Friday, February 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Forwards give boost to Lightning defense

One reason the Lightning is off to such a good start — Saturday night's 5-0 loss to the Bruins notwithstanding — is not the most noticeable on the ice, so it gets little fanfare.

But make no mistake, that Tampa Bay's forwards are more than ever helping in the defensive zone is energizing the way the team plays and might even help rejuvenate the reputation of the long-picked-on blue liners.

"It's a huge difference," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "That's the biggest key to defense … everyone on the same page."

Former coach Guy Boucher always talked about wanting his forwards to contribute more defensively. But circumstances seemed to get in the way.

First, the Lightning, with players such as Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, was built to score goals. Add poor defensive-zone play and poor goaltending that often put Tampa Bay behind early, and the emphasis on scoring increased. Forwards cheated to the opponent's end of the ice. That hung the defense out to dry.

Enter Cooper, whose system is predicated on a five-man defensive unit.

"I'm a true believer," he said, "you look after your own end, the offense will take care of itself."

"It's all he talks about," said center Tyler Johnson, who also played for Cooper at AHL Norfolk and Syracuse. "It's the staple to his system. If you don't have that, nothing else works."

Important for Cooper was getting players such as Stamkos, St. Louis, Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone on board.

As Cooper said, "When those guys are pointed in the right direction, everyone follows."

It is happening. Wins last week over the Kings and Wild — by a combined score of 8-2 — were good examples of the benefits when Tampa Bay's forwards support the defense. When that happens, opponents' Grade A scoring chances are reduced, breakouts are clean and poise with the puck increases. Pucks are not dumped out of the defensive zone to relieve pressure but carried out to make plays.

"We're trusting (Cooper's) system. We're trusting what they're preaching to us," Purcell said. "Guys are sacrificing a little offense to work harder in the defensive zone."

"It's a must," goalie Ben Bishop said. "If you take care of your own zone, we have enough firepower to put points on the board."

And they have, with Tampa Bay's average 3.57 goals per game entering Saturday tied for fourth in the league.

"It's not like guys weren't willing to do it in previous years and all of a sudden you push a button," Stamkos said of playing defense. "It's an awareness. It's just being conscious of situations and being smarter with the puck.

"It's fun to win games," he added. "It's fun to do the right things in winning those games."

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