TAMPA — It’s difficult to nitpick with the Lightning. They’re off to one of their best starts and this week became the first team in the NHL to reach 50 points this season. They’ve overcome a season-long injury to top scorer Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy is the league’s top goaltender, and they’ve managed to pull out games when they haven’t played their best.
But when it comes to how the Lightning can improve down the stretch and into the postseason, both general manager Julien BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper would like to see a reduction in the number of minor penalties the team takes.
The Lightning enter Friday’s games with 85 minor penalties called against them, second-most in the league behind only Vancouver’s 96. And it’s not a new issue. Tampa Bay has been among the top five teams in the NHL for minor penalties each of the past five seasons, leading the league during their Presidents’ Trophy season of 2018-19.
“It’s a work in progress is probably the best way I can put this,” Cooper said earlier this week. “A couple years ago we were a top team in the league for minors against, which was something we tried to do and has been a point of contention with us. We’re slowly creeping back for better numbers, but by no means are we one of the better teams in not taking penalties. But we’ve shown progress in a positive way, so that’s all I can ask is we can keep doing that.”
The Lightning have played well but would make things easier on themselves if they spent less time in the penalty box. Their 5-on-5 for/against ratio is 1.51, best in the league. So statistically speaking, they are playing better even-strength hockey than anyone.
“It’s the amount of penalties we’ve taken,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to start cutting out these, at least the minor games there, down the stretch to give our PK a little bit of a break.”
The Lightning’s penalty kill has been strong — it currently ranks eighth at 82.6 percent — but is hitting a midseason lag. Over the last nine games, Tampa Bay’s penalty kill has been operating at a subpar 63.0-percent success rate. And two of the teams’ top penalty killers, defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak, are banged up, missing Thursday’s 4-3 loss at Dallas.
“Our PK has had a little bit of a rough stretch here and we need to get back on track, which would obviously help rectify the awareness of all the penalties we take, and obviously it’s a big reason why it stands out right now,” said forward Blake Coleman, a member of the Lightning’s first PK unit. “But I think it’s just more being cognizant of what’s going on and keeping your stick down. You’ve got to toe the line the right way.”
The Lightning are tied for the league lead in slashing calls (14) and rank second in high-sticking (9) and holding (10) penalties.
Thursday’s game turned on a penalty. Joe Pavelski scored a tying goal just seven seconds into a Dallas power play late in the second period, and then Jason Robertson scored with 16 seconds left in the period to give the Stars a 3-2 lead. The Lightning killed off their other two penalties, including a too-many-men-on-the-ice call midway through the third.
It didn’t help that they didn’t draw a single minor penalty, marking their first game this season without a power play.
“It’s a fine line between being too aggressive and not being aggressive enough,” Coleman said. “I know for me personally, typically when my legs are doing the work, my penalty numbers are down and something that when I go through a streak, kind of like I have here recently taking minors, you just reevaluate and maybe you don’t get your stick up as much or just move your legs a little bit more.
“But there’s just things that you can do to kind of just (have) an awareness, really. But you’re going to take some penalties, you can’t eliminate all penalties from the game. Otherwise, your team’s probably not playing hard enough or playing the way that you need to win games.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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