Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning’s Jon Cooper uses unusual tactic to create mismatches

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA — Tyler Johnson is about to swing his left leg over the boards for his next shift alongside linemate Alex Killorn and … who else?

Stamkos? Kucherov? Point?

Johnson and Killorn do not know until Lightning coach Jon Cooper barks out a name.

"About five seconds before we go on the ice," Johnson said.

Namestnikov!

Callahan!

Then the newly minted line skates away, hoping to take advantage of a mismatch Cooper sought to create with that group of forwards.

It is all about matchups, which is why Cooper is fond of using the 11/7 lineup — 11 forwards instead of the traditional 12 and seven defensemen instead of the traditional six. The odd numbers mess with the even flow of the game. That is the point.

"Some of its personnel-based," Cooper said. "Some of it is team-based. Some of its opposition-based, but it’s something we’re comfortable with, and we’re rolling with right now."

The Lightning entered Monday with the league’s best record, 7-1-1.

Cooper has employed the Johnson/Killorn/Special Guest line during the past seven games. It has generated a pair of goals for Nikita Kucherov.

"It’s something that we’re still trying to adjust to," Johnson said. "The chemistry is always different. I’m still trying to figure out what to expect and what to do. It’s hard to build on anything because it’s always somebody different, but the team is playing well right now, so we got to keep on going."

Normally, linemates talk about what went right or wrong during their shift when they return to the bench. They work on fixing issues or honing their chemistry during practice. Not Johnson and Killorn. It is hard to work as a trio when the third party is practicing with another line.

And it is not easy for Johnson and Killorn to get into a rhythm during a game when they are skating with Steven Stamkos on one shift and Ryan Callahan the next, followed by maybe Brayden Point or Chris Kunitz or Vladislav Namestnikov.

"We’re all playing the same systems, but there are really just inches difference, and those inches make a big change," Johnson said. "Kind of have to get to know who you’re going with, read each other. It’s getting better, but it’s definitely been pretty hard."

Though not standard, the 11/7 lineup is not a foreign concept. John Tortorella used it while coaching in Tampa Bay. So did Guy Boucher. Tortorella often used the seventh defenseman as a forward to balance a line. Cooper did that, too, last season with defensemen Luke Witkowski and Nikita Nesterov.

Cooper used the 11/7 lineup to near perfection during the 2011-12 season while coaching the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk. The Admirals won 43 of their final 46 games, including an astonishing 28 straight, en route to the Calder Cup championship.

What makes it work this season is that Johnson and Killorn are top-six forwards playing essentially on the third line. Also, they have shared plenty of ice time with the other forwards during the past few years, so there is familiarity.

It is up to Cooper to decide when to put that pair on the ice and with whom. He said he goes by feel.

"You have to be two or three lines ahead of what’s coming up," Cooper said. A "ton of variables" go into the decision.

He is not about to go into detail on the X’s and O’s, though, lest he give away his secrets.

And when asked before Saturday’s game against the Lightning about the challenges of defending against such a line, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan offered only, "We don’t overthink that. It’s not like we’re trying something unique because they chose to dress 11 forwards. We’re more concerned about our team and how we’re trying to dictate the terms out there."

Stamkos is a fan of the lineup.

"Any time as a player you can go out for an extra shift, you’re happy," he said.

Stamkos said Cooper can add any one of his forwards with Johnson and Killorn and "you have a legitimate scoring threat on that line. Three lines that can do the role of a top six. It’s pretty unique."

And challenging.

And right now, successful.

NOTEWORTHY: The first year of rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s entry level contract kicks in if he’s in the lineup tonight at Carolina. "There’s a really good chance that you will see him (tonight)," Cooper said. … Victor Hedman did not practice Monday for body maintenance. … Center Cedric Paquette, who missed the past two games with an unspecified upper body injury, did not practice.

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