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Tampa Bay Lightning flirting with trouble as most penalized team left in playoffs

TAMPA

What they are doing is remarkable. And insane.

What they have accomplished is impressive. And unrealistic.

Essentially, what they're achieving is a fascinating contradiction of numbers.

Lightning players have committed more penalties — by a fairly hefty margin — than any team still alive in the NHL playoffs. And until now, they've gotten away with it.

That's largely because Tampa Bay's penalty kill has been historically good through its first 13 games of the postseason. More than 90 percent of the time, the Lightning has survived being shorthanded, which is fairly uncommon this deep in the playoffs.

So maybe you shrug off Boston's two power-play goals in Game 2 as part of a statistical oddity that had to eventually even out. Or, just maybe, you worry more evening out is still to come.

For committing this many penalties is a little bit like juggling chain saws. Eventually there is going to be blood.

Lightning coach Guy Boucher suggested Tampa Bay's early trouble with penalties helped Boston set the game's tempo Tuesday night, which was the biggest difference from a 5-2 victory in Game 1.

It's fair to say Boucher is not real comfortable with the lived-in feel of Tampa Bay's penalty box, but he very subtly suggested several calls in Tuesday night's game may have had more to do with the interpretation of referees than the conduct of players.

"I always look at the penalties between periods and after the game and see what we can control with that," Boucher said. "Sometimes I'll blame our players, but sometimes I won't. And obviously in (Tuesday's) game, there were a few penalties we could avoid, but there were some that were not within our control."

Second-guessing officials is natural. Sometimes it's even justified. But this is not a one-game or a one-series issue. This is now a monthlong trend that needs to be considered.

The Lightning is getting roughly the same number of power plays in the playoffs (average 4.15 per game) as it did in the regular season (4.09), but shorthanded situations have soared.

After averaging 3.68 penalties in the regular season, Tampa Bay is averaging 4.92 in the postseason. That's basically one more penalty per game than San Jose (4.00), Boston (3.84) and Vancouver (3.64) among the conference finalists.

Is it poor officiating? Is it Tampa Bay's style of play? Is it coincidence?

Realistically, it could be a little of all three and maybe other factors, too. The Lightning has held a lead often in the past nine games, and that means it has faced increased pressure in its zone.

But the bottom line is the Lightning is essentially giving up a 5-on-4 situation an extra two minutes a game. Every game.

"When you give a team an opportunity every night, they're eventually going to score on you," defenseman Brett Clark said. "(Tuesday) night we got ourselves in trouble. We took too many penalties in a row. They made us pay.

"That's something we have to look forward to, is cutting down on the penalties. You can't rely on the penalty kill every night to do what it's been doing."

You can still win when you're on the wrong end of the power-play tally. You can even win a bunch of games in a row, as the Lightning already has proven.

It's just that the odds don't favor you, particularly the longer you play and the better competition you see.

"Obviously you want to kill the least possible (penalties), but at the same time, you don't want to lose your aggressiveness," Boucher said. "So if it's a penalty because of aggressiveness during the play, that's different. If they're stick penalties, they're penalties we certainly want to take out.

"And if they are penalties that we feel we don't deserve, we don't spend much time on it, and we don't blame the players for it."

Even after Boston's two power-play scores Tuesday, the Lightning has been successful 92.2 percent of the time in shorthanded situations.

The last time a team in a conference final finished with a higher kill percentage was when New Jersey won the Cup in 2000 with a 92.5 percent penalty kill.

But even that comes with a caveat: The Devils averaged 2.91 penalties per game. The Lightning is trying to kill almost twice as many penalties every night.

"You never want to be in the penalty box no matter how many times it happens," said wing Adam Hall. "But it's something you have to be prepared for, and our coaching staff has done a great job giving us the best tools and the best chance to do that."

In the past month, the Lightning's penalty kill has gone from good to great. Its power play has gone from good to even better. And maybe that will be enough.

Maybe the Lightning can survive five penalties a game because the special teams are now a cut above the rest of the league's.

Maybe the Lightning can continue to win with the formula that has worked a majority of the time in the past 13 games.

Maybe it's possible.

But this time of the year, it's a hard way to survive.

Tampa Bay Lightning flirting with trouble as most penalized team left in playoffs 05/18/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 12:28am]

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