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Power-play practice pays off for Lightning

Three Game 4 goals against Red Wings put Tampa Bay one win from advancing

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- Jon Cooper considered giving the Tampa Bay Lightning a day off Monday. They had been dominated in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round by the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, and they had little time to rest before Game 4 on Tuesday.

The Lightning could have relaxed, had a meeting, watched video. But the coach decided to practice instead. Not only that, he decided to devote much of the session to the Lightning's weakness: the power play.

They ranked 28th in the NHL in the regular season, 30th on the road, and were 1-for-14 in the series. They didn't have much of a chance to develop chemistry with forward Jonathan Drouin up from the minors for the final two regular-season games.

"It felt about, like, five hours," center Tyler Johnson said of the practice. "But I guess it was only 30 minutes."

It was worth it. The Lightning went 3-for-5 on the power play in Game 4 -- goals by Nikita Kucherov in the first and second period, the winner by Ondrej Palat late in the third, all assisted by Drouin -- and defeated the Red Wings 3-2.

Video: TBL@DET, Gm4: Palat deflects go-ahead PPG past Mrazek

The Lightning lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 and are one win from eliminating the Red Wings in the first round for the second straight year. Game 5 is at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports 2, FS-D, SUN).

"We put the puck in the hands of the guys who know what to do with it and kind of challenged them a little bit," Cooper said.

Challenge accepted.

You'd think a team like the Lightning would never struggle on the power play, they have so much talent. They usually have captain Steven Stamkos, one of the NHL's elite goal-scorers, but he's out with a blood clot. But the problems predate this season and are due in large part to their lack of a top quarterback.

It didn't matter much in the first three games, because the Tampa Bay penalty kill was so good. The Lightning held the Red Wings power play to 1-for-17, but Cooper knew it could change quickly. He mentioned Monday that at some point special teams would decide a game.

Cooper put together a unit of forwards Drouin, Johnson, Kucherov, Brian Boyle and defenseman Victor Hedman, and the Lightning went to work at practice.

"With the PP, it's all about knowing where guys are and knowing your options and kind of just being acquainted with one another to kind of be second nature what you're doing," Johnson said. "When you have new guys on units and stuff, it kind of throws things off. You don't get that feel right away. So we got that time. We worked a lot of different plays, a lot of different options."

Early in the first period, Cooper sent out the line of Johnson, Kucherov and Alex Killorn for an offensive-zone faceoff. Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill responded with the line of Justin Abdelkader, Luke Glendening and Riley Sheahan. The Johnson line scored seven goals in the first two games, but when matched up against the Glendening line in Game 3 failed to get a shot on goal.

The Glendening line pushed the puck deep into the Tampa Bay zone. The battle should have gone to Detroit. It should have been like Game 3 all over again. But Abdelkader took an offensive-zone holding penalty. Nine seconds later, the puck was in the Detroit net.

Video: TBL@DET, Gm4: Kucherov opens the scoring with PPG

Boyle won the faceoff back to Hedman, who carried it from left to right inside the blue line. Pass to Drouin on the left. Pass to Johnson down low. Pass to Kucherov in the right circle. One-timer. Goal.

How many times did the Lightning work on that play Monday?

"Pretty much every faceoff," Johnson said. "You spent 30 minutes' worth, that's a lot of faceoffs. Yeah, we kind of knew what we were doing."

Later in the second, the Glendening line took another penalty while matched against the Johnson line when Sheahan went off for slashing, and Kucherov scored on another one-timer.

This time, Cooper put out a unit of Drouin, Kucherov, Palat, forward Ryan Callahan and defenseman Jason Garrison. The Lightning passed the puck around the zone, and Drouin made a nifty feed into the slot for Kucherov, who gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead.

Video: TBL@DET, Gm4: Kucherov fires PPG past Mrazek

The Red Wings tied the game with two goals in the second period, the second with 9.3 seconds to go. They came within inches of taking the lead at 7:23 of the third when rookie forward Dylan Larkin hit the goal post, the arena lights flashing, the fans roaring. But then Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson went off for cross-checking with 4:42 to go.

Suddenly the Lightning couldn't wait to go on the power play. They had the confidence that this was their chance to win it.

Cooper put out Boyle, Drouin, Hedman, Kucherov and Palat. Again, the Lightning worked the puck around the zone like the power play had been a strength all season: Hedman to Drouin to Hedman to Kucherov to Drouin to Palat. Drouin could have shot from the right circle, but he put the puck on Palat's stick in front and he redirected it into the net with 2:59 to go.

"I think the biggest thing with Drouin is, he just needed that confidence," Johnson said. "He's a guy that has unbelievable skill. I mean, you watch him. Some of the things he does, it's just remarkable. So I think he just needed the confidence to be able to do that in the game. When he gets his motor running, his feet going, it's pretty magical to watch."

Not if you're the Red Wings. Not when your power play is 1-for-21 in the series. Not when the offseason is one loss away.

"Hopefully this keeps going, because that'll be a huge boost for us," Johnson said. "It was just a little bit of being familiar with each other, talking things out. We worked on it, and it paid off."

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