Monday, January 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lessons get harder for Lightning rookies

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Games at Phoenix and Los Angeles the past six days were a revelation for Lightning wing Alex Killorn.

Killorn did not face a Western Conference opponent during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, his first season in the league. So the start of a four-game West Coast trip with two losses by a combined score of 11-5 was like an advanced study course, not to mention a slap in the face.

"Teams out in the West, I don't know if they play a different style, it's just different," Killorn said Wednesday. "Teams like L.A., Anaheim, they're pretty big and strong. They hit a lot. You've got to play somewhat of a different game. You've got to keep things simple."

If Killorn, who has played 59 NHL games, feels that way, imagine what it's like for the Lightning's seven rookies — most in the league — all of whom get significant playing time.

Those seven are part of a group of 10 players out of an active roster of 22 who spent either all or part of last season with AHL Syracuse. It is part of a plan to let a talented group of youngsters bond, build and, over time, win together.

But that also means letting them figure out how to deal with adversity at a competitive level with which they have little experience.

Tampa Bay has lost back-to-back games for the first time this season — 6-3 to the Coyotes and 5-2 to the Kings — and looked bad doing it, and it faces potentially even tougher games tonight against the Sharks at the SAP Center and Friday at Anaheim.

It also is without Steven Stamkos, out indefinitely with a broken leg. Stamkos provided scoring, but the defensive attention paid him by opponents also created room for his teammates. With Stamkos gone, opponents can more evenly allocate their defense. That means everyone has to play at a higher level.

Instead, the Lightning on Tuesday against the Kings was sloppy. It couldn't control the puck and was outshot 31-21.

"You could see that we just made inexperienced mistakes," coach Jon Cooper said. "It doesn't make you a bad team. It doesn't make you bad hockey players. Guys just have to be put in these positions, and sometimes you have to get knocked down to pick yourself back up."

It's a lesson rookie defenseman Radko Gudas said he learned in the 22 games he played last season with Tampa Bay after his promotion from Syracuse.

"The players are way more smarter, and the speed of the game is way different," Gudas said. "The guys know where to go, so it's harder to make a play. You have to make sure you have smart and fast thinking to be able to get the puck to someone."

The thing is, it all seemed to be working so smoothly the first six weeks of the season, when Tampa Bay started 14-5. But the inevitable bumps have begun, and how the young players respond will play a large part in the team's success or failure.

"The bad part to this whole thing is we can't turn to Steven Stamkos to bail us out," Cooper said. "But in saying that, the good thing about this is we can't turn to Steven Stamkos to bail us out. We have to do it ourselves."

"The beginning of this road trip was kind of like a wakeup call," said Killorn, promoted last season from Syracuse. "There's a lot of young guys on this team. If we all start keeping it simple, we'll be fine."

MINOR MOVE: Defenseman Dmitry Korobov was reassigned to Syracuse.

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