Monday, December 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Penalty kill unit powers Lightning's strong start

TAMPA — The Lightning's penalty kill unit has been nearly perfect the past three weeks, one reason for the team's strong start.

To find the spark for the unit's recent run — killing 32 of 33 power plays the past nine games — look no further than its worst moment Oct. 12 against Pittsburgh.

Tampa Bay allowed three power-play goals in that 5-4 loss, with coach Jon Cooper saying his penalty killers were giving the Penguins stars too much respect, standing around and watching them make plays.

Ever since, the Lightning (10-4) has set the tone, instead of being spectators, with a more aggressive style while shorthanded. And goalie Ben Bishop (9-2, 2.15 goals against average) has been the team's best penalty killer, bailing his team out with big saves.

"I think a penalty kill can sometimes dictate … how a power play plays," Cooper said. "That was our approach, of more pressure, getting down ice more and trying to disrupt what they want to do. They have an extra guy out there, eventually are going to get into our zone, they're going to move pucks around, and they're going to get shots. But if you can disrupt a little bit of their rhythm, at some point it takes away from the effectiveness of their power play.

"We've done a much better job of that, we're much more in synch. And, ultimately, our goaltender has been really good. Clear all that mumbo jumbo I just said, that's probably the biggest reason."

The Lightning, which plays Thursday against the Oilers at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, began the season by allowing seven power-play goals in the first 22 attempts, including the Pittsburgh game. But after giving up just one since, and none in the past five games, Tampa Bay is seventh in the league at 85.4 percent. Center Nate Thompson said that, earlier this season, the Lightning had trouble staying aggressive, and played more like individuals, with "guys trying to do too much, and do another guy's job."

There were new players on the unit, including stars Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, who have had more shorthanded shifts than years past. But the group has found a way to mesh.

"I think everyone is working on the same page," Thompson said. "I think the biggest thing is we've been very aggressive. And clearly (Bishop) has been really good. Usually your goalie is your best penalty killer and it's been like that for us."

Thompson said the aggressiveness is all over the ice, from thwarting potential breakouts, to getting into passing and shooting lanes in their own zone. Defenseman Sami Salo said they've done a better job getting on loose pucks and blocking shots. "Everyone is jumping on pucks, jumping on bodies, and it's made a huge difference," Thompson said.

The Lightning's power play has been better, too, with at least one goal in nine of the past 13 games. For Cooper, the power play is much more about momentum swings, creating scoring chances and tiring out the opponent, which he believes the team has done recently.

"I think when your special teams are prospering," Cooper says, "there's a good chance your team is prospering."

Follow Joe Smith @TBTimes_JSmith.

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