’s usually an indication that the Lightning’s F3 is sharp.

D-Zone Coverage: Defensive zone coverage occurs when the other club has possession in the offensive zone. The attacking club wants to a) keep it there and b) generate a scoring chance. Good d-zone coverage will help prevent the attacking club from doing either, particularly “b”. Loose coverage allows the other club to find open looks or in-alone chances. D-zone coverage also has to do with getting good position in front of the goalie, so potential rebounds don’t end up on opposition sticks. There have been moments in games this year when the Lightning get pinned back in their own zone, but often, they’ve kept any potential scoring chances to a minimum.

Puck Management: When one team has the puck and turns it over, it’s asking for trouble. In the offensive zone, a turnover may short-circuit a potentially good shift (and may lead to an odd-man rush the other way). After a neutral zone turnover, players must attempt to quickly (and unexpectedly) change directions and hustle back into their own end. And a d-zone turnover will, at the very least, give the attacking team an additional opportunity to possess the puck – and prevent the defending club from going on the attack itself. At worst, a d-zone turnover will lead directly to a scoring chance and goal against. Sometimes turnovers are forced, especially if the other team is forechecking well and forcing plays. Then possession comes down to winning puck battles and having the will to move pucks out of dangerous areas. But there can be unforced errors, too. When the Lightning have struggled in games this year, it’s often due to shaky puck management. Because their d-zone coverage has been solid, those miscues haven’t necessarily led to opposition goals. But those mistakes allow the other team to possess the puck, which keeps the Lightning from having it. Bad puck management will lead to “one-and-done” sequences in the offensive zone, too, so that the other team doesn’t have to spend much time working in its own end. Essentially, an unforced turnover is a gift that keeps on giving. The Lightning want the puck. If the other team has it more than the Bolts, poor puck management is often the cause.

Penalty Killing: Good defensive teams usually also excel at penalty killing. The best units kill off 85 percent or more. They take away options from the power play club by getting in the way of passing/shooting lanes and/or pressuring the puck carrier and forcing a steal. They clear pucks down the ice when they have a chance (winning lots of d-zone faceoffs is part of that equation). After clears, they then disrupt entries back into their zone. And, most importantly, the goalie is their best penalty killer. The Lightning allowed just four power play goals in their first 11 games, but their percentage has dipped since then. Through 33 games, the Lightning are killing 80.7% of penalties, which ranks just below the halfway point in the league. Getting that percentage closer to 85 would certainly help chip away at the overall GA/G number.

Just to be clear, as I wrote in the opening paragraph, the Lightning have drastically improved their team defense under Cooper’s watch. In most games this year, they’ve had the puck more than the opposition. They’ve usually “outchanced” the other club and typically have kept opposing odd-man rushes to a minimum. Undoubtedly, their team “D” has contributed to their fantastic start. But there was a reason why Cooper admitted he’s “greedy” about working the GA/G number into the top five. It’s going to be difficult for the Lightning to maintain their torrid goal-scoring pace. The drop-off may already be happening. In five of their last six games, the Lightning have scored two goals or less (not including Tuesday’s empty-netter against Philly). So the Bolts must be prepared, as the regular season moves into its second half, to win low-scoring contests. To do that, they’ll need to play an air-tight, stingy defensive game.

They’ve done it this year. Their 2-1 win over Minnesota on November 22 was one such game. So was last Thursday’s 2-1 triumph over Carolina. And Tuesday’s 3-1 victory in Philly might have been the best of the bunch. What do all three of those games have in common? The Lightning have had three separate two-game (regulation) losing streaks this year. Those aforementioned victories ended each of those losing skids. In other words, when the Lightning have needed an “A” performance, one that stops a losing streak, they’ve played three of their best defensive games of the season. Moving forward, they want to make those types of games the norm. If they can, Cooper’s top-five GA/G wish could come to fruition.

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