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Matt Gilroy could join Eric Brewer on Tampa Bay Lightning's top defense pair

Matt Gilroy, center, congratulates Dwayne Roloson, left, with center Nate Thompson after Sunday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Panthers in which he set up a goal with a creative, pretty play.

Associated Press

Matt Gilroy, center, congratulates Dwayne Roloson, left, with center Nate Thompson after Sunday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Panthers in which he set up a goal with a creative, pretty play.

SUNRISE — The worry lines on Lightning coach Guy Boucher's face were clear. His voice had a tone of concern.

Defenseman Matt Gilroy on Sunday against the Panthers made a slick offensive move that included a spin-o-rama with the puck and a pinpoint backhand pass from below the goal line to set up a goal by Steven Stamkos.

It was creative and pretty.

"But a spin-o-rama at the blue line?" Boucher said, shaking his head at the thought of all that could have gone wrong.

Boucher was exaggerating for effect after Tampa Bay's 4-3 shootout victory at the BankAtlantic Center. But after working so hard with Gilroy to better manage his offensive instincts, he doesn't want the player thinking he's Bobby Orr.

That is particularly important now given the uncertainty over Victor Hedman's upper-body injury and that if Hedman is out, Gilroy seems to be Boucher's first choice to play with Eric Brewer as the No. 1 pair.

Not to worry, Gilroy seemed to say.

"I'm getting more comfortable, and I think it comes from defense first and keeping it simple," he said. "They said if I keep it simple more and more, things will open up, and it has."

In that context, much more notable than Gilroy's four assists is that in 12 games (while averaging 16:33 of ice time) he is tied for the team lead at plus-6 and has zero giveaways.

"He's never out of position," Boucher said. "He doesn't get beat one-on-one. I see him as reliable. We want him on the ice."

That's quite a difference from the start of the season, when Gilroy, 27, a free-agent signee, seemed to spend more time trying to create offense below the hash marks than playing a responsible blue line. Even Gilroy admitted he was a defensive liability, "running around like a chicken with his head cut off."

"I just think I understand the system now," Gilroy said. "In the beginning, it's kind of a challenging system to understand and where to be and where not to be and your responsibilities. But understanding it now, your confidence goes from there."

Not that getting there was easy. Gilroy can be impulsive when it comes to joining a rush. He skates well and has good vision on the ice, and he had seven goals and 26 points in 127 games in two seasons with the Rangers.

Reining him in has taken lots of film study with assistant coach Dan Lacroix and constant reminders during games by Lacroix and Boucher to "keep it simple."

"Don't take risks," Lacroix said is the message. "By playing the game the right way, you're going to have your looks. But you have to let the play dictate when you jump and when not to jump."

Gilroy, 6 feet 1, 201 pounds, jumped against Florida, spinning with the puck at the blue line to avoid Kris Versteeg and skating down the left wing and toward the net, from where he sent Stamkos a perfect pass.

"He's very talented and has lots of skill," teammate Marc-Andre Bergeron said. "It was just a matter of finding his own game within the system."

"It's going to be a process with me, still," Gilroy said. "I'm more under control."

Blue line spin-o-ramas notwithstanding.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.

Matt Gilroy could join Eric Brewer on Tampa Bay Lightning's top defense pair 11/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 12:42am]
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