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Unorthodox lineup paying dividends for Lightning

by Arpon Basu

CHICAGO -- Nearly everyone can remember one thing that made them feel safe at some point in their lives.

Children often have a security blanket, adults prone to superstition will convince themselves that an inanimate object brings them luck. The common thread is the comfort that one thing brings them.

In the case of Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, based on what we’ve seen so far in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, his security blanket is unique.

Nearly every time Cooper has needed to switch momentum in a series, or any time he’s felt somewhat insecure with a situation, he has turned to an unorthodox lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen.

He did it again in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday and came away with a 3-2 victory to take a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Lightning are 9-4 in the playoffs when they use seven defensemen, a significantly better mark than 5-5 when Cooper goes with a traditional lineup of 12 forwards and six defensemen.

"It’s interesting because we didn’t do it much during the year in the regular season, even if he’s done it in the past," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "But it’s worked for us.

"It was kind of weird at first; I didn’t understand why we were doing this. But I’m not smart enough to be a coach."

The first time Cooper did it in the playoffs was in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Detroit Red Wings, and it was out of necessity. Defenseman Jason Garrison was coming back from an upper-body injury that sidelined him for four weeks, and Cooper decided to keep Nikita Nesterov in the lineup as a seventh defenseman as insurance.

It was something just about any coach would do.

The Lightning won 3-2 in double overtime coming off a 3-0 loss in Game 3, beginning a trend Cooper used through the first two rounds.

Four of the next five times Cooper used a lineup with seven defensemen it was following a loss. The Lightning won three of those games, including Game 6 at Detroit to force Game 7; Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round to clinch that series; and Game 2 against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final to tie the series 1-1.

Prior to Game 7 against the Red Wings on April 29, Cooper was asked why he liked that lineup so much, and his answer was vague but at the same time revealing.

"Well, there’s a few reasons," Cooper said. "Some of it was matchup related, some of it was positionally, some of it was health related. Personally, I’ve run 11 and seven a little bit in my career; we did a lot last year, but this year not so much just because of the personnel we have.

"I think it gives you a different look, it gives you different options, I like having the extra defenseman there. I can go down the list of the different reasons why. It’s not just one. It’s a bevy of things."

Basically, the lineup gives Cooper options.

On defense, it allows him to give Nesterov spot duty on different pairings, allowing Cooper to manage the minutes of his better defensemen. For instance, in Game 4 against the Rangers, Nesterov played the most minutes he has as a seventh defenseman in the playoffs, 14:43. With the Rangers holding a comfortable lead in the third period of a 5-1 victory, Nesterov played a good chunk of his total minutes (6:11) in the final period of a lost game.

On the opposite end was Game 7 against the Rangers, when Nesterov played 3:10, his lowest ice time in the playoffs. That was a 0-0 game through two periods before the Lightning scored twice in the third to win 2-0 and advance to the Cup Final. Nesterov didn’t play a shift over the second half of the game.

That versatility, that ability to manage minutes based on game situations, has proven valuable for the Lightning thus far.

Nikita Nesterov
Defense - TBL
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 6
SOG: 10 | +/-: 5
"To see [Nesterov] step in and play the way he does has been impressive," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We’ve got seven guys that can really play. We just have to be focused on the task. Doesn't matter if we dress six or seven defensemen, we know that everyone is going to go out there and do the best they can for us to have success. That's been the case throughout the whole playoffs."

Hedman said the only real difference for the defensemen when Nesterov plays is that they are sometimes asked to play on both the left and right side during a game.

The real impact is up front. When Cooper dresses seven defenseman, it is Boyle’s line with Brenden Morrow that loses a member and thereby becomes a unique weapon for Cooper to deploy when needed.

In Game 3 against the Blackhawks on Monday, five Lightning forwards played on the wing with Boyle and Morrow at 5-on-5, according to Nikita Kucherov (4:02), J.T. Brown (1:36), Steven Stamkos (1:31), Ryan Callahan (1:19) and Ondrej Palat (1:11).

Having that open spot on the fourth line not only allows Cooper to get some of his best offensive players (Stamkos and Kucherov) some extra shifts, it lets him shape that line according to his needs in the game. If he wants to protect a lead, Cooper can send Callahan out with Boyle and Morrow, for example.

"It’s tough for matchups even if you are the home team and you want to shut down [Stamkos] or something, but then he’s jumping out there with us," Boyle said. "We feel we’ve had some pretty good chemistry. Obviously me and [Morrow] are going to try to get him the puck and get him some space, but you don’t expect him to come out there with me and [Morrow].

"It’s an interesting strategy. I’ve never done it before until this year. Yeah, you’d love to have your line and get some chemistry like that, but this has been pretty good for us."

It could be argued that this is a better tactical use of a fourth line than the more traditional model, but you need to have players you can trust to play the sort of hybrid role using 11 forwards creates. Boyle takes it as a vote of confidence in him and Morrow from his coach, that Cooper feels comfortable using them with different players in different situations against some top competition.

Boyle’s most frequent opponent at 5-on-5 among Blackhawks forwards in Game 3 was Patrick Kane.

"You want to be able to adapt and have him have the confidence that he can put me and [Morrow] as basically a twosome and throw guys with us," Boyle said. "We look forward to whoever it is that plays with us and we try to give them a little energy and give them a little jump. It’s certainly interesting."

And it’s certainly working.

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