Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning emphatically answers power-play question

TAMPA — There were some questions going into the season what the Lightning would do to replace Jonathan Drouin on its potent power play.

Sure, Tampa Bay was getting back a healthy Steven Stamkos. But Drouin, dealt to Montreal in June, was the quarterback on the side wall last year, setting up Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov.

"You can’t replace Jo," assistant coach Todd Richards said. "But you can do something different."

The Lightning’s adjustments have paid off, as the team holds the NHL’s second-ranked power play heading into Thursday’s game against the Stars, who boast the No. 1 unit. Tampa Bay has a power-play goal in 15 of its 18 games, netting a league-most 20 for a 28 percent success rate.

By putting two snipers in Stamkos and Kucherov in opposite circles on one unit, it has created matchup nightmares. And the second, blue-collar unit provides a different look. Nine different players have scored a power play goal. Only three of Kucherov’s NHL-leading 16 goals have come with the man advantage.

"It’s unique obviously because you have a 50-goal scorer on one side and a 40-goal scorer on the other side," said Richards, who runs the power play. "You’ve got two guys that can shoot the puck. I don’t know if that’s uncharacteristic or not, but what I’ve been impressed with is the ability of each guy being able to make plays. Where (Drouin) was really the setup guy last year and he was the guy feeding Kuch on the weak side or feeding Heddy up top. It seems like they’re both getting equal opportunities, so it’s unique and different."

Coach Jon Cooper said the idea from the beginning was to see how Stamkos and Kucherov were on the same unit. After all, the duo’s chemistry as linemates has been dynamic. But Tampa Bay experimented with several options before reuniting them in the final week of the preseason, with Alex Killorn — positioned in the slot — the benefactor with three power-play goals in the final two exhibitions.

"It’s different because last year, we had one option with Hedman and Kucherov and everything was played off of Drouin’s side," Killorn said. "Now it’s played off both sides."

Stamkos, who missed most of last season after mid November knee surgery, leads the Lightning with six power-play goals. Vladislav Namestnikov, on the same unit, has four, and Kucherov has three. Hedman has the best view from the point, with each pass having the potential for an assist.

"It’s pretty good to be back there, not going to lie to you," Hedman said. "The more threats you can have to shoot, the better you’re going to be, because it’s going to open up seams, open up guys. Stammer and Kuch, the way they see the ice, and see the opening, it’s pretty remarkable."

Four of Stamkos’ power-play goals have come off what MSG Network analyst Steve Valiquette dubbed the "Royal Road" pass. That’s a seam pass that goes through the Royal Road, the slot, across the zone. As The Athletic’s Prashanth Iyer noted Tuesday, Valiquette’s research showed 22 percent of 5-on-4 power play goals since 2015-16 have been scored off shots from a Royal Road pass. It’s so tough to defend for a goalie because he has to open himself up while moving laterally.

While the Lightning’s power play last year was stout (sixth in the NHL), there wasn’t as much of an opportunity for those cross-zone passes, as Drouin — a left shot — was in the left circle, making it more difficult for a one-timer. This year’s power play may be deeper. The second unit with Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Ondrej Palat and rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev is more of a puck-hounding, blue-collar group. Three of the unit’s five goals this season have come from either deflections or rebounds.

"They are really tenacious and are fast and they’re moving," Richards said. "So it’s evolved into two different looks. I don’t think a team can come in and say both power play units run exactly the same. You can’t set up for both. You have to be ready for what each power play can throw at you."

Notable: The Lightning made a minor trade Tuesday, upgrading its AHL goalie tandem in acquiring Louis Domingue from Arizona for goalie Michael Leighton and forward Tye McGinn. … Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will sign autographs from 3-4 p.m. Friday at Tampa Sports store in International Plaza. Fans are asked to bring a nonperishable item for Metropolitan Ministries.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith.

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