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Lightning defensemen key team's fast start

Tampa Bay's blueliners play with a 'forward mindset' that helps them catch the opposition off guard

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

Under head coach Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning defensemen have enjoyed the freedom to roam aggressively in the offensive zone, to join the rush, to support the attack.

They call it having a forward mindset.

The Lightning want to advance as a group of five when they have the puck. Just like they want to defend as a group of five when they don't.

And the movement into the offensive zone doesn't have to be spearheaded by the forwards with the defensemen coming in as the second wave. Lightning defensemen are just as capable leading the charge. They're encouraged to.

Wednesday's 5-1 win over Detroit, Tampa Bay's 15th straight at home in the regular season over the Red Wings, showed just how effective that strategy can be for blueliners as gifted as the Bolts'.

Tampa Bay's first three goals, scored in the first 4:56 of the opening period, illustrates perfectly how the Lightning want their defensemen to operate. And how overwhelming they can be when they're doing so precisely.

On their opening goal, the Lightning quickly transitioned from defense to offense following a Detroit turnover at the center line. Tyler Johnson spotted Victor Hedman all alone on the opposite side of the ice and delivered the puck into his path. With the Red Wings in the middle of a change and scurrying to recover, Hedman carried the puck into the offensive zone and cut across the top of the right circle toward the slot. Alex Killorn made a beeline to get net front while Johnson trailed behind Hedman. Rather than defer to one of his forward options, Hedman continued to hold onto the puck until he eluded a lunging Dylan Larkin defending him. Now with an open shooting lane, Hedman fired from between the hash marks over the right shoulder of Detroit goalie Thomas Greiss for the first goal just 94 seconds into the contest.

Video: Rob Zettler | 2.4.21

"You fall asleep for a second, and they're past you," new Lightning assistant coach Rob Zettler, charged with handling the defensemen, said of his group. "And that's what we're encouraging our D to do. We're lucky to have the talent of Heddy and of Mac, Sergy. Those three guys (are active) all the time, obviously, but we're asking all seven or eight guys to do it. It just becomes dangerous. It's hard to handle when it's just constant five guys on the attack and it's not just on the rush, it's in the zone as well."

On goal number two, which came at 4-on-4 play, Luke Schenn took the puck away from a falling Larkin at his own goal line and immediately started up the ice for a 3-on-2 rush the other way. Schenn dished to Killorn to bring the puck into the zone. Killorn passed to his right for Anthony Cirelli, who saw Victor Hedman joining the play as a trailer and fed him the puck. Hedman got the puck down low on the edge of the net to Schenn, who never stopped charging forward once he passed to Killorn, the 31-year-old blueliner skating full tilt from one goal line to the opposite one. Schenn's shot from in tight bounced off Greiss but into the right circle for a wide-open Cirelli to shoot into the open net.

"For us, it's all about making those reads. If we have an opportunity to join the rush, we have the green light to do that," Hedman said. "…Luke is up in the play and I see that, so I kind of take a little more cautious route, kind of like a second wave. Tony made a good play to me, and I found Luke down low. He put it to net, and we got the rebound. Good things happen when you get everyone involved offensively, and if everyone is just thinking of defense first and forwards covering for us, we're in good shape."

Tampa Bay's third goal also started from its own end, off a Detroit turnover at the end of a Red Wings power play that was converted rapidly into a scoring chance. Ryan McDonagh dumped the puck to the center line for Blake Coleman, who had the attention of three different Detroit skaters as he chased it down. McDonagh, meanwhile, skated undetected down the center of the ice, again, continuing his run to goal without breaking stride despite no longer possessing the puck.

Coleman fought hard to gain control and, upon doing so, swung the puck over for McDonagh all alone in the right circle. McDonagh loaded up, shot and beat Greiss at the far post, signaling the end of the goalie's night after allowing three goals on six shots.

In reality, it was the end of Detroit's night as well.

The Red Wings would never recover from the early-game onslaught.

"As a D-man you've just got to make those reads," Hedman said. "Are you go to follow up and crash the net? Or are you going to take a more casual route and kind of be more like a second wave and attack that way? We're an aggressive team up ice and we like to get everyone involved. It creates some confusion on the other end, that's for sure. That's what we want, and that's what you don't want against you."

Video: Hedman | 2.4.21

So far though eight games, Lightning defensemen have combined for 22 points, tied for sixth most among NHL D corps. Vancouver (34 pts.), Montreal (31 pts.), Washington (29 pts.), Colorado (29 pts.) and Edmonton (27 pts.) all have more but have also played at least two more games than the Lightning, and in the case of the Canucks, five more games.

Defensemen accounted for two of Tampa Bay's five goals and five of its 14 points in the win Wednesday over Detroit. With Luke Schenn's assist on the second goal, all seven Lightning defensemen who have played this season have registered at least one point.

That aggressiveness offensively carries over to their defensive play as well.

Tampa Bay is one of the top defensive teams early in the NHL season. The Lightning are allowing just 2.13 goals per game, second fewest in the League. Only Carolina is better (1.86).

Zettler, Tampa Bay's new defense coach, said he watched the Lightning throughout their playoff run to the Stanley Cup and marveled at how quickly their defensemen got on top of guys.

But he wasn't able to fully appreciate how effective they were until seeing it up close in person.

"What I've learned about these guys is I love their mindset, because they have a mindset of kind of what we call on your toes or a forward mindset where not only offensively they're willing to go and willing to jump into the play but aggressive defensively where they're on top of guys," he said. "I thought I knew it, but it's kind of to another level more so than I thought as far as just being on top of people and not giving people that time and that space, especially through the neutral zone. I love it. They love playing that way. It's aggressive, but I think it's a brand of hockey they really enjoy playing."

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