ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said in preparation for tonight's game against the Lightning, he looked for clues this week by watching Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup final games against Chicago.
With the Ducks having lost to the Lightning (11-11-3) in their last three meetings, Boudreau figured that if they can't beat them, they might as well join those who have.
He's not alone.
Many teams have taken their cues from how playoff opponents, from the Red Wings to the Blackhawks, defended Tampa Bay, which was the league's highest-scoring team last season. They're neutralizing the Lightning's speed and skill by clogging up the neutral zone, thwarting breakout passes at the blueline, sometimes backchecking more than forechecking in a 1-2-2 alignment. Not coincidentally, Tampa Bay is going through a scoring slump, dropping to 24th in the league (2.32 goals per game).
"There's a big part of that," coach Jon Cooper admitted.
It's not the only factor. Injuries are playing a role, as is a frustratingly bad power play (22nd, 16.9 percent). The Lightning also isn't creating as many chances, getting fewer shots through (and on net) than last season. Cooper points out the entire league has moved towards a defense-first mentality, partly why scoring his reaching historically-low levels. But opponents aren't letting the Lightning play its game.
"That's one of the things that makes it difficult for teams that go to the finals, because everyone sees what they're doing and everybody studies their tendencies," said NBCSN analyst Pierre McGuire. "So they start the next year and they're like, 'Okay, how come everyone is so prepared for us, how does everyone know the way we play?' "
McGuire speaks from experience, an assistant coach on the Penguins teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991-1992, winning the President's Trophy in 1993.
"They were a mature team that had been through it, going from the hunter to the hunted," he said. "Everyone understood the concept. It's not easy to understand, or easy to get used to."
Cooper said some teams rarely change their systems, the Kings, Blues and Rangers among them. Others, some that didn't have as much success, tweak it to "coincide with the players that we have and hide some mistakes."
Take the Panthers, for example. They lost three of four meetings to Tampa Bay last season, finishing out of the playoffs. But Florida beat the Lightning twice this season, including 1-0 on Nov. 16, forward Brandon Pirri saying they took a page from the Red Wings playbook.
"You can't get sucked into playing (Tampa Bay's) game, because they're going to roast you every time," Pirri said. "When they have time, they're going to beat you every time. All those guys (on Detroit), (Pavel) Datsyuk, (Henrik) Zetterberg, their backpressure was the best in the league. You watch that and learn from it and see that's what it takes to beat these guys."
The Lightning, which has missed Ondrej Palat for three weeks, Tyler Johnson for five games (over two stints), and Jonathan Drouin for 11, is expected to get Drouin back tonight.
Cooper said the Lightning is getting better at navigating through the neutral zone, as evident by the several rushes it had in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Islanders. But Cooper said Tampa Bay doesn't have enough of an "attack mentality," which is why he put a shot clock during power play drills Tuesday. And when the Lightning takes shots, just one-third are reaching the net (either blocked or missed), Cooper said.
Boudreau knows the Lightning's potent potential, after it beat Anaheim 5-0 on Nov. 27. That's why he watched how fellow Western Conference foe Chicago beat the Lightning in the final, holding Tampa Bay to two goals in the final three games.
"They've got so much skill up front," Boudreau said of the Lightning. "You have to make sure time and space is not there. Guys that people don't know the names of still too well are tremendous hockey players. You've got to be aware of that."
The league is more aware than ever.
MINOR MATTERS: Two Lightning prospects — forwards Brayden Point and Mitchell Stephens — were on the 30-player roster announced by the Canadian National Junior Team for its upcoming selection camp, Dec. 10-14 in Toronto. While both have been hurt, assistant Julien BriseBois said Point and Stephens will be healthy enough to participate, competing for spots in the World Junior Championship, held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Helsinki, Finland.
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
Lightning at Ducks
When/where: 10:30, Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 970-AM
Key stats: The Ducks (9-11-5) split the last four games since losing 5-0 to the Lightning in Tampa on Nov. 21. Anaheim is coming off a strong 4-0 win over the Canucks on Monday. Expect G John Gibson, who had 25 saves in the shutout, to start. RW Corey Perry leads the Ducks with 17 points (eight goals, nine assists). Tampa Bay won both meetings last season. Former Lightning wing Nate Thompson (shoulder) could make his season debut. G Ben Bishop, who made 30 saves in the Nov. 21 victory over the Ducks, is expected to start. The Lightning has given up five power-play goals the past two games, both losses.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer