Well-timed line shuffling pays dividends for Lightning

Jon Cooper switched his forward lines and “it seemed like the boys drank a little Red Bull,” he said.
Lightning center Yanni Gourde had two new linemates on Monday night and developed instant chemistry with Alex Killorn and Alex Barre-Boulet in Tampa Bay's 4-2 win.
Lightning center Yanni Gourde had two new linemates on Monday night and developed instant chemistry with Alex Killorn and Alex Barre-Boulet in Tampa Bay's 4-2 win. [ GERRY BROOME | AP ]
Published Feb. 23, 2021|Updated Feb. 23, 2021

TAMPA — With the Lightning going the wrong way in the standings and needing a spark after three losses in their previous four games, coach Jon Cooper shook up their forward lines.

He doesn’t hesitate to adjust his lines when he thinks a change is needed, but Monday night’s shuffling was the most dramatic we’ve seen since even before the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run.

Forward prospect Alex Barre-Boulet was promoted and put on the third line with Yanni Gourde and Alex Killorn to form an entirely new line. Blake Coleman moved to the top line to play alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. Steven Stamkos dropped to the second line to play alongside Tyler Johnson and Mathieu Joseph. Barclay Goodrow joined the fourth line with Pat Maroon and Alex Volkov.

The moves paid off in a 4-2 win over the Hurricanes that might have been the Lightning’s best of this young season.

“We played with a lot of urgency,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We played to our strengths and we didn’t try to generate stuff that wasn’t there. We took what was handed to us and we worked hard for it. So that’s the way it has to be moving forward.”

The Lightning (11-4-1 and third in the Central Division with 23 points) entered the game struggling in a lot of ways. The offense had run stagnant, particularly against the Hurricanes. It hadn’t scored in two previous meetings against Carolina this season. And while mostly playing from behind in the three recent losses (including two to the Panthers), the Lightning made uncharacteristic turnovers that led to scoring opportunities for their opponent.

“When you’re playing so many games so fast, you don’t want guys to get in a rut,” Cooper said. “We knew this would happen. We knew at some point, you’re not going to keep all these lines together as we did a couple months ago. It’s just the way it is. We threw Double-B (Barre-Boulet) in there. That was great (Monday).”

For the first 14 games, the Lightning’s lines looked much like the ones they used throughout the playoffs, with the exception of Stamkos replacing injured forward Nikita Kucherov on the top line. Some tinkering had been done game to game, like Tyler Johnson centering the second line when Anthony Cirelli was injured or Mathieu Joseph moving up to the No. 2 line. And forwards saw extra shifts when the Lightning played with seven defenseman.

But without two of their top playmaking forwards in Kucherov and Cirelli, the Lightning found themselves trying to do too much to create offense, and that extra pass or those extra seconds holding the puck occasionally led to turnovers.

Monday’s changes were about adding a spark, grouping new sets of players together and seeing how they’d perform. And for one night, at least, they provided the charge the Lightning really needed.

The new Gourde line — with Killorn and Barre-Boulet — was impressive, outmatching Carolina on even-strength shot attempts 14-5. The new first line with Coleman, Point and Palat held a 17-10 advantage and produced the game-winning goal on Palat’s putback in front of the net.

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Stamkos’ addition to the second line was evident on the Lightning’s other even-strength goal, as his faceoff win in the offensive zone set the path for Hedman’s second-period score.

“We haven’t minded our game,” Cooper said. “I know we haven’t gotten the results we wanted, but we think it’s just a few mistakes here that have kind of cost us. But our effort’s been there. And now you’re just trying to find some combinations with some guys that might spark something in them.

“We mixed a few things up, and I thought it seemed like the boys drank a little Red Bull,” Cooper said. “They worked out for us.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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