SAN JOSE, Calif — Watching the Lightning recently, it's hard to believe it is the same team that lost its defensive identity in the season's first-half slide.
One week after Tampa Bay lost four straight, giving up a combined 22 goals, it has tightened up its defense considerably. The Lightning has allowed just seven regulation goals in the past four games, including Tuesday's 2-1 overtime loss to the Ducks.
It's an encouraging development for Tampa Bay, which has taken three of four possible points to open this make-or-break six-game trip. It's also stunning, especially considering that top defenseman Victor Hedman (illness) hasn't played the past two games.
What has been the difference?
"That's a good question," center Valtteri Filppula said.
There's not just one answer. The Lightning had intense, back-to-back practices last week in which it "reset the clock," defenseman Jason Garrison said, working on communication and commitment in the defensive zone. Goalie Ben Bishop has returned from injury and been sharp in starting three of the past four games since missing three weeks. The much-maligned penalty kill has been better.
But most important, the Lightning has been desperate. Fighting for its playoff life, it had no choice but to make a change. It can't afford having a 2.89 goals-against average (22nd in the league entering Wednesday).
"If we're going to get back into this thing, it's about playing defense," coach Jon Cooper said. "We have a bunch of guys in that room that want to make the playoffs and are willing to do anything it takes to get there. Guys are finding a little continuity right now, and playing 'D' is starting to pay off for the team.
"When you're doing that and giving up two or less goals a game, you have a pretty good chance of getting points out of a game, and guys have seen the results of that, and (they're) believing. It's been fun to watch them."
The turnaround started in back-to-back home games against Buffalo and Columbus last week. After beating the Sabres on Thursday, the Lightning held the NHL-best Blue Jackets to two goals before an empty-netter in a 3-1 loss Friday.
Tampa Bay has been winning more puck battles in its end. It's breaking the puck out of its zone more cleanly, making smarter, simpler plays. Gone are a lot of the brutal giveaways that often led to opponent's odd-man rushes and grade-A scoring chances.
The Lightning is playing with more grit, its 41 hits Monday in beating the Kings the seventh-highest total in team history. And the turnaround has been done with the same personnel. A top-four defenseman hasn't been brought in via trade to save the day. At least not yet.
"We've been trying to do the same thing for a while now, but everything is clicking better," Filppula said. "I think that's the main thing. We have more confidence. We've got to keep it going and hope it keeps working."
Bishop might have had back-to-back shutouts Monday and Tuesday had it not been for two odd goals. On Tuesday, Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf scored the tying goal after Bishop got hit in the mask in a scramble on the side of the net. Bishop, seeing Cedric Paquette taking the puck out of the Lightning zone, exited the crease to readjust his mask. Paquette turned the puck over, and Getzlaf surprised Bishop with a wrist shot. "When I looked back, it was in the net," Bishop said.
Bishop has noticed a significant improvement in how the Lightning has played in front of him. And Hedman could return tonight against San Jose.
"When you're playing 'D' as a team, good things can happen," Cooper said. "And that's happening so far."
First—None. Penalties—Fowler, ANA, (hooking), 9:19; Perry, ANA, (interference), 11:50; Condra, TB, (roughing), 17:01.
Second—1, TB, Filppula 7 (Nesterov, Stralman), 4:36. 2, ANA, Getzlaf 6, 4:57. Penalties—Perry, ANA, (holding), 12:38; TB bench, served by Kucherov (too many men), 16:11.
Third—None. Penalties—Witkowski, TB, (high sticking), 6:07; Bishop, TB, served by Drouin, (delay of game), 12:20.
OT—3, ANA, Rakell 19 (Kesler), 0:54 (pp). Penalties—Johnson, TB, (hooking), 0:50. Shots on Goal—TB 7-11-10—28. ANA 2-7-10-2—21. PP opportunities—TB 0 of 3; ANA 1 of 5. Goalies—TB, Bishop 11-10-3 (21 shots-19 saves). ANA, Gibson 18-10-8 (28-27).