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Jones: Lightning needs to be aggressor in Stanley Cup final

Alex Killorn and the Lightning scored more goals than any team in the NHL this season. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Alex Killorn and the Lightning scored more goals than any team in the NHL this season. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Jun. 6, 2015

TAMPA

Down 1-0 in the Stanley Cup final and facing a crucial Game 2 tonight at home, the Lightning should think about employing a new strategy to beat the Blackhawks if it wants to survive and win this series.

Admittedly, it's a bit radical. You might call it out of the box. It's certainly a tad different from what most teams do this deep into the season.

Ready?

Try scoring more goals than the other team.

Seriously. Before you roll your eyes and say, "Duh,'' I'm not trying to be a wise guy here.

In Game 1, the Lightning's plan wasn't necessarily to score more goals than the Blackhawks. It was about seeing to it that the Blackhawks scored fewer goals than the Lightning. There's a big difference. One is about trying to win with defense. The other is about offense.

Throughout the playoffs, whenever the Lightning has faced a crucial game, it has gotten all defensive. To be fair, that technique has worked.

It won Game 7 in the first round against Detroit with a 2-0 shutout. It won Game 6 in the second round against Montreal by a 4-1 score. And in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers, the Lightning pitched another 2-0 shutout, the same score as Game 5.

In the games that ended the three previous series, the Lightning won by a combined score of 8-1. You can bet that Lightning coach Jon Cooper was way more proud of the 1 in that equation than the 8.

So when Tampa Bay carried a 1-0 lead into the third period of Game 1 against the Blackhawks, it went into a four-corners defense, hoping to drain the clock and win by that same score. In trying not to lose, the Lightning could not win. The Blackhawks scored two goals in less than two minutes, and lickety-split, the game was lost.

"To be honest, a little bit of human nature might have taken over,'' Cooper said. "What had worked for us a little bit in the past, maybe we sat back and thought, 'Maybe this is going to work for us again.' … Did we play a little bit in our end too much? There's no question we did.''

It's easy to understand what happened and why. The Lightning's past success in close defensive games led it to believe that was the best way to win.

But that's simply not who the Lightning is.

The Lightning had the second-leading goal scorer in the NHL this season in Steven Stamkos. It has the leading goal scorer in this postseason in Tyler Johnson. The line that Johnson centers with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat — better known as the "Triplets" — might be the best offensive line in hockey. The Lightning has one of the NHL's best offensive defenseman in Victor Hedman.

And here's the big one: The Lightning scored more goals than any team in the NHL in the regular season.

This is the best offensive team in hockey!

The point: Even though the stakes are at their highest, the Lightning should play the style it plays best. What's wrong with winning games 5-4 or 6-5? If you're an offensive team that loves to run-and-gun, why not be an offensive team that tries to run-and-gun, even in early June?

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Consider this: The go-go-go style has worked for the Lightning, too. In the previous three series, Tampa Bay won Game 2 by scores of 5-1, 6-2 and 6-2. It also has won games in these playoffs by scores of 6-5 and 5-2. See, offense can work.

Yet even the Lightning's best offensive player, Stamkos, thinks the most direct path to a Stanley Cup is by playing defense.

"You don't get this far without playing that style,'' Stamkos said. "We kind of played it to a fault in the third (period of Game 1). I think we learned our lesson there. We've got to continue to pressure. … We'll have some adjustments coming into (Game 2) and play with a little more pressure, I think, and hopefully that can contain more offense.''

But that doesn't mean Stamkos is ready for a pond hockey game where the teams pile up the goals. Why not? Can't you win a Stanley Cup that way?

"I don't think that has ever been the case since I can remember,'' Stamkos said. "It would be a lot more exciting for the fans, I think, but it's just not sustainable.''

With so much talent on both sides, Stamkos said, teams concentrate on the details that lead to low-scoring games, such as defense, blocked shots and lots of checking.

"I think that's probably what we're going to see the rest of the series,'' Stamkos said.

That's too bad because maybe the Lightning would be better served opening it up instead of shutting it down.

"However the series plays out,'' Lightning forward Brian Boyle said, "you don't want to look back saying, 'We were a little bit passive there.' If you make a mistake, do it being aggressive, have that confidence that got us here.''

Exactly.

At the very least, there has to be more of a balance between offense and defense.

The Blackhawks have the firepower, led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, to trade goals with anyone. But they also are playing essentially four defensemen.

Cooper loves to play 11 forwards and seven defensemen, but maybe he should consider going to 12 and six, rolling four lines, get that cycling game going to wear out the Hawks' defense. Though penalties were a factor, Stamkos played only 17 minutes, 17 seconds in Game 1. Eight forwards in the game saw more ice time. Stamkos needs to be on the ice more.

All this could create more offense. That could lead to scoring more goals than the other team.

Isn't that the point?

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