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High-scoring Lightning trying to win Cup with defense

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

BRANDON, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are two victories from becoming the first team to win the Stanley Cup in the same season in which they led the NHL in scoring since the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins.

The irony is that the high-scoring Lightning are trying to win the Cup with defense.

"Obviously scoring goals is a lot more fun than keeping them out of the net," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "But keeping them out of the net is what is going to get you the big shiny trophy at the end. They're realizing that.

"If each team is going to get limited chances, I like our odds with anybody we play."

The Lightning have allowed two goals or fewer in five of their past seven games since giving up five goals in back-to-back games against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. They have been defensively sound in 20 of their past 21 periods, with the lone exception being the third period of Game 6 against the Rangers, when they allowed five goals in a 7-3 loss.

The Lightning have scored 16 goals in the past seven games, but they have allowed 16. They had 2-0 wins in Games 5 and 7 against the Rangers and have allowed nine goals in four games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.

Game 5 is Saturday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). The best-of-7 series is tied 2-2.

"We always score a lot of goals. But we were giving up a lot of goals too," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "If you look at the L.A. Kings, they weren't the guys who scored a lot of goals. But they were the guys giving up the least. That says a lot about what it takes to be a winning team."

The Kings won the Cup last season because they led the NHL in playoff scoring (3.38 goals per game). They allowed 2.69 per game; that was 0.64 more per game than they did in the regular season, when the finished first in goals-against at 2.05.

But in training camp Cooper used the Kings, as well as the Blackhawks from 2012-13, the Kings from 2011-12 and the Boston Bruins from 2010-11, as examples to show a correlation between keeping the puck out of the net and raising the Cup over your head.

The 2012-13 Blackhawks and 2013-14 Kings all allowed the fewest goals in those respective regular seasons. The 2010-11 Bruins and 2011-12 Kings allowed the second-fewest goals.

The Bruins and 2011-12 Kings improved their goals-against average in the playoffs. The Blackhawks stayed relatively even (up 0.07).

They obviously all won the Stanley Cup.

"Tampa Bay's recent history, we've been a high goal-scoring team," Cooper said. "I really enjoy that; I just don't understand why you can't be both."

They struggled to do that last season, when they were 11th at 2.55 goals-allowed per game during the regular season and then allowed 4.00 per game in the playoffs, when they were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

The Lightning improved marginally on the defensive side from last season to this season, dropping their goals-against to 2.51. They finished with 108 points because they scored a League-high 3.16 goals per game.

Cooper has kept on his team about being defensively responsible in the postseason. There have been some ups and downs, but the Lightning are allowing 2.42 goals per game in the playoffs; it's 2.28 in their past seven games and 2.25 during the Cup Final.

They gave up two goals on 19 shots in Game 4 despite having 20-year-old rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy in net because Ben Bishop was unable to play because of an undisclosed injury. Bishop didn't practice Friday, and his status for Game 5 is questionable. Cooper said that if Bishop can play he will play.

"When it comes down to it, in the playoffs it's about playing defense," Lightning forward J.T. Brown said. "They always say defense wins championships. It's the oldest saying but it's true. Our main focus is trying to keep them out, not trying to win 6-2."

A big reason for the Lightning's improved defensive consistency has to do with their push for more offense. They may not be scoring as much, but they are being as aggressive as they always have been on the forecheck against the Blackhawks.

"Everybody talks about how offensive they are," Blackhawks center Brad Richards said, "but that's the tightest-checking team we've played all year."

The Lightning's forwards have done a good job of making the Blackhawks' defensemen turn and chase the puck toward their net. With the Lightning's defensemen pinching up in the zone, the Blackhawks are struggling with their breakouts and it's leading to turnovers.

"We stick with our structure," Lightning defenseman Matthew Carle said. "That's probably something that has evolved throughout the season. Whereas before if we got down by a goal or two we would try to change the way we wanted to play to try to get back in a game. We've been patient in the playoffs, the way we play within our structure."

Sticking with that structure requires discipline and sacrifice. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos admitted it's hard to have those all the time during the regular season because the length of it gives way to mental lapses.

The playoffs have become a similar grind for the Lightning now that they have played one fewer than the maximum number of games possible to this point (24 of 25). With no more than three games remaining, two at home, they can't lose focus on what got them here.

That's the challenge after they were held to one goal in Game 4 on Wednesday; they allowed two and lost.

There is the temptation heading into Game 5 to try to force themselves into becoming the team that led the NHL in scoring during regular season, but they have to avoid it. Trying to beat the Blackhawks in a speed-and-skill game in open ice in the playoffs is equivalent to trying to beat the Lightning that way in the regular season.

The odds are not in your favor.

"We can score five goals if we need to, but we don't want to win like that," Brown said. "It's too much back and forth. I'm sure the fans and everybody watching the series likes it. But we know that's not how we're going to win."

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