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Playing stars on penalty kill requires extra thought

The first thought was, "What in the world was Lightning coach Jon Cooper thinking?'' This was Tuesday when the Lightning led the Kings, 3-0, early in the third period. The Kings were on the power play and Lightning star Marty St. Louis was on the ice to help kill the penalty. St. Louis laid out to block a shot and took it off his foot. He hobbled to the bench and, for a split second, the Lightning season flashed before everyone's eyes. St. Louis played five more shifts and even scored his second goal of the game in Tampa Bay's eventual 5-1 victory. The next day, St. Louis was in a walking boot, but he was back in the lineup Thursday and looked to be suffering no lingering effects. Still, you go back to Cooper's decision to play St. Louis on the penalty kill with the game seemingly in hand. Do you really want to see St. Louis and Steven Stamkos killing penalties and blocking shots?

To be fair, I didn't think much about it until after St. Louis got hurt. And, also to be fair, it's not uncommon to see star offensive players killing penalties. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux used to regularly kill penalties back in the day. It's not unusual to see stars such as Chicago's Jonathan Toews or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby or the Sedin Twins in Vancouver killing penalties now.

Before Thursday's game — and before we knew that St. Louis was going to be able to play — I asked Cooper about his decision to put his stars on the penalty kill and he was confident in his decision with no regrets.

His points are strong:

One, St. Louis and Stamkos are his best players. Not just his best offensive players, but his best players. And you play your best players in all situations. And maybe they can add a shorthanded goal, something the Lightning has rarely done the past couple of seasons.

Two, he wants to keep his players involved in the game. He doesn't want St. Louis and Stamkos getting cold on the bench while the other forwards kill penalties. In fact, resting for long stretches then going back on the ice could lead to an injury, particularly a pulled or strained muscle.

But his strongest argument is this: Hey, it's hockey. You can't play games as if you're afraid someone is going to get hurt because you never know when someone is going to get hurt. A player like St. Louis is just as vulnerable getting hit by a puck during a power play or at even strength as he is while killing a penalty.

The thing is, you can't put St. Louis or Stamkos out there on the penalty kill and expect them to go half-speed. You can't tell them not to block shots or to avoid chasing loose pucks into danger zones like the corners. You might as well not even have them out there.

Should Cooper think about, maybe, not putting his stars out there in unnecessary situations? Like on the penalty kill when you're up 3-0 in the third period? Maybe. But, from the sound of it, Cooper sees no unnecessary situations in a game. And, as he told Tampa Bay Times beat writer Damian Cristodero, if you're worried about guys getting hurt by blocking shots, "you're probably in the wrong sport.''

I still think Cooper should reconsider exactly when St. Louis and Stamkos are killing penalties. Late in games when the outcome has been decided is a good time to keep St. Louis and Stamkos on the bench. Those moments, however, are rare. In the meantime, look for Cooper to call upon his stars in all situations, including the penalty kill.

However, if Cooper doesn't mind, Lightning fans might hold their breath while those guys are out there.

Biggest complaint

Monday Night Football this week will feature former Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman making his debut as the Vikings starter. That's about the only thing interesting in the matchup between the 1-4 Vikings and the 0-6 Giants. While NBC's Sunday Night Football always seems to get the marquee game of the week (this week it gets Broncos at Colts as Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis to face his former team), ESPN is often stuck with a dog game.

There are a few decent MNF games looming (Bears-Packers, Saints-Seahawks, Cowboys-Bears), but you also have less-than-desirable games such as Dolphins at Bucs and Patriots at Panthers. Earlier this season, there was Broncos-Raiders.

As sports media critic Ed Sherman points out, NBC gets the good Manning games, while ESPN has to settle for games like Denver-Oakland.

"On Monday night, you deserve to see teams that are good, and the Raiders have not been good for a decade," Monday Night Football play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico told 1090-AM in San Diego. "I don't think that best serves the customer, the NFL fan. You get Peyton Manning. That's great. You want to see him against a quality opponent in one of his five or six prime-time games as opposed to a team like the Raiders, coming off a bad season in a perpetual rebuild. … I don't think the Raiders are a team that America needs to see in prime time on national TV."

Media notes

• Sunday morning's Outside the Lines (8 a.m., ESPN2) will look at the dangers involving triathlons. An estimated 52 deaths have occurred since 2007 — most of them during the swim portion.

• A new Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday night on HBO. The show includes features on baseball great Reggie Jackson and basketball star Chris Paul.

Three things that popped into my head

1. It's absurd that anyone would question Condoleezza Rice's selection to the committee that will choose the college playoff teams. For goodness sakes, this woman was Secretary of State. She has a Ph.D. in political science. I'm guessing she has the wherewithal and experience to do the research necessary to be able to make intelligent decisions on college football.

2. There are rumors that the NFL is thinking about adding a second Thursday night game to the weekly schedule. Yeah, sure, the NFL is worried about player safety, that's why they have teams playing two games in five days or, as the Bucs are about to do, three games in 14 days.

3. Farewell to veteran character actor Ed Lauter, who died last week at age 74 from cancer. Lauter appeared in many movies and television shows, but we acknowledge his passing here because we best remember him for playing the leader and coach of the prison guards in the 1974 football movie The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds.

tom jones' two cents

Playing stars on penalty kill requires extra thought 10/18/13 [Last modified: Saturday, October 19, 2013 6:41pm]

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