LOS ANGELES — There was little doubt in the message coaches drove home during back-to-back practices last week.
The Lightning, fighting for its playoff life, spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday in puck-battle drills. There was a lot of game-like physicality. Most of the time was spent in the defensive zone.
"(Coach Jon Cooper) wants us to be harder to play against," defenseman Luke Witkowski said.
That hasn't always been the case for the Lightning, which relied a lot on its speed and skill to go on lengthy playoff runs the past two seasons. But as opponents have adjusted, Cooper has tried to get his team to be more blue collar. Cooper realizes this style is out of his players' comfort zone, but it's also a necessity if Tampa Bay wants to claw its way back into a playoff spot. And that style is paramount against some bigger Western Conference teams on the make-or-break six-game, 13-day road trip that begins Monday against the Kings.
"I'm a high proponent of skill, but sometimes you need a little sandpaper in your game," said NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, a former Lightning goaltender. "And some guys are not playing with enough sandpaper. People match up against Tampa and it's like, 'Okay, go take away time and space, let's force these guys to play a game they don't want to play.' "
The Lightning did a better "sandpaper" job the past two games, especially in Thursday's 4-2 win over the Sabres, and not just because of the rare fights by Victor Hedman (Thursday) and Alex Killorn (Friday against the Blue Jackets). Tampa Bay limited opponents' scoring chances. It spent more time attacking in the offensive zone with an aggressive forecheck and created traffic in front of the opponents' net.
The Lightning doesn't have a lot of size. Nine players in Friday's lineup were shorter than 6 feet. But that Cedric Paquette leads the team in hits (96) despite missing eight games is telling; Ondrej Palat (83) was the only other Tampa Bay player in the top 100 in the league entering Saturday. Weekes said Tampa Bay can't just wait for injured forwards J.T. Brown and Ryan Callahan to return from injuries to provide an edge.
"It's more about the mind-set than anything," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "The determination. Defense is a lot of hard work; that's really the bottom line. It doesn't necessarily take a lot of skill. It's about the attitude."
What's frustrating for the Lightning is that attitude has been fleeting. In Friday's 3-1 loss, Tampa Bay was relentless in the first period, outshooting the Blue Jackets 19-6. But then it sat back, wing Jonathan Drouin said. Center Brian Boyle said being hard to play against should be automatic. "Sometimes the puck is going to bounce; sometimes you run into a hot goalie," Boyle said. "But that kind of mentality has to be there."
Boyle raised some eyebrows last month after a loss in Columbus when he said he'd love to play against the Lightning because it was easy to play against. What is more alarming is that it is true. Speed and skill will get Tampa Bay only so far.
"We've been doing it for the past couple years, so teams are used to it now," Drouin said. "The blue-collar thing is getting more shots, more traffic. Sometimes we're a little too pretty, too cute."
And that has to change.
SLAP SHOTS: It's time to wonder if the Lightning will eventually shut down Callahan for the season if his surgically repaired hip continues to give him issues. The time for a shutdown hasn't come yet. The team still hopes he can return after rest. But putting Callahan on long-term injured reserve could clear salary cap space for March's trade deadline. … C Matthew Peca, who got reassigned to AHL Syracuse on Saturday, has been the most impressive callup this season. … Friday's Marty St. Louis jersey retirement ceremony was first class. Wouldn't be surprised if Vinny Lecavalier gets the same honor next year during the Lightning's 25th anniversary season.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.