Improvement of Tampa Bay Lightning defense hard to figure out

The arrival of goalie Dwayne Roloson in January has helped the Lightning improve its defense.

DIRK SHADD | Times

The arrival of goalie Dwayne Roloson in January has helped the Lightning improve its defense.

WASHINGTON

Think of the story as a mystery. Sort of a whodunit on ice.

In this case you're trying to figure out how a team of modest talent on defense can be tied for the NHL lead in goals-against average two weeks into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

On the surface it makes no sense. The Lightning is a team top-heavy with offensive talent. A team that began the season with questions in goal and gaps in its defense.

Yet the Lightning knocked off Pittsburgh in seven games in the first round by giving up an average of 2.0 goals per game. And then it held Washington to two goals in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series Friday night.

So can this be as simple as a game of Clue? Can you explain it by crediting Mr. Roloson in the crease with a glove? Or Capt. Brewer on the blue line with a stick?

Or is the truth more complex?

"We've grown," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "We've reinvented ourselves."

Before going too far, it is important to point out that Tampa Bay is not anyone's prototype of a great defense. The numbers in the Pittsburgh series were skewed because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were missing. And the Washington series is merely one game old, which means things could change in a hurry.

Still, there is no denying Tampa Bay is a much better defensive team today than it was in October. And yes, much of that is due to the acquisitions of Dwayne Roloson in January and Eric Brewer in February.

There is also the maturation of Victor Hedman, which has been noticeable in the past week. There are the younger forwards who eventually bought into the idea of being two-way players. There is the realization of what Boucher wants and the effort it will require.

"You go all the way back to training camp, and you realize the defense was always going to come first on this team," Vinny Lecavalier said. "With Guy, there was not going to be any other way. Once everybody buys into that, it makes a major difference."

Even so, there is still no simple way of explaining the success. The Lightning is certainly not fast on defense. And these guys are not particularly physical, either.

That's one reason the puck has been stuck in Tampa Bay's zone for minutes at a time in recent games. Lightning defensemen are not proficient at knocking people off the puck, and they don't move quickly enough to intercept it.

For perspective's sake, only five teams have given up 33 shots or more per game in the postseason. Four of those teams have been eliminated. The other is Tampa Bay.

That tells you two things:

No. 1, Roloson has had a very good postseason in the net. No. 2, Tampa Bay has done a good job of forcing opponents into taking low-percentage shots.

The Lightning has done this by getting all five skaters to help out on defense, pushing the puck to the corners and not giving opponents room to maneuver.

There is also the matter of the penalty kill, which has been phenomenal. The Lightning has given up only one power-play goal in eight postseason games and has killed 26 consecutive penalties.

"I thought we were playing good defense before Christmas," Boucher said, "but we would have brain cramps. All of a sudden it'd be like, 'What are we doing out there?' It was never one guy or one general trend. It was just a young team with 10 new players trying to maintain consistency in our defensive game.

"At some point, the shellacs stopped. It's funny, when I listen on TV now, I hear people say, 'Oh, yeah, when they're bad, they're really bad.' Yeah, that was before Christmas. Since Christmas, there have been no shellacs."

The acquisition of Roloson was obviously a key, but an argument could be made that Brewer's arrival had an even greater impact.

In the 39 games before Roloson came aboard, the Lightning was giving up an average of 3.08 goals per game. In Roloson's first 19 games, the average remained steady at 3.11.

Yet, once Brewer arrived in mid February from the Blues, that average dropped dramatically, to 2.29 goals per game in the regular season and 2.0 in the postseason.

"It's more than just one thing. It's a combination of everything," Boucher said. "It's Hedman growing up, it's (Brett) Clark stepping up a notch and (Mike) Lundin being consistent. It's our young forwards — how do I say this? — diminishing their unawareness.

"You get a guy like Roli coming in, and a calming atmosphere sets in, and that helps two or three guys. Then you get an example like Brewer to follow, and all of the sudden one more guy figures it out. It's a trickling effect, a domino effect from guy to guy."

At times, it still seems a bit mysterious. And I suppose that's fine.

Just as long as no opponent can figure it out.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Improvement of Tampa Bay Lightning defense hard to figure out 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 10:07pm]

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