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Coaches Room

Staying focused key for Lightning, other top teams down stretch

Lacroix says coaches, players must maintain sense of urgency to prepare for playoffs

by Daniel Lacroix / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher.

In this edition, Daniel Lacroix, a former assistant with the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, discusses the challenges the Lightning might face though they are in first place in the League standings.

Through their first 47 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning are comfortably atop the NHL standings with a 36-9-2 record and 74 points. That's 10 more than their closest pursuer, the Calgary Flames, who lead the Western Conference with 64 points.

Tampa Bay has lost consecutive games only once this season: a 6-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 10 and a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 13. Since then, the Lightning have gone 24-4-1.

 

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That's a telling sign about their ability to rebound and their consistency.

But even the best teams face challenges and the Lightning will no doubt encounter their share before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

One of the challenges for a coach when your team is so far ahead in the standings is maintaining a sense of urgency.

Last week, the Lightning started slowly in first periods against the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 10, the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday and the New York Islanders on Sunday. Although they came back to defeat Hurricanes (3-1) and the Sabres (5-3), they weren't able to do it against the Islanders (5-1 loss).

You know the coaching staff will address it, but often the leaders in the room will take care of that too.

Every city the team goes, the media will ask the players about their record and how good they've been, so the coach will try to remind them how they got there.

Video: CAR@TBL: Point pots second goal into empty net

You know the ins and outs. You're in the video meetings, you're in the practices and you're focusing on the right things. All that information is given to you and, even if you're in first place, there's always things to work on as a team and on an individual basis. 

Coaches will often go back to the standards they set before the season. Those might be different from other teams, but most will have targets in categories such as scoring chances for and against, turnover rate and defensive zone exit rate.

By keeping the focus short-term, on your next opponent and on past performances, it's easy to go back to look at those targets. You have a range you want to be in with your scoring chances for and against, and if you're winning games but you're giving up more chances than you'd like, or you start slowly in a game, you look for the reasons why.

Those are the areas coaches will concentrate on and do some teaching.

When a team is getting points nearly every night, you talk about focusing on the process and not just the results, though it's a result-driven League. When you don't play well and you find ways to get the two points, that also is a testament to the resilience of a team.

Perhaps some nights you don't play great, but you find ways to score a goal at the right time. I've seen Tampa Bay do that over and over again.

There are times that you'll know that you won a game you probably didn't deserve. You might say that evens out, but it doesn't even out.

An average team often ends up on the wrong side of these games and it usually works in a good team's favor because they have a confident group that can manage these situations well and players making game-breaking plays.

No team goes through a season without adversity and that adversity will make you better. You know you'll have to dig deep going through that grind in the playoffs from April to June and it's good if you learn to dig deep during the regular season.

Injuries are part of that. You don't want players to miss time, but it will give an opportunity to other players to step up.

For example, Tampa Bay battled through No. 1 goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy missing 15 games with a broken foot from Nov. 13 -Dec. 10. Not only did the Lightning survive, but they thrived, going 12-3-0. And they learned that backup Louis Domingue, who played 14 of those games, is capable.

Another challenge for a coach is to manage your personnel and their ice time. The Lightning have had a luxury of rotating their defensemen with Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak each sitting as a healthy scratch for at least one game.

Video: OTT@TBL: Coburn beats Anderson from the blue line

It's a luxury, but that doesn't mean it's pleasant for the players who find themselves in the press box. That's part of the coach's job to manage those situations. Pros know how to handle it.
Good teams know that everyone will be needed at some point and the leadership group will help everybody feel a part of it.

Being in first place in your division, conference or the League will put a target on your back. Every night you will face the opponent's best. It's a measuring stick for most, and it's a challenge that brings the best out in teams.

We're witnessing that with the Lightning this season.

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