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Lightning focuses on winning battles for pucks

Lightning defenseman Matt Carle battles Rod Brind’Amour for possession of the puck during the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime win Saturday. In its first three games, Tampa Bay has allowed an average of 42 shots.

Associated Press

Lightning defenseman Matt Carle battles Rod Brind’Amour for possession of the puck during the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime win Saturday. In its first three games, Tampa Bay has allowed an average of 42 shots.

TAMPA — The clacking of sticks and rattling of boards at the St. Pete Times Forum was not nearly loud enough to drown out Barry Melrose's voice.

"Get on him. Get on the puck. Get on the puck," the Lightning coach encouraged his players during a five-on-five drill.

"Hit him, Grats. Hit him," he urged center Chris Gratton, defending against captain Vinny Lecavalier.

Next, players paired off for some intense 30-second one-on-one puck battles.

It was back to basics Monday for a team that had three days before its next game to fix the glitches that led to an 0-2-1 start and opponents getting 126 shots on goal, the most Tampa Bay ever allowed in a three-game stretch.

There is plenty to consider:

• Not getting the puck and bodies to the net on offense.

• A lack of production from star players.

• A transition game hindered, Melrose said, by the defense's lack of composure with the puck.

• A lack of physical play.

But no aspect of Tampa Bay's game has lagged as much as winning battles for the puck.

"We're brutal at that," Melrose said. "If you're going to win in today's NHL, you have to win the physical battles. That's what we worked on (Monday). We'll work on them (today). We'll work on them (Wednesday) and continue to work on them."

And while battles occur all over the ice, the spotlight is on those in the defensive zone; not only because winning them will take some pressure off Tampa Bay's overworked goaltenders, but because, as right wing Marty St. Louis said, "You can't generate offense if you're stuck in your own end."

Saturday's game with the Hurricanes is a prime example. When the Lightning controlled the puck, the offense clicked, Carolina, pressured, took penalties and Tampa Bay led 3-0.

When the Hurricanes took the initiative, the Lightning retreated, almost conceding control of the puck at times, and lost 4-3 in overtime.

At least one goal came after Carolina cycled the puck relentlessly, with little challenge, in the corner of the Lightning zone.

"We weren't hitting guys and pinning guys," Gratton said. "Carolina was skating all over our zone and making plays at will. We just have to be a harder team to play against in our zone."

"We can't have a team cycle us to death for an extended time," St. Louis said. "You get tired when that happens, and once you get the puck, it's a dump-in and it's off the ice. You can't create like that.

"All five of us in the end zone, we have to find a way to break the cycles, get the puck back and get it out; not at the end of a shift when you've got to get off the ice. Break the cycles midway through shifts and you still have energy to go on offense."

Melrose's plan?

"Somebody," he said, "has to knock somebody on his butt. That's still part of the game, and we don't do that enough. You're mirroring a guy, and your stick is in the (passing) lane. But we're not checking them. You can't win the game on the perimeter and play with slide-bys and stick-checking. Even our best offensive players have to be grittier."

Thus, Monday's practice.

"Little battles win big games," Melrose said.

A message players heard clearly.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Lightning focuses on winning battles for pucks 10/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 4:51pm]
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