Saturday, April 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning forwards aim to tighten up defense

A funny thing happens when you talk to the Lightning's top forwards about the need to play better defensively.

Each player, unsolicited, brings up that Tampa Bay was the only team to allow at least 400 goals combined the past two seasons — 425 to be exact, 29 more than any other team.

"And that," center Steven Stamkos said, "is pretty alarming."

Coach Jon Cooper believes so, too, and has made it a priority to shore up the Lightning's play in the defensive zone.

But he also has made it clear to his top forwards — you don't think they pulled that goals-against stat out of thin air, do you? — they have as much defensive responsibility as goaltenders and defensemen.

"We're not just talking about (Steven) Stamkos and (Marty) St. Louis," Cooper said. "We're talking about the (Ryan) Malones, the (Alex) Killorns, (Teddy) Purcells. It's not like these guys can't play D. They've all done it. They've all got pretty good habits. It's just the point of all five guys (on the ice) doing it together."

"It's not that you're not allowed to score goals any more," Stamkos said. "You just have to play defense. It's just being smarter. Marty and I finished one-two in scoring (in the league) last year. It's great, but we don't make the playoffs. There has to be a little give-and-take."

It is a concept from which the forwards admit they strayed the past couple of seasons.

It's no surprise, then, that Cooper said he will devote more than 50 percent of training camp to playing team defense.

It will be interesting to see during tonight's preseason home opener against the Predators if the lessons are taking hold, at least in concept.

For St. Louis, though, the concept goes beyond helping out in the defensive and neutral zones.

"Playing defense (happens) as soon as you lose the puck in your offensive zone," he said. "The quicker you defend, the quicker you get the puck back, so you're not playing a 200-foot game. We haven't done that very well, so you end up in your own zone, tired, and it's tough."

Actually, Stamkos said, Tampa Bay might not have to play that kind of game as much if forwards were a little more careful with the puck in the offensive zone.

"You've got to pick your spots," he said. "Just fewer 'hope' plays, being smarter. For me, that's something I want to work on. It's little positional things, a little less turnovers that lead to offensive chances by the other team."

Ultimately, though, what Cooper wants is five players, the unit, playing solid team defense.

That means forwards are backchecking in the neutral zone and keeping a close gap on opponents in the defensive zone to perhaps produce turnovers.

"You can't rely on your goaltender to make every single save," Cooper said. "It's not much fun playing D. It's much more fun to score goals. Do you need to score goals? Yes, but to win in this league, it's premier to keep the puck out of your net."

"You have to make sacrifices," Purcell said. "Maybe you won't be getting as many points or goals. But at the end of the day, your team is going to get more wins, and that's what it's all about."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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