Friday, November 24, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Lightning must improve its defense

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NEWARK, N.J. — For the Lightning, not all is wonderful in paradise.

Or Brooklyn. Or New Jersey. Or wherever Tampa Bay is at the moment.

The team practiced at the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils, on Thursday. But its minds were very much on Barclays Center, home of the New York Islanders, and what happened Tuesday night.

All was great Tuesday for the Lightning, right? Well, the result was.

Tampa Bay showed guts, resiliency and resolve in overcoming three one-goal deficits to take Game 3 and a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series. But the victory came only after a last-minute goal in regulation and another in overtime.

And as much as you should applaud how the Lightning kept coming back from being down a goal, you also shouldn't ignore how it kept falling behind by a goal.

"I really liked the way we responded when things weren't going our way," coach Jon Cooper said, "especially coming back from being down three different times."

But …

"Can't sit here and say I particularly like the way we played," Cooper said, "especially in the first period."

Hey, give the Lightning credit. At least it knows it might have stolen a game.

Tampa Bay was badly outshot in the first period: 17-9. Had it not been for a dazzling display by goalie Ben Bishop, the Lightning would have been down four or five goals. Miraculously, thanks to Ryan Callahan's late first-period goal, the Lightning went to the first intermission tied 1-1.

It had no business being in that game after 20 minutes. It really had no business winning that game.

"We gave up way too many scoring chances," Cooper said.

Not just scoring chances. Good scoring chances. Great scoring chances.

"Grade A scoring chances," Cooper said.

So what went wrong?

Give some credit to the Islanders. They were back home in front of their rabid fans. They were jacked up. They came out flying after being challenged by their coach, Jack Capuano, after a lethargic Game 2 loss in Tampa.

They were due for a good response, particularly after scratching out a measly eight shots in the final two periods of Game 2.

But don't give all the credit to the Islanders. The Lightning defense — and when I say defense, I mean all skaters on the ice, not just the defensemen — looked like it was played by kids on a playground. You know, a mad scramble of bodies going in a million directions but with no sense of purpose.

Okay, that's harsh. But not all that offbase.

"(The Islanders) definitely got some chances, and we have some things we have to clean up defensively," defenseman Braydon Coburn said. "Way too many chances on 'Bish.' "

The end result — a 5-4 Lightning victory — was great. But the score — again, 5-4 — was not.

"Well, 5-4 is an exciting game," Coburn said. "But you definitely want to be a little bit tighter than that."

The other thing to consider is that every playoff series is going to have ebbs and flows, back-and-forths, pushes and pushbacks. These are the playoffs. All the teams are good. They wouldn't be here if they weren't. Eventually, every team is going to have good moments, especially if it has had some bad moments. That's just how hockey works.

"Sometimes it's like that, but sometimes it's not," Coburn said. "(The Islanders) are doing some good things offensively, and we can tighten up defensively as well."

Another factor — though the Lightning hates to use this as an excuse — is the absence of veteran defenseman Anton Stralman, out since March 25 with a fractured leg. More in this series than in the last one against Detroit, Stralman is missed.

There have been obvious moments when the absence of Stralman's leadership, steady play and calmness on the back end have really been noticeable. Throw in a Matt Carle injury and the stress can be seen everywhere.

Victor Hedman was forced to play 30 minutes in Game 3. Slater Koekkoek, who has appeared in only 14 NHL games in his life, played 18 shifts. Coburn played 23 minutes, 45 seconds, the most he has played in a game this season.

But here's the deal: Stralman isn't playing Friday in Game 4. I'm getting the feeling he won't play in this series no matter how long it lasts. The Lightning has to simply go back to work and patch up its leaks on defense.

"You have your fundamentals, and you try to stick to those," Coburn said. "Usually when there are breakdowns, that's when you're giving up chances and opportunities. You just have to stick to what you do."

Or as Cooper put it: "Take a breath. Look at the positives, and we got some negatives in there. Just clean those up."

Easy to say. Now is the time to go out and do it. Friday. In Brooklyn and in the rest of the playoffs, wherever the games may be.

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