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Penalty kill struggles to replicate last season's success

Through 10 games, Tampa Bay's penalty killing unit ranks 28th in the League

by Bryan Burns /

It wasn't but a season ago Tampa Bay's penalty kill was the envy of the National Hockey League, the Lightning's 85 percent success rate on the kill the best in the League.

Now, the Lightning can't seem to buy a kill. And certainly not when they need it most.

Tampa Bay has been shorthanded 36 times this season and has given up 11 power-play goals for a 69.4 percent penalty kill percentage that is fourth worst in the League, ranking just ahead of units from Detroit (69.2%), Montreal (68.6%) and Winnipeg (64%). The Lightning have given up multiple power-play goals in four of 10 contests so far this season. The timely kill has eluded the unit too. In a road trip-capping shootout win in Boston, the Lightning could have taken down the Bruins in regulation up a goal late, but the penalty kill surrendered a goal with just over three minutes remaining to send the game to extra time, where the Lightning would win in a shootout. And again on Saturday in a 3-2 overtime loss to Nashville, the Lightning were controlling play in the third period up by a goal but took a penalty with a little more than five minutes to go and squandered another lead on a late power-play marker.

Video: Lalonde on special teams

So what gives?

How could a unit that was so effective last season struggle so mightily to start this season, particularly when most of the same players are still there?

Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde said there are a number of factors that have led to less-than-stellar numbers for the penalty kill this season, but probably the biggest is confidence.

Last season, the Lightning didn't surrender an opponent power-play goal until the seventh game of the season and only gave up three total through the month of October. The Bolts didn't allow multiple power-play goals in a contest until the 14th game of the season.

That ideal start gave the penalty kill confidence that would buoy them through the remainder of the season.

In 2019-20, the Lightning penalty kill gave up multiple power-play goals in the second and third game of the season and has been struggling to right the ship since.

"On the penalty kill, when it's struggling, you lose your confidence on it. You panic. Now you panic on a clear," Lalonde said. "I think Hedman's clear is a perfect example. Hedman is as poised, as skilled of a player you have in the world, and if that's a 5-on-5 play or if that's a practice, there's no doubt in my mind he controls it, he has time with it. This is a situation the penalty kill is struggling, we're anxious on it and he rushes a clear, he panics on it and doesn't get it out. Maybe when you're not as confident, we're missing some pressure situations or some surround situations and we're losing some aggressiveness on our PK. I just think it's not confident right now, and we're not executing on it. I don't think it's a panic situation, but it's something the group, and it starts with the staff, we need to address and improve on."

The kill Lalonde refers to is the final kill in regulation in the Nashville game, where the Lightning were protecting a 2-1 lead. Nashville had done next to nothing at 5-on-5 the entire game.

"We gave up four 5-on-5 chances against, and I don't know if we've done that since I've been here," Lalonde said.

The only way the Predators were going to have a chance to tie the game was on a power play, which they were granted with 5:29 remaining when Ryan McDonagh was whistled for interference in the defensive zone. Lightning goalie Curtis McElhinney blocked a shot on the ensuing power play. Erik Cernak collected the rebound in the slot and passed in front to Victor Hedman, who had time and space to skate with the puck and find a lane for a clear.

Instead, Hedman hurriedly tried to send the puck up the ice, but Roman Josi was able to knock it out of the air and keep it in the zone. Five seconds later, Josi took a pass from just inside the blue line and ripped a shot through traffic and past McElhinney into the net to tie the game 2-2.

"I think there's some missed plays out there, some missed opportunities," Lalonde said. "Again, we have had what looks like bad luck because it's been a skate, a puck off a skate in the net or a puck going wide that we deflect in or it's been a clear opportunity the guy picks it out of the air and then leads right to a goal. But prior to that, there's been missed opportunities. We got beat on a face-off. We won a face-off on the penalty kill late and they jumped us. Their face-off intensity was better than ours. We had a surround pressure situation that we missed on earlier that may go unseen to the average fans but then it looks like a bad luck play. But we're not executing prior to that. I think it's the same thing on the power play a little bit. When we're set up and we're comfortable, it looks very good. But we had some trouble with our entries. And again, those are skilled guys and we lose some momentum from it."

Video: Cernak on defensive pairings

So how does the penalty kill get that confidence back that was so readily on display last season?
"We need to improve those little details, clears, clearing the zone when we have the opportunity to do that and stay always together," Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak said. "I think we play just 10 games so far, so we can improve that and hopefully in the next game it's going to be better."

Staying out of the penalty box too is another way to help out the penalty kill. The Lightning were sent to the box five times on Saturday. Each time the Bolts have gone to the box five times this season, they've given up at least one power-play goal and often times multiple power-play goals.

The Lightning are averaging 10 penalty minutes a game, tied for sixth most in the NHL. Get that number down and the Bolts' penalty kill percentage likely goes up.

"It's good that our 5-on-5 play has shown some improvement, but we spend a lot of time on our special teams, it's been a huge point of emphasis," Lalonde said. "A lot of individual talk, a lot of video talk, and it's not translating right now. It's something we're going to address as a staff."

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