Following a preseason in which the Lightning went 5-2, the team starts the regular season Thursday night against the Boston Bruins. Here are some observations from the preseason that will likely carry over in the Boston game and beyond.
In an earlier column, I wrote about how Lightning coaches would make defensive zone play a priority in training camp. The Bolts have struggled over the past couple of seasons in that area, not only in terms of goals allowed, but also time spent without the puck in the d-zone.
The team engaged in a number of drills throughout camp with the goal of addressing this problem. Good defensive zone play has three facets. First, ensuring that breakouts are clean, so that the team can maintain puck possession and start to go on offense. Second, when the opposition has the puck in the Lightning’s zone, finding a way to get the puck back. And third, while attempting to get the puck back, holding coverage so that the other side doesn’t generate a dangerous scoring chance.
Head Coach Jon Cooper has maintained that it’s going to take time for the players to fully absorb the intricacies of his system, those aforementioned components included. It wasn’t until the second week of camp that the coaches really got down to work in practices on system specifics. It’s a process that will continue throughout the season.
So how did the Lightning do with their d-zone play over the course of the preaseson? At times, very well. At other times, not so well. I felt Tampa Bay’s home win over Nashville was one of the team’s strongest displays of clean breakouts and defending without the puck. The game in Nashville was another story, though, as the Predators cycled the puck effectively in the Tampa Bay zone for long stretches. The game against the Panthers in Estero featured some of the same issues, but the Lightning got better in that department two nights later in the preseason finale.
That’s what we’ll likely see once the regular season begins. The Lightning will be improved in their defensive zone play from previous seasons, but they’ll have some hiccups along the way. Ideally, those hiccups will become fewer and farther between as the season progresses.
There should be two by-products of this process. The Lightning will have the puck more, which means they’ll have an opportunity to score even more goals than they have over the last two seasons (an area where they were already among the league leaders). Also, since the opposition will have the puck less, they’ll have fewer chances to score, helping Tampa Bay’s team goals against average.
Penalty Killing with St. Louis and Stamkos:
Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos saw regular shifts on the penalty kill during the preseason. Look for this to continue in the regular season, although their time spent on the PK may vary from game to game. Cooper does not want either one playing too many minutes in a game, so on a night when the Bolts have lots of power plays, they may see little or no shorthanded time.
The fact that we will see them, though, indicates that the Lightning, when shorthanded, want to put the opposition on guard. The Lightning have not scored many shorthanded goals in recent years; last year, they didn’t score any and they have netted only five total shorthanded goals since the beginning of the 2009-2010 season.
St. Louis is the franchise leader with 29 shorthanded goals. He scored eight in 2003-04 and registered 13 more over the next four seasons. If he sees even a somewhat regular shorthanded shift this year, he’ll get some chances to add to his shorthanded total.
The same can be said for Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, Valtteri Filppula or any other skilled forward that can play on the penalty kill. In the preseason game in Estero, Panik and St. Louis had a two-on-one shorthanded rush that culminated in Panik’s shorthanded goal.
Johnson, Panik and Palat:
Jon Cooper and GM Steve Yzerman say that the Lightning are going to be a “fast, exciting team to watch”. The line of Johnson, Panik and Palat is Exhibit A for that brand of hockey.
They’ve played together as a line for most of the last two seasons in the American Hockey League and even played a few games on the same line with the Lightning last year.
Usually, when a player makes the jump from the AHL to the NHL, there’s an adjustment period to the speed of the NHL game. Players make decisions with the puck faster in the NHL. Therefore, the game moves at a faster speed. But Johnson, Panik and Palat already play the game at a high speed, especially when they’re on the same line. One reason is familiarity, since they have a sense of where the others are going to be on the ice. Another is that all three are smart, talented players. And the last is they possess that intangible quality that all coaches seek when a line is put together; they have great chemistry. Since Cooper had them all in the American Hockey League, he knows what they can do individually – and as a line. They’ve been used as a line throughout most of training camp and the preseason, so expect them to stay together once the regular season begins.
Speaking of line combinations, they’ve been very consistent throughout the preseason. When it comes to keeping lines together, coaches can fall anywhere on a broad spectrum. Some may mix up lines at the first sign of trouble – perhaps one player starts a game with a bad shift. Others will maintain combinations for much longer periods.
In the preseason games, Cooper mostly kept his forwards line combinations together from beginning to end. And in training camp as a whole, we’ve seen many of the same units skating together. Ideally, each player will develop that innate sense of knowing where his linemates are on the ice at all times. Just like the Johnson line. And Stamkos and St. Louis, who have played together for most of Stamkos’ NHL career.