TAMPA — It could be a byproduct of the kind of teams the Lightning are facing this postseason, but Tampa Bay enters Game 2 of the Stanley Cup semifinals Tuesday night without any of their defensemen having scored a single postseason goal.
The Lightning are actually averaging slightly more offense than during last year’s Cup run — 3.25 goals per playoff game compared to 3.08 in 2020 — but their D-men have no goals in the first 12 games. Last season, defensemen scored 17 in the Lightning’s 25-game postseason run, including a dozen even-strength goals.
“Well, that would help, I guess,” coach Jon Cooper said following the Lightning’s Game 1 loss to the Islanders when asked about getting more goals from his defenseman. “I mean, the goal is to win the games so I don’t think necessarily it’s who scores. And we won two series without them scoring, so we can’t sit here and say well because the D didn’t score (Sunday) that’s why we lost. That wasn’t it at all.
“Our D do a great job for us and, and sometimes they go in for them, sometimes they don’t. It’s kind of weird, though, this playoffs that they don’t have goals yet, but we’re in the semis so I think eventually they’re going to come.”
Where has the offense gone for the blue line? Cooper often talks about his team being five players on defense and five players on offense, each one key to success in his respective zone.
But the three teams the Lightning played have very contrasting styles, from the run-and-gun, offensively-minded Panthers to the forechecking, full-court pressing Hurricanes. Now it’s an Islanders team that plays physical but also likes to create offense from picking off passes in their own end.
“We have a chance to maybe jump a little bit more and create a little bit more,” said David Savard, who leads Tampa Bay defensemen with three shots on goal. “But I think Florida was a team that was blocking a lot of shots, it was a little harder to kind of get pucks through and stuff like that so our offense was coming more from the forwards. But I think we’ve got to find ways to bring pucks to the net and get some screens.”
A majority of last year’s playoff production belonged to Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman, who paced all defensemen with 10 goals and 12 assists. This postseason, he has 11 assists, but only two have been in even-strength situations.
The Lightning’s defensemen are shooting less than last year’s postseason, by an average of more than four shots per game, and they have only 14 even-strength assists — a little more than one per game (1.1). They’re not only taking fewer shots on goal but getting fewer pucks toward the net for second-chance scoring opportunities in even-strength play.
“We’ve got to be a little more active, more of a threat to shoot, and we’ve got to be a little bit more aggressive up ice, joining the rush,” Hedman said. “And as soon as we get the puck we can kind of look to shoot and create scrambles. We had some good looks, (Savard) had some good looks (Sunday) and (Islanders goaltender Semyon) Varlamov did some good saves but at the end of the day, we’re looking to win games. That’s a matter of scoring goals but we for sure got to be a little bit more aggressive up ice.”
Ultimately the Lightning are at their best when the defensemen jump up in the opponent’s zone and provide a second wave of offense, but also put more pucks on net to feed the Lightning’s shot-scramble game to present second and third opportunities. That all begins with puck possession, but is also an offensive mentality. While the Lightning won last year’s Cup with defense, they also perfected the right times to charge the net. But again, getting the defense involved requires more puck possession than the Lightning had in the semifinal opener.
“Certainly, we can create a little bit more shots from the blue line, hopefully find the back of the net and continue to push ourselves and get up there and be a second wave,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We don’t want to get stuck in our own zone where you’re not allowed within your shift to get up into play.
“Being extra hard in the first five to 10 seconds of your shift in your own zone, that’s when you can go play offense and so we’ll continue to look at things there.”
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