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Coaches Room

Lightning can benefit from difficult start this season

Carlyle says lessons learned from adversity can be applied during Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Randy Carlyle / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season 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. Paul MacLean, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, Carlyle, winner of the Norris Trophy voted as best defenseman in the NHL in 1980-81 and former coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, discusses the path of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

A team from the middle of the pack for most of the first six weeks of the NHL season is starting to catch my eye.

It's the Tampa Bay Lightning, the runaway winners of the Presidents' Trophy last season.

There were several good signs from the Lightning during the 2019 NHL Global Series games in Stockholm against the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 8-9, and more when they returned to North America.

At 6-5-2 heading into the trip, Tampa Bay didn't have the start it was expecting. No doubt there was internal pressure, from the players and their coaches, that they had to correct the way they were playing, and they clearly started that process and gelled when they got to Sweden, defeating the Sabres 3-2 and 5-3 in the two games.

Defenseman Victor Hedman, who was born in Sweden, was a focal point for the week and was a monster in the games in Stockholm, fully engaged emotionally and physically. He's a key part to any team success.

When they returned home for a game against the New York Rangers on Nov. 14, the Lightning won 9-3 and looked and played quicker, and were so much better than the Rangers in that game.

Tampa Bay then lost back-to-back games after defeating the Rangers, 4-3 in what I'd call a trap game against the Winnipeg Jets this past Saturday, and then 3-1 at the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday -- a tight game that was essentially a one-goal game until a late, empty-net goal by the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Video: Best of Victor Hedman at the Global Series in Sweden

But the signs of progress are there, in my opinion. The Lightning are 9-7-2 heading into a game at the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET; NBCSCH, SUN, NHL.TV) and have at least three games in hand on each team ahead of them in the Atlantic Division.

There's something to be said for the Lightning facing some regular-season adversity.

Tampa Bay's 128 points last season were 21 more than the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins. Their 62 wins tied the record for most victories in an NHL season, set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96. Their goal differential was 98, an amazing number.

What might have been lost in all that domination last season was that the Lightning didn't need to play playoff hockey before the Stanley Cup Playoffs started. They were a team that cruised through the regular season and won with their skill without having to play much of a grind game, that 20 to 25 percent more defensive hockey -- or what I like to call confrontational hockey -- that the playoff races and playoffs require.

Meanwhile, other teams were engaged in all kinds of battles for positioning and to simply make the playoffs, and a team that fought their way in -- the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference -- swept the Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round.

Video: NYR@TBL: Kucherov picks the corner for PPG

I bristle when I hear that the Lightning blew it last season. We are all creatures of habit and without having played much defensive or confrontational hockey before the playoffs, once they lost the momentum in their series, they couldn't get it back when it turned against them.

You can't tell me they don't have competitive players, and their skill certainly didn't disappear. But the momentum proved very elusive at a critical time and you can bet they spent most or all their summer trying to answer those questions of how it eluded them.

In the new season, a most important sign is that they're not giving up on their style of play. They like to create, and are good at it, and their best players are once again leading the way. Steven Stamkos has eight points (two goals, six assists) in the past six games. Nikita Kucherov -- who left the game Tuesday because of an upper-body injury -- has been back to himself with seven points (two goals, five assists) in the past five games. And Hedman has eight points (two goals, six assists) in a five-game point streak.

Tampa Bay's defense, including 21-year-old Mikhail Sergachev, is very formidable. I'd say it's as good a back end as there is in the League this season.

Drilling deeper into what's happening, I've noticed that Tampa Bay has put Cedric Paquette in the middle with Pat Maroon and Yanni Gourde on the wings on the third line. It's a combination the Lightning can trust defensively and still provides a level of offense.

You can't underestimate how important having a third line that contributes offensively can be. For most teams in the NHL, it's a stretch to say they have three lines providing offense. You can never be sure this line will be this effective over time, but right now it's working and makes Tampa Bay an even more difficult team to play against.

Now here we are a quarter of the way through the regular season and the Lightning are starting to win more battles and are executing at a higher level. They went 0-for-2 on the power play Tuesday against the Blues but have been winning special teams battles lately. They scored eight power-play goals and allowed one power-play goal in the four games before playing the Blues, and they're getting good goaltending, all good signs that help you win games regularly.

To me, the Lightning would seem to be on the right path and are trending positively. They look like they're going to be a force in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference again.

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