NEWARK, N.J. — Considering the cheering, good-natured taunting and stick-tapping celebrations that accompany the shootout competition at the end of Lightning practices, you would assume it is not entirely serious business.
But there is a lot more going on than a good time. Skaters say they use the competitions to work on their moves. Goalies work on techniques.
Most important, coach Jon Cooper is keeping a mental scoreboard so when faced with a shootout he has the data with which to pick his shooters.
"If you do well in practice, you will get the opportunity to do it in a game," Cooper said.
The strategy was on display Sunday as Cooper chose two defensemen — Sami Salo and Victor Hedman, both recent practice winners — among the four shooters used in the shootout victory over the Panthers.
Neither scored, but there is a bigger picture: the Lightning (8-3) is 4-0 this season in overtime games, including 2-0 in shootouts with goals on three of six shots. Goalies have saved six of seven shots.
Granted, the sample size is small, but in a league with so much parity those extra points might be huge in a playoff race.
"We take it seriously, at least I do," Salo said of the practices. "It's a time for guys to practice their skills. It's such an important part of the game now with the chance to get the extra point."
Shootouts have not been particularly kind to Tampa Bay, which faces the Devils tonight at the Prudential Center.
The team is 37-36 since 2005-06, when the tie-breaking gimmick was introduced, but just 17-29 since 2008-09. Players such as Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos were so ineffective — a combined 20-for-108 through last season — they mostly were left out of the rotation.
"It's a skill," said Cooper, in his first full season as Lightning coach. "Sometimes guys that score tons in a game or in their career are not always great shootout guys, and there are a lot of guys out there that come the 60-minute game couldn't put a ball in the ocean. But come to a shootout they know exactly what they're doing, and (the practice competition) is a good way to find out who those guys are."
Of course, the fun of such a competition doesn't come close to producing the pressure of a game situation.
But as Stamkos noted, "It is a huge practice tool. It's, obviously, something I've struggled with in the past and practice helps trying to get certain moves coming in."
It paid off for Stamkos, who is 6-for-28 in his career in shootouts but in his first try of the season scored the winner against the Panthers by approaching goalie Jacob Markstrom with speed and with a sleek deke to his forehand.
"We tell guys don't take practice off when we do shootouts," Cooper said. "It's a skill that can be worked on, and that's why we do it."
KUDOS FOR STAMKOS: The league named Stamkos the first star of the week for the week ending Sunday, with three goals and seven points in three games, all victories. It is the third time in Stamkos' career he was so honored.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]