A key ingredient in the formula that helped the Lightning beat the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup final in September was equally present in Saturday’s first meeting between the teams this season.
The Lightning killed all six penalties they received in the 5-0 win at Amalie Arena. It was no accident, as the unit that killed 18 of 19 penalties in the Cup final has been among the league’s best this season.
“I thought the penalty kill was outstanding,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said Saturday. “It’s been really good of late. It’s kept us in some games, it’s won us some games and certainly kept us in (Saturday’s game) and the last game (against Carolina).”
Entering Monday, the Lightning’s penalty-kill percentage of 88.1 percent ranked second only to the Avalanche (89.5) in the NHL. Tampa Bay did not allow a power-play goal in 10 of 19 games this season and permitted just one in six others.
The unit has been particularly effective of late, killing 33 of 36 penalties over the past 10 games.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh logs the most time on the penalty kill, averaging 3:22 per game. Defenseman Erik Cernak (2:58) and wing Barclay Goodrow (2:49) see the next-most minutes.
When the offense has lacked a spark or the puck control hasn’t been there this season, the penalty kill has remained a constant for the Lightning.
Even in the face of injuries.
The Lightning’s second penalty-kill unit suffered a blow last month when center Anthony Cirelli, whose 2:47 average ice time on the penalty kill ranks fourth on the team, was sidelined for six games with an upper-body injury. But center Yanni Gourde stepped into the role, and the unit didn’t miss a beat.
“(Gourde) brings energy, and it’s just the way he plays,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He can be on you pretty quick. ... But he’s a pretty tenacious kid, so you need some of those attributes when you kill penalties.”
Still, if there was any doubt about Cirelli’s value to the unit, he quashed it in his return Saturday against Dallas. Cirelli played 3:11 on the penalty kill and scored a short-handed goal, his first of the season.
“Any time you take six penalties and you come out of it up 1-0 with the shorty, that’s a good sign for you,” Cooper said.
When other teams have gone on the power play, the Lightning’s penalty-kill units have found ways not only to slow the opposition’s offense but also create goal-scoring opportunities of their own.
Such was the case Saturday, as Dallas struggled to get set up in Tampa Bay’s zone, limiting its ability to create scoring opportunities. Lightning penalty killers cleared the puck on numerous occasions, making it easier to switch out players and keep fresh legs on the ice until the two-minute disadvantages expired.
“Whenever you can do that, it makes it so hard on the power play to go back and get pucks all of the time,” Alex Killorn said on the Fox Sports broadcast during the first intermission.
Cooper said he looks for players with high hockey IQs when he puts together his penalty-killing units.
“People think that you put thinkers on the power play, but you need thinkers on the penalty kill,” Cooper said. “They have to anticipate where players are going, and they have to understand the system you’re running. ... You have to make reads ahead of what the power play guys are doing.”
Penalty killers need to be physical, too. They can’t be afraid to go after the puck in dangerous situations or block a shot with their stick or a part of their body, if necessary.
In Thursday’s 3-1 win over Carolina, the Lightning blocked 15 shots to the Hurricanes’ seven. McDonagh blocked four himself. Tampa Bay killed off all five penalties that night.
“In our penalty kill, it takes a lot of guts for guys to sacrifice themselves, and that’s the first thing you need is guys willing and accepting their role and trying to thrive in it,” McDonagh said.
“Our group really pulls from one another, and the guys who aren’t on it are really supportive about it, too. We know it makes a difference in a game.”
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