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Penalties defining Bolts first round series vs. Detroit

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

As Game 3 in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena was coming to an end, the bad blood between the Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning was just heating up.

At a time when both teams should have been heading to their respective locker rooms, the Wings’ Brendan Smith went after players on the Lightning bench before Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov came over to corral him. Off to their side, Braydon Coburn and Riley Sheahan were trying to put each other in a headlock.

Alex Killorn grabbed onto Henrik Zetterberg in front of the Detroit bench and exchanged shoves. Near the penalty boxes, Brian Boyle and Justin Abdelkader squared off, Boyle trying to get Abdelkader to fight, Abdelkader claiming he couldn’t because his hands were taped and didn’t want to risk suspension by dropping the gloves, Boyle making a chicken gesture with his arms at Abdelkader as he skated off the ice.

Unfortunately, this scene has become all-too-familiar in what has become an increasingly contentious First Round playoff series between the two teams.

Thirty two penalty minutes were handed out for that end-of-game fracas. Game 3, which Detroit won 2-0 to get back into the series with its first victory, saw the teams combine for 60 total penalty minutes. Following the game, Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said it was difficult for the Bolts to get their offense going because they were shorthanded so much.

But Sunday’s game wasn’t an aberration. Every game between the two teams through the first three games of the series has been heavily penalized.

How much so?

The Tampa Bay-Detroit matchup is tops among the eight NHL series currently being played for combined penalties (63) and penalty minutes (215). Washington-Philadelphia, the next highest-penalized series, has just 143 combined penalty minutes, even after the Caps and Flyers racked up 67 penalty minutes between each other in Monday night’s Game 3.

“I don’t think any team wants to take penalties, especially in a playoff game where a penalty can cost you,” said Andrej Sustr, who is tied for second on the Bolts with 14 penalty minutes this postseason. “That definitely wasn’t the focus coming into the series to be the most penalized series. We want to be disciplined and give them the least amount of opportunities to score. Staying out of the box is one of them.”

The Lightning are currently the most penalized of the 16 teams in the playoffs with 33 penalties and 109 penalty minutes, which is out of character for a team that ranked near the middle of the NHL in both categories (341 penalties, T-12th most in NHL; 809 penalty minutes, 14th most in NHL) during the regular season. Detroit had the least amount of major penalties (8) in the regular season among all 30 NHL teams.

“It’s playoffs,” Sustr said. “You never know what to expect. If this is the way it’s going, it’s just the way it is, but I think we definitely want to be more disciplined and not giving up power plays.”

The Lightning penalty kill has gotten an extensive workout in the series and has responded incredibly well given the number of times the Bolts have been shorthanded. Detroit has scored on just one of its 17 power plays -- that coming in Game 2 -- and the Lightning rank second in the league with a 94.1 percent penalty kill.

But while the penalties haven’t led directly to goals on the scoreboard, they have kept the Lightning from establishing their 5-on-5 play and made it difficult to score, which was evident in the Bolts’ 2-0 shutout loss on Sunday.

“It disrupts your flow. It’s taxing on your penalty killers,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said at his post-Game 3 press conference. “…You’re spending your whole time in the D zone.”

The contempt both teams have for one another could be a result of playing each other so many times in the last two seasons. The Bolts and Wings went seven games in a physical First Round series last season and have played 18 times in the last two seasons prior to tonight’s Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena.

In a way, tonight is almost like a Game 11 in a rivalry that is as heated as any in the NHL right now.

“It’s the heat of the moment, and it’s two teams that really want to win and they’re probably aggravated with each other,” Cooper said. “That’s what happens when you play each other in consecutive years in the playoffs.”

Too, the Red Wings are probably feeling a bit edgy after allowing a three games to two lead slip away last season and failing to close out the Lightning at home in Game 6. Watching the Lightning move on from their First Round series to play in the Stanley Cup Final probably didn’t help either, especially with the Red Wings knowing how close they were to advancing.

“I think last year was one of the toughest series we’ve had,” Sustr said. “I don’t think anything’s changed much.”

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