Want to find an underlying reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning have been able to reel off eight-straight wins and climb all the way to second place in the Atlantic Division standings over the last month?
How about looking at the penalty kill, which was maligned early in the season for its ineffectiveness but has quietly become one of the best units in the National Hockey League.
In fact, since November 1, no other penalty kill in the League has been better than Tampa Bay's. Over the first month of the season, the Lightning penalty kill ranked 29th in the NHL at 71.1 percent. From the start of November to today, the Bolts' penalty kill is tops in the NHL at 87.9 percent, a remarkable turnaround for an area of the game that's predicated so much on momentum. If your penalty kill's in a slump, it's hard to break out, especially when it seems the breaks and bounces aren't going your way.
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Members of last year's Lightning penalty kill, which finished the regular season tied for the top unit in the NHL, said the reason they were so successful was because of how well they started that season and were able to carry that momentum throughout the remainder of the season.
The ability of this year's kill to overcome a slow opening month has been a fascinating development for this rising Lightning team.
"You look at a few of the things that have improved, when you're clipping at 69 percent on the penalty kill early in the year, it probably means you're giving up one or two more goals a game," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "Now, I think since November 1, we're in the high 80s, now you're taking off a goal or two a game, hence why we're in the position we're in right now. The power play has stayed pretty consistent but our penalty kill, and that's led by our goaltending as well, has really stepped to the forefront there and given us a chance to win."
During Tampa Bay's current eight-game win streak, the penalty kill has allowed just three goals over 27 shorthanded opportunities. They've given up only one power-play goal over the last six games.
"That was an area that we really wanted to improve on at the beginning of the year," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who's been a big part of the penalty kill as well taking and winning defensive zone face-offs to get clears and whittle off 15-20 seconds of an opponent's power-play time. "Maybe a little unlucky in certain situations, but it starts with our goaltenders. They're the last line of defense on the penalty kill, and they've been outstanding in those situations. It was just a commitment from the guys that were out there whether it was blocking shots or taking face-offs or having your stick in the right lane, guys have really paid attention to the details of the penalty kill. It was an area where we wanted to improve and we have and that's a big part, special teams have been a lot better and more consistent as of late and you see the results."
The penalty kill has been called upon too in critical situations deep into games of late. In the 3-1 victory at Carolina on Sunday, the Lightning were forced to kill off a pair of penalties in the third period while trying to close out the win, including a four-minute double minor on Pat Maroon with 2:26 remaining, and were able to do so successfully.
In a tight, 2-1 win at Montreal January 2, the Lightning committed back-to-back penalties and had to kill off 28 seconds of a 5-on-3 and 3:32 minutes in all midway through the third period with the Canadiens looking to tie the score. They sold out to block shots, get sticks in shooting lanes and be as disruptive as possible to get out of the tenuous situation and help the team close out the victory.
"I don't know when we were going through our struggles at the beginning of the year, but we had a meeting where we just said we've got to start taking care of the little things," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Those guys have gone out there and done it, probably since mid-November I want to say. I think the guys have welcomed the opportunity to go out in big situations, block shots, get pucks cleared. They've made it hard on teams, and that carries over to the team when you make it hard on the best players on the other team, it frustrates them and they've done a great job of that."
In the Lightning's latest win, a 9-2 rout of the Vancouver Canucks, who owned a seven-game win streak of their own coming into AMALIE Arena, Mikhail Sergachev stepped up to block a pair of shots on the penalty kill, taking one off his foot and another off his left arm/hand. They stung for sure. Sergachev was in visible pain as he made his way back to the bench. But he didn't miss a shift, and the willingness to step in front of the puck and sacrifice for the team was not lost on his teammates.
Video: Sergachev on playing with confidence
"Obviously, losing Ryan (McDonagh), a guy who eats pucks every game, having Mikhail go out there and do the same thing, it's just that next-man-up mentality," Shattenkirk said. "When you see a guy like him do it, it gets the guys on the bench sparked. It's just been a tremendous effort by everyone."
It's a mentality the Lightning will need to continue if they hope to extend their current win streak to nine games tonight against the Arizona Coyotes (7 p.m. puck drop), which would tie for the second-longest win streak in franchise history.
"It takes the full team to win," Sergachev said. "When you see Ryan McDonagh or (Victor Hedman) or (Erik Cernak) or the forwards block shots, I get pumped up…I feel like the guys do the same thing for me when I block them. It's part of the job. When I go out there, I've got to perform."