Jon Cooper has one quality he’s looking for above all others when it comes to putting one of his players in front of the opposition’s net: courage.
The player has to endure shoves and stickwork to stand his ground in front of the crease. He has to be able to take away the goalie’s eyes. And he has to be willing to put his body in front of shots going 90-plus mph.
If he can do do all that, there’s a good chance the puck might wind up in the back of the net.
It’s a big responsibility, and not everyone has the guts to do it. But the area around the blue paint is often where games are won or lost in the NHL.
“The guys that stand in there are usually the guys who get rewarded,” Cooper said. “If you’re ducking out of the way, way before the shot happens because you’re apprehensive about getting hit, it kind of defeats the purpose, so guys with courage are the guys who get rewarded.”
It happened often during the Lightning’s recent three-game stretch in Chicago, where Tampa Bay won two games and lost the third in a shootout, coming away with five of a possible six points.
Pat Maroon, who provided a screen in front of the net during Yanni Gourde’s go-ahead goal in Sunday’s comeback win, was a prime example. Maroon blocked the view of Blackhawks goaltender Kevin Lankinen just long enough for Gourde to set up his shot from the left circle, stepping out of the way at the last second.
In fact, screens played a role in three of the Lightning’s six goals. In addition to Maroon, Alex Killorn obscured Lankinen’s view on power-play goals by Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman.
Maroon said screening the goalie and scoring from in tight is a combination of making a conscious decision to go into the area and using “a little bit of hockey sense” to make the right read.
“We’ve been harping a little bit on trying to get in front of the net, make it difficult on the goaltenders of late,” he said. “Usually we try to make it a point, and sometimes we can get away from that and it gets away from our offense ability.”
Maroon said the team has done a better job recently of having a heavier net-front presence. The grimier goals relieve some of the pressure when the Lightning aren’t scoring off the rush or making more creative plays.
Such was the case during Thursday’s overtime win.
The Lightning couldn’t find the back of the net during the first two periods, and the slow start put them in a quick two-goal deficit. In the third period, however, Tampa Bay found its footing and goals from Anthony Cirelli and Steven Stamkos sent the game into overtime.
With the clock ticking down in overtime, Hedman curled back from the right circle and fired a shot from the high slot. The puck deflected off Killorn and crossed the goal line with 0.1 seconds remaining in the 3-2 win.
It wasn’t Killorn’s only grimy goal of the series. The veteran wing scored on another deflection in Friday’s shootout loss. In both situations, Killorn was exactly where he needed to be: playing big and blocking the goalie’s view of the puck.
“Goalies are so good in the NHL now that you have to screen them,” Killorn said after Sunday’s win. “You have to get in front of them and make it hard of them, and we’ve been doing that. For me, two of the goals in this series just hit my shin pad, so I’ll keep doing that if Heddy’s going to keep shooting it off me.”
A heavy net-front presence has been crucial for the Lightning of late, as it was during last season’s Stanley Cup run. The team hopes it becomes more routine in the games to come, because when done right, the payoff is immediate.
“We’ve harped on it a lot with our players,” Cooper said. “I love when these pucks are going in with guys there, because it just makes you want to go there. It just kind of hammers in a point when those pucks go in.”
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