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Lightning struggling to recapture ‘special’ magic from last season

The penalty kill has cost them points in the standings and the power play has broken momentum
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his game-winning power-play goal in last week's victory over Pittsburgh. Coach Jon Cooper would like to see Hedman shoot more on the power play. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his game-winning power-play goal in last week's victory over Pittsburgh. Coach Jon Cooper would like to see Hedman shoot more on the power play. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 28
Updated Oct. 28

BRANDON — Five-on-five play goes up. Special teams go down.

the Lightning continue to see-saw through the start of the season as they ready for tonight’s 7:30 game against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden.

They rank second in the league in five-on-five goal differential at plus-10, yet they’re 18th in the standings. That discrepancy comes from special teams, especially the penalty kill.

“Five-on-five was a step in the right direction,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said about the 3-2 overtime loss to Nashville. “We’re trying to harp on certain areas of the game where we’re improving but penalties come back to bite us in the end.”

Related: MORE LIGHTNING: The team is on the road again, on the way to some hyped up rookies

The Lightning’s special teams goal differential is minus-five. Their penalty kill sits at 28th out of 31 with a success rate of 69.4 percent. It’s a long way from the same unit that finished last year leading the league at 85 percent.

And it’s costing the Lightning games. They only got one point where they should have had two in the overtime loss on Saturday. And they gave division rival Boston a point in the shootout win, after giving up three power-play goals.

Derek Lalonde, the assistant coach responsible for the penalty kill, sees signs of quality, but also missed plays.

He’s not willing to chalk those misses up to bad luck, either. Not even the one-timer that was going wide on Saturday before deflecting off defenseman Erik Černák and into the net.

“You can call that bad luck or you can call that an excuse,” he said. “It looks like bad luck but prior to that there have been missed opportunities.”

Those missed opportunities come on faceoffs, both the actual faceoff and the ensuing battle. Sometimes they’re missed chances to pressure the opponent or surround the puck.

The actual goal might be bad luck, but a flaw in the play leading up to the goal set it up.

Why isn’t the penalty kill, made up of the same players as last year’s, performing as well?

“It’s the best league in the world because of the personnel but it’s also the best league in the world because of what you’re up against in the other coach’s room,” Lalonde said. “People scout and adjust. We need to evolve.”

Once the kill struggles as a whole, the mistakes can become mental. The shaken confidence then increases the execution issues and the whole unit is less aggressive.

Lalonde pointed to defenseman Victor Hedman’s failed clear that led to the tying goal on Saturday. He is confident that in another situation, five-on-five perhaps, Hedman takes a moment to control the puck and clears it cleanly.

“This is a situation where the penalty kill is struggling, we’re anxious about it and he rushes a clear,” Lalonde said. “He panics on it and doesn’t get it out.”

The issues aren’t all on the penalty kill, though. The power play also has failed to equal last year’s production. Tenth in the league at 24.1 percent is respectable, but it’s disrupting the Lightning’s momentum in games, instead of boosting it.

Related: MORE LIGHTNING: Get news and exclusive content to your inbox when you sign up for our Lightning Strikes newsletter

The power-play unit seems to spend as much time chasing down the puck as it does shooting it. Once they get set up, the Lightning look good on the power play, but they’re struggling with entering the zone.

They have specific plays they’re trying to execute, trying to all rush the zone at once, but that’s where they’re getting tripped up. Again, that’s the scouting and how the league now approaches last season’s most potent power play. The Lightning have to counter.

Once they get in the zone, Tampa Bay has a tendency to cycle the puck. If the shot isn’t just right, they keep passing. Hedman’s game-winning goal against Pittsburgh last week went against that trend.

“(Hedman shooting) is a must,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It was nice to see the one go in the other night just to show him that he doesn’t have to be the third choice behind Stammer and (Nikita Kucherov) when it comes to shooting.”

On the play, Hedman tried to set up Stamkos on a one-timer but Stamkos passed it back. Hedman fired a rocket of a one-timer. His heavy shot from the point can be just as lethal.

The Lightning aren’t panicking over special teams, but they’re very aware of the issues. Practice time spent on both units has increased. Coaches are addressing the topic over video and with individual players.

“Special teams have to improve, there’s no question,” Cooper said. “It will come around. We just can’t get discouraged with it. It’s just tough giving up a point in the standings because of it.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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