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Struggling Lightning penalty kill looks to get back on track vs. Wild

Tampa Bay's penalty killing unit hasn't played well since losing Ryan Callahan to injury four games ago

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning's penalty kill has hovered in or around the top 10 in the National Hockey League standings for pretty much the majority of the 2017-18 season.

But in the last four games - or really, since Ryan Callahan went down with an upper-body injury Dec. 14 at Arizona that has him sidelined indefinitely - the special teams unit has been leaking considerable amounts of oil.

The Lightning have given up eight power-play goals over their last four games, killing off just nine of the last 17 opponent power plays, a dismal penalty kill rate of 52.9 percent.

Clearly, there's an issue with the unit that needs to be fixed.

"I think we've got to get back to simple hockey in our PK," said Bolts forward Yanni Gourde, who has emerged as one of the top Lightning penalty killers this season with his ability to chase and hound and harass puck carriers. "We weren't doing the right reads. Vegas scored on most of their power plays against us. We can't allow that. We've got to come back to a simple game and play the right way on the PK."

The struggles started in Arizona, whether my coincidence or because Callahan, one of the Bolts' best penalty killers since he came to the team in a trade during the 2013-14 season, was injured and forced from the game. The Lightning gave up a power-play goal to the Coyotes and then surrendered two more in Colorado to allow the Avalanche to turn what looked like a blowout win for the Bolts into a nailbiter.

Video: Cooper | Pregame TBL vs. MINThe wheels fell completely off in Vegas, a matchup pitting the top team in the Western Conference versus the best team in the League. The Golden Knights scored all four of their goals on the power play, including the game-winner with 2.3 seconds left that kept the Lightning from earning at least a point from the game and put a damper on what had been a very successful road trip.

"That killed that game," Anton Stralman said about the penalty kill issues in Vegas.

So, are the Bolts doomed to mediocrity on the penalty kill until Callahan returns?

Or is this rough stretch just a normal bump in the road on the journey of an 82-game season?

"It doesn't really matter who's in or out for us," said Stralman, who leads all Bolts for average shorthanded time on ice. "I think we have the personnel to get the job done. Sometimes you get unlucky bounces or what not. That Vegas game, we had the puck a couple times we could have cleared it. And then a couple of those goals could have been blocked. It's just small details."

Video: Point | Pregame TBL vs. MINThe Lightning spent a large portion of Friday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum working on correcting flaws in both penalty kill units. With associate coach Rick Bowness and assistant coach Brad Lauer jumping into action and onto a power-play unit, the two slung the puck around the perimeter amongst themselves, stopping at various times to show each penalty killer who should cover what pass and where each should be positioned.

"It's all within the details, how you move, how your coverage is moving together," Stralman said. "We need to block some more shots and clear pucks when we have a chance. And that's why we worked on retrievals from entries, dump ins, make sure we get the roots down that we want to go and everybody's in support when we get the puck. And then just the rotations in the zone once they get possession and how we apply pressure when we can."

The Lightning hope the extra work pays off when they host the Minnesota Wild tonight at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop) in the final game before a three-day break around Christmas.

Despite the penalty kill hiccup, Tampa Bay remains the top team in the NHL with a 25-7-2 (52 points) record. The Lightning are going for their seventh win in a row at AMALIE Arena tonight.

"For us, it's all about refocusing and getting ready for tonight," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We can't change what happened last game. All we can do is try to improve and try to get better tonight."

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