Defense wins championships. At least, it did last season when the Lightning “trusted the process,” in head coach Jon Cooper’s words, and followed it to the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.
So far this season, it’s been the key to the team’s first three wins.
But the Lightning’s defense hasn’t just kept pucks out of its own net (allowing five goals in three games to their 13), it’s gotten more involved in the offense, too.
Ryan McDonagh was a prime example in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win in Columbus. The veteran defenseman assisted on the first two goals against the Blue Jackets, bringing his career points total to 301.
His offensive contributions haven’t gone unnoticed.
“Mac’s been exceptional these first three games,” Cooper said after the win. “We’ve got lots of energy in our group, and he’s making the most of it. But everything’s coming from his ability to play defense. He’s a big part of why we’re starting the season 3-0.”
McDonagh said the defense corps is simply playing the way the coaching staff has asked it to.
“We have to be that second wave or sometimes lead the rush,” McDonagh said. “We play well as a team when everybody kind of gets involved there on the back end, so it’s a good sign when the d-men (are) making things happen.”
McDonagh’s offensive skills were on full display Thursday, as he had the primary assist on both of the Lightning’s second-period goals.
On Blake Coleman’s goal, Coleman forced a turnover in the Lightning zone, then passed to McDonagh to start a rush up ice. McDonagh backhanded the puck to Yanni Gourde, who passed back to McDonagh in the slot. McDonagh shuffled the puck to Coleman at the edge of the crease, and he tapped it into the net to tie the game at 1.
McDonagh was back at it again less than two minutes later, setting up Mathieu Joseph to give the Lightning its first lead of the game.
Anthony Cirelli collected a puck near center ice, skated into the Columbus zone and sent a cross-ice pass to McDonagh above the left circle. McDonagh drew a couple of Blue Jackets to him, then threaded a pass to Joseph at the top of the slot. Joseph’s one-timer put the Lightning ahead 2-1.
McDonagh isn’t the only defenseman contributing at the other end of the ice. Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman has become a bigger part of the offensive attack and assisted on Brayden Point’s winning goal in overtime.
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Last season, the 2018-19 Norris Trophy winner as the league’s top defenseman had only two shots through three games. This season, Hedman already has eight.
Cooper said his team has “matured” from the high-powered squad that was able to outscore its problems more often than not in 2018-19. Getting swept by the Blue Jackets in the opening round of the playoffs that season showed the Lightning just how little that kind of game works in the long run.
The Lightning have learned that postseason games often come down to defense, something that Cooper said became apparent during the 2020 playoffs in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles.
“We’re outscoring-chancing teams, and that’s what we want to do,” Cooper said. “But in the big picture, we need to hold teams to not too many chances.”
He’s right. The Lightning held Columbus to just 25 shots on goal, compared to their 37. In its two victories over Chicago, Tampa Bay held a 70-60 combined shot advantage.
Not coincidentally, the Lightning lead the Central Division with six points in three games.
“If you want to win in this league, you have to defend,” Cooper said. “We’ve grown as a group, and it’s become paramount with us, and it’s probably why we’re winning.”