TAMPA — Shift length. The length of time his players have been on the ice and their ability to assess their energy levels.
That is the key to the Lightning's expertise at scoring shorthanded goals, coach Jon Cooper said.
"At the beginning of a shift, we emphasize if there's a chance to make a play, make a play," Cooper said. "But if you're at the end of a shift, don't extend it to try to get that extra chance."
It is a simple formula, but it has added an element to the Lightning's game that was nonexistent last season, one Cooper emphasized in training camp and that at any moment can change the dynamic of a game.
It happened Tuesday when Tyler Johnson scored shorthanded with 7:19 left in the third period to break a 1-1 tie and ended up getting the winning goal in a 3-1 victory over the Canadiens that clinched Tampa Bay's first playoff spot since 2011.
It was the Lightning's 10th shorthanded goal this season, tied for second in the league, quite an accomplishment considering the team had zero shorthanded goals in last-season's lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule and just nine in five seasons from 2008-13.
"It can change the course of a game," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "It has a real uplifting affect on your team. And having a power play that gets scored on can be demoralizing. In our league, where there are so many one-goal games and close games, a shorthanded goal can be huge."
"It's something that gives the other team's power play something to worry about," Johnson said. "I know when we have our power-play meetings, if we're going up against a team that has a lot of shorthanded opportunities, you're maybe not taking some of those chances."
The starting point for the Lightning's penalty kill is the same as every team's: short-circuit the opposition's power play. And truth be told, Tampa Bay has been sketchy in that at times; its 80.6 efficiency entered Wednesday tied for 22nd in the 30-team league.
But the Lightning also is greedy, with speedy, young legs and opportunistic, skilled players who put pressure on opponents and wait to pounce on their mistakes.
They did it Tuesday when defenseman Victor Hedman poked a puck away from Montreal's David Desharnais to spring a sprinting Johnson on his winning breakaway.
"The speed of our forwards is a big emphasis," Hedman said. "At the same time, we don't take chances. We take chances when broken plays happen, like (Tuesday)."
Hedman entered Wednesday leading the league with six shorthanded assists. Johnson, whose 23 goals tied Steve Stamkos' team rookie mark, was tied for the lead with five shorthanded goals. Both were tied with New Jersey's Patrik Elias for the top spot with six shorthanded points.
Interestingly, the Lightning tonight hosts the Flames, who have a league-most 12 shorthanded goals.
In Tampa Bay's penalty kill, if players deviate from the prime directive — "Keep the puck out of (our) net," Cooper said — they are off the unit.
"When you're under duress, getting pucks 200 feet is mandatory," Cooper said. "But when there's time and open space … let's see if we can make a play.
"If you think about it, how often do power plays practice D zone coverage? It doesn't really happen that often, so if you can take advantage of it, why wouldn't you?"
FUN FACT: Johnson has five shorthanded goals and five power-play goals. He is the first rookie to do so since Dennis Maruk had seven power-play goals and five shorties for the 1975-76 California Golden Seals, the Elias Sports Bureau said.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com. View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.
The Lightning has more shorthanded goals this season than the past five combined:
Lightning vs. Flames
When/where: 7:30; Tampa Bay Times Forum
TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM
Key stats: Since the 2003-04 Stanley Cup final, Tampa Bay is 4-2-0 against the Flames. … The Lightning power play is 12-for-44 (27.3 percent) in its past nine games. … The Flames have a league-best 12 shorthanded goals. … Calgary's road penalty kill is the league's second worst at 75.9 percent. … Flames and former Lightning G Karri Ramo is 3-3-0 in his past six games with a 2.64 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.