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Slot play marks defensive success

Published Sep. 9, 2005

The Lightning defense _ team and individually _ used to be the butt of many jokes. Now the joke is on the opposition.

The Lightning has been a defensive machine in its past 12 games and, surprise, is 7-3-1-1.

Tampa Bay allowed 26 goals in that stretch, an average of 2.17. In its previous 60 games, the Lightning allowed an average of 3.62.

The penalty kill has been just as sharp, stopping 72 of 80 chances, a 90 percent efficiency. Before that: 238 of 293 for 81.2 percent.

This is life-altering stuff for a hockey team.

"It feels like when we're out there, the whole team is more together," left wing Fredrik Modin said.

There are many parts to this equation that the Thrashers will try to solve tonight at Philips Arena.

The goaltending has been superb _ thank you, Kevin Weekes _ the backliners have stopped being mesmerized by the puck, and the slot, for the most part, has been taken away as a breeding ground for opposition goals.

But if you really want to know where the biggest change has occurred, look to the forwards, who have been much more responsible in the defensive zone.

They have controlled their breakouts, which means they do not leave the zone prematurely and, consequently, leave the defense hanging. It also allows the entire five-man unit to move in unison.

Weak-side forwards have learned to sit tight in the slot, which not only controls the middle of the ice _ when was the last time you saw a good scoring chance from the high slot _ but prevents the back-door plays the Lightning had been burned on so often earlier in the season.

"That's been a huge difference," forward Ryan Johnson said. "The forwards and defense have been on the same page. We're taking responsibility as a five-man unit on the ice. Everybody believes the other guys will be where they should and that makes everybody's job easier."

Tampa Bay's defense is not complicated. But because it is a zone, if a player is incorrectly positioned, the entire thing can break down.

For example, when the opponent has the puck behind the net, the main defensive responsibility is the slot. The Lightning would rather teams maneuver for shots from the boards because the goaltender can handle thoserelatively easily.

"The middle of the ice has been taken away," coach John Tortorella said. "If you find yourself running around, come back to the middle of the ice."

The improved play of the weak-side forwards is most evident when the puck moves from behind the net to the corners.

In that sequence, the weak-side forward, who is the wing or center away from the scramble for the puck, cruises the middle, watching the back door.

In the past, that forward was known to leave his post and gravitate toward the action. Now, he is staying put and a major source of opponent scoring opportunities has been neutralized.

None of this could work, of course, without good goaltending and the commitment of the players to work hard, especially along the boards, where battles for the puck can alter a game.

That is especially true during penalty kills, where gaining possession can cut up to 20 seconds off a power play.

"It's a team thing, not just forwards or defense," defenseman Jassen Cullimore said.

Said center Brian Holzinger: "If you play sound positionally, and with the speed we have, we're going to create turnovers and breakouts and go the other way."

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