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It’s a new postseason and a (slightly) new Lightning team

The roster is virtually identical to last year, so why should Tampa Bay have more faith as the playoffs prepare to begin?
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) battle with Washington Capitals center Travis Boyd (72) during a March game at Amalie Arena. Cernak is considered one of the key changes to a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals but lost to Washington. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) battle with Washington Capitals center Travis Boyd (72) during a March game at Amalie Arena. Cernak is considered one of the key changes to a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals but lost to Washington. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Apr. 9, 2019|Updated Apr. 10, 2019

TAMPA — The scorers? They’re the same.

The six players who led the Lightning in points last season, are in near-identical order again this season.

The goaltender? No change there.

Andrei Vasilevskiy missed more than a month with a broken foot in November but, by season’s end, his save percentage was within .005 of last year.

The reigning Norris Trophy winner?

Victor Hedman may have gotten a little more rest this season and his offensive numbers may have dipped a bit, but he is still among the league’s elite defensemen.

So what’s the difference?

How did the Lightning make the leap from a snazzy 54-win team in 2017-18 to a history-stalking 62 wins in 2018-19? There were no big-name free agents in the off-season. No trades at the February deadline.

The players like to say it was their uncommon focus and purpose through 82 games and, sure, that played a role. But every NHL team is focused and motivated once the postseason arrives.

So is there reason to believe this Lighting team is better positioned than last year as the playoffs begin?

“There’s a lot that’s different about this group. Whether that’s going to spell success or not, that’s hard to say,’’ coach Jon Cooper said. “We are a different team.’’

The differences are more subtle than wholesale. A few fresh faces and some shifting of responsibilities. Here, then, are three ways Tampa Bay is better prepared for the playoffs in 2019.

First line of defense

A plan to solidify the defense worked. Sort of.

It happened a little later than hoped for, and with a different combination than expected, but Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak have given the Lightning the shutdown pair the franchise has been seeking.

McDonagh was acquired in February of 2018 for last year’s playoff push, and played well, but was hampered by lingering injuries and his unfamiliarity with the Lightning system.

Cernak, meanwhile, spent the first month of this season at Syracuse and was only supposed to fill in for a short spell when he was called up in November, but played himself into a significant role.

The veteran and rookie eventually became an inseparable, and invaluable, duo.

“It’s made a huge difference. They’ve really solidified the back end,’’ said assistant coach Todd Richards. “The whole (defensive) group this year has done a great job but those two have changed some things. Their style, the way they play, they have a calmness to their game. If a game is getting hectic or out of control and the other team is starting to get momentum, they come in with a really solid shift.’’

It’s not just about improved statistics, it’s also about specific matchups.

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The Lightning got steamrolled in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference playoffs by a more physical Washington team last year. Cernak, at 6-3 and 225 pounds, could keep that from happening again.

A time to kill

When it came time to do a post-mortem on the 2017-18 season, it was clear special teams played a role in Tampa Bay’s premature demise. The Lightning penalty kill was at 76.1 percent in the regular season, which was already 28th in the league, and then slipped to 75 percent in the playoffs.

Turns out, an off-season revamp wasn’t enough.

The Lightning got off to a good start on the penalty kill in October with six consecutive games without a goal, but that was due more to Vasilevskiy’s prowess in goal. Come November, Tampa Bay gave up 13 power play goals in a nine-game stretch.

Meetings were called, video was dissected and strategies were tweaked. The Lightning decided to get more aggressive in terms of pushing the action up ice.

Players such as Anthony Cirelli, Cedric Paquette, Alex Killorn, Ryan Callahan and Yanni Gourde took ownership, and the penalty kill went from liability to strength almost overnight. Tampa Bay finished the season with an 85 percent kill rate, tied for best in the NHL.

“That’s why it’s important for everybody to have roles, for the buy-in for the team. The penalty kill is their thing, and they’ve really grabbed hold of it,’’ Richards said. “The No. 1 thing is being disciplined enough not to give the other team opportunities, but penalties are a part of the game and these guys have accepted that role.’’

Their time is now

Of the 21 players who appeared in the playoffs for Tampa Bay last year, 19 are still around. But that doesn’t mean everything is exactly the same.

There are some new faces, such as Cernak and Jan Rutta on defense, but mostly there are young players with a little more experience and perspective to their games.

Cirelli had 18 NHL games on his resume at the end of last year’s regular season. His next 17 NHL games were in the playoffs. Paquette has had a career-high 960 minutes of ice-time this season. Mathieu Joseph and Adam Erne were also logging important minutes this spring.

“At this time last year, I’d been in the league for maybe a month,’’ Cirelli said. “I’m more comfortable now, more confident with the puck, I’m not afraid to make plays if there are plays to be made. Just being comfortable around the room with the guys and the coaches makes a difference.

“You’re seeing guys like Jo and Erne doing some great things lately. Obviously, they keep trusting us by throwing us out there and letting us get the job done.’’

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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