Tampa Bay Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet has preached it all along, even from the first few days he took over a struggling Lightning team: Crash the net, get bodies in front of the opposing goaltender and give yourself easier opportunities to score.
In what is one of the few silver linings to an otherwise disappointing season, that tactic is beginning to pay big dividends for a unit that had struggled much of the season - the power play. One situation with the man advantage against visiting Washington was a near perfect example.
Trailing, 1-0, late in the first period, Vincent Lecavalier
let loose with a high blast from just inside the blue line. Steven Stamkos
, perched on the other wing, moved in to close the gap to goaltender Simeon Varlamov. And, when the puck deflected straight to the waiting Stamkos, the rookie’s quick wrist shot easily beat the out-of-position Varlamov.
While Tampa Bay has at times struggled to score, it’s been a recently resurgent power play where Tocchet is finding some hope for the future.
“We’ve scored some big goals [on the power play], so it’s been one of our biggest strengths,” Tocchet said. “We’re getting lots of movement and guys are passing the puck more and that’s the key. It’s when we don’t move and get stagnant that we have problems.”
That hasn’t been the case the past several games. A unit that ranks 18th in the NHL at 18.2 percent and features stars Lecavalier, Stamkos and Martin St. Louis
, had converted seven of 20 chances following the goal against Washington. The blistering-hot 35 percent clip includes a pair of man-advantage goals against both Ottawa and Toronto, which allowed seven goals in 19 power play chances to the Lightning this season.
“We’ve had some success against [Toronto] this season, but I think we’re playing much better overall on the power play,” Stamkos said. “We’re moving the puck really well and guys are going to the net, but I think the biggest thing is we finally got a unit that’s been together a while. When you start playing together consistently, you get more comfortable with each other.
“A good power play unit is clutch.”
For Lecavalier, who centers the unit, it’s a matter of doing the little things correctly in order to earn greater overall success.
“I’ve got to win the faceoff and the wingers have to get to the puck,” the captain said. “That allows us to set it up and that’s something we weren’t able to do before. From there it’s just a matter of being aggressive and getting pucks to the net.”
The special teams goals have been the difference during a 2-1-2 streak heading into Tuesday’s finale of a four-game home stand against Columbus. Still, with power play quarterback Cory Murphy out due to a broken foot, Tocchet reminds all within earshot that this team is a long way from where he and the players want to be. This time it was two late power play opportunities against Toronto that told the tale.
Tied at 3 with just more than five minutes remaining, Tampa Bay twice had a man advantage needing only a goal to earn a victory in regulation. Both times the unit failed and when neither team scored in the extra period, it was a Maple Leafs’ goal in the sixth shootout round that proved the difference.
“'We go up 3-0 and lose the game,” said Stamkos, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick. “That's totally unacceptable. We can't afford to do that. They got the two points, and we were able to salvage one, if you want to look at that as a positive.”