Being likened to a bug isn’t usually a compliment. But Jon Cooper had nothing but the highest esteem in mind as he called his players gnats.
Being a pest is already an established style of play: physical, strong along the boards, non-stop energy. So the Lightning coach just took it a step further on Monday.
“I feel like they’re always buzzing around and if you try to knock them away, they just never leave,” Cooper said of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow.
The Lightning traded for Coleman and Goodrow at the trade deadline with an eye on what they could bring to the team in the playoffs.
On Monday, that line buzzed around the ice to account for both goals and, along with Andrei Vasilevskiy in net gave the Lightning a win in Game 4. The trio has been Tampa Bay’s most consistent of the postseason and contributed both goals in the 2-1 win over Columbus at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, handing the Lightning control of the first-round series with a 3-1 lead.
Back in February, with the trade deadline approaching, Cooper and general manager Julien BriseBois took a hard look at their team. They had top-six talent but maybe it would help to add a player or two to play “in your face hockey,” as Cooper called it — A.K.A. “gnats.”
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk called them a “really annoying line,” another phrase that doesn’t sound like a good thing but is.
Coleman, Gourde and Goodrow hadn’t played together in the regular season. This line came together in the restart. Cooper figured they each play similar styles, so why not try them together.
“We’re not the fanciest players,” Goodrow said. “We like to work off the forecheck, get pucks in and be responsible out there. We’ve been able to feed off each other so far.”
Responsibility came up repeatedly. It was Gourde’s first impression of Coleman and Goodrow. ”Not getting in too much trouble” was part of what Cooper likes about their game. It’s important on a team that has given itself issues with both penalties and turnovers.
Embracing the role of not the fanciest, but gritty and effective has gone a long way for them. Shattenirk pointed out they haven’t started to cheat to look for offense, saying the line energizes the whole team.
They didn’t need to cheat to produce offense on Monday.
The Lightning were outplayed in the first period, but escaped with the score still tied at zero — thanks to an offside challenge to invalidate a Columbus goal. Gourde’s line started the second period, as it had the first, and this time struck quickly.
Gourde lost the faceoff — the Lightning were 12-of-42 on the game — but the Lightning got possession of the puck. They didn’t have a set play on the entry, but rimmed the puck off the boards and got into position deep in the zone.
The puck bounced off the boards to Coleman at the post. He didn’t have an angle on the shot, with goaltender Joonas Korpisalo right there. So Coleman chipped the puck across to Goodrow, who was crashing the net from the other side. Goodrow landed the shot above Korpisalo’s outstretched blocked 16 seconds into the period.
“We take a lot of pride in that first shift,” Gourde said. “We know what we need to do: We need to chip the puck in and use our best asset, which is the forecheck. We just go out there on the first shift and do that, try to set the tone for the period.”
They struck again four minutes later. Coleman crashed the net with the puck, but it was knocked away. While Gourde planted himself in front of the net. Goodrow tipped the loose puck over to Shattenkirk, who ripped off a one-timer. Gourde deflected the shot past Korpisalo.
Coleman, along with Pat Maroon, had stressed the need to establish a net front presence after Game 2. The Lightning have gotten better in that sense since, and Gourde was a great example. As the puck moved away from the net, he slotted into position, ready for a tip or a rebound.
Gourde relishes in the tip. He has set up with defensemen like Braydon Coburn at the end of practice, deflecting shot after shot.
“Don’t pat me on the back (for this line combination),” Cooper said. “They just compete so hard.”