Lightning defense needs work

Goalie Ben Bishop and his Lightning teammates began Saturday 15th in the league in average goals allowed per game, 2.63. They must “be better as a group,” coach Jon Cooper says.
Goalie Ben Bishop and his Lightning teammates began Saturday 15th in the league in average goals allowed per game, 2.63. They must “be better as a group,” coach Jon Cooper says.
Published Feb. 15, 2015

SAN JOSE, Calif. — When goalie Ben Bishop was pulled after the first period of a 4-2 loss to the Kings on Feb. 7, the Lightning felt it had "hung him out to dry."

After Bishop's short start Thursday in a 6-3 loss to the Blues — when he faced 34 shots in two periods — coach Jon Cooper called it a "mercy" pulling.

Say what you want about Tampa Bay's goaltending, but its team defense hasn't been up to snuff during its recent skid (and, frankly, all season), with the Lightning having lost three of four heading into tonight's game against the Sharks.

Cooper has challenged the Lightning since training camp to be a top-10 defensive team. Tampa Bay is in the middle of the pack, 15th in the 30-team league entering Saturday averaging 2.63 goals allowed per game, including 16 allowed in its past four games.

Even with Tampa Bay entering Saturday as the league's highest-scoring team, that won't hold up during a playoff push.

"(Fifteenth) isn't good enough," Cooper said. "I think if you're first in offense and 15th on defense, it's going to be a harder time to win (than) if you reversed it and (were) first on defense and 15th in offense.

"Do I like being first in offense? No question. But if we want to be a serious threat moving forward, we can't be 15th in the league on defense. We've got to get into that top eight or top seven. That's everybody — goaltending, defense, forwards. We've got to be better as a group."

The Lightning, which is third in the Eastern Conference, has been strong defensively for stretches. When it won seven of eight games during a late December/early January streak, it allowed an average of two goals or fewer in six of those games. At one point, the Lightning led the league in fewest shots allowed per game. It entered Saturday sixth at 27.7.

Then Tampa Bay has lapses such as giving up three goals in the first period to the Kings and five in the first two periods against the Blues.

"That's the frustrating part," wing Ryan Callahan said. "We have a bunch of good games, and we have games where we're not so good. It's not a matter of us not being able to do it; it's just executing it. Our consistency there needs to improve."

Part of it is the Lightning is very green on the blue line, with four of its defensemen (Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio, Nikita Nesterov and Luke Witkowski) having played in a combined 199 NHL games.

"It's not an excuse. It's a fact," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "We've got some inexperienced guys back there, and we're playing good teams. That's part of the learning curve. Does it hurt us in the short term? Sure. But we'll get better."

Veteran defenseman Matt Carle, who had abdominal surgery in mid January, is skating and is expected back around the March 2 trade deadline, general manager Steve Yzerman said. Yzerman could also add a defenseman by then.

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But veteran Anton Stralman said that even when the group was healthy, it needed to improve, be less hesitant and faster on the puck, especially in support.

"The first guy is there," Stralman said. "It's that second guy that has to jump in more quickly and win more pucks quicker."

Center Brian Boyle said communicating is even more important this time of year, when mistakes are magnified, often leading to pucks ending up in your net.

"If one piece of the puzzle is not fitting right," Boyle said, "it kind of snowballs from there."

Cooper said there have been games in which the Lightning has taken a big lead and then "fallen asleep," or fallen behind and become "lax." To Bowness, it takes a collective mentality to be consistent.

"You don't win in the playoffs without being consistent about what you're doing and being totally committed to every shift," Bowness said. "That's what we're trying to build."

Contact Joe Smith at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.