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How the ‘school bus’ line drives the Lightning’s play

The veteran trio of Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry have become a combination with staying power.
Flyers goaltender Carter Hart (79), left, looks on as Lightning right wing Corey Perry (10) celebrates a goal along with left wing Pat Maroon (14) and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) during a Nov. 23 game in Tampa.
Flyers goaltender Carter Hart (79), left, looks on as Lightning right wing Corey Perry (10) celebrates a goal along with left wing Pat Maroon (14) and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) during a Nov. 23 game in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 15|Updated Jan. 16

TAMPA — In the Lightning’s third preseason game, coach Jon Cooper was impressed with his first glimpse of a new third line.

The combination of 30-somethings Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry had size and veteran savvy. They drove play into the offensive zone and knew where to be on the ice. And for their first time playing together, they seemed to have a natural feel for each other.

“You’d think those guys have been here (together) for years,” Cooper said at the time.

The preseason is for tinkering, and Cooper eventually went away from that line. But three weeks into the regular season, coming off a frustrating loss in Toronto, he shuffled his bottom two lines and reunited the trio. He created a line that had been so consistent that it had been the only one he hadn’t tweaked until Saturday against the Stars, when Perry was moved to the top line in part because of Ondrej Palat’s injury.

Mathieu Joseph was put in Perry’s spot on the third line.

Center Bellemare and wing Perry, both offseason free-agent acquisitions, with Maroon didn’t necessarily stick on the third line at first; they played fewer than seven minutes together in their first regular-season game as a trio Nov. 6 in Ottawa. But the three meshed to become the Lightning’s most dependable line.

“The thing with chemistry is you don’t know until you try it,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “We didn’t start the season with those three players as a line together. Sometimes other things look like they would make more sense. And through trial and error, and sometimes through injuries and necessity, you end up trying different things, and sometimes the chemistry just takes, and when that happens, that’s called a good fit.”

The Bellemare-Perry-Maroon line can control the game in similar ways to the third line that helped the Lightning win the past two Stanley Cups — Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman, all gone from the team in the offseason.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) works against Canucks defenseman Brad Hunt (77) during Thursday in Tampa.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) works against Canucks defenseman Brad Hunt (77) during Thursday in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The calming influence of Bellemare fits the get-it-north mentality shared by Maroon and Perry, close friends who played together for four seasons in Anaheim in the 2010s. And the result has been a trio that dominates zone time and scores.

“We knew that eventually was going to come,” Bellemare said. “And in most of those games, even if we don’t have points, we are able to create some kind of momentum for the team, and that’s kind of the key. You’re not going to be able to score every shift, but if we can create momentum so that our big guns feel it and come in and bury it after us, it’s a win for us, too.”

Perry opened the season with an unlucky run. He led the Lightning in scoring chances but didn’t get a goal until the 18th game. Now, Perry’s 10 goals are his highest total in four seasons, and Maroon and Bellemare are on pace for their best offensive seasons in years.

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“I think we’ve done a really good job of kind of creating offense for ourselves, playing heavy below the top of the circles in the O-zone and wearing on the team,” Maroon said. “So we’ve just got to continue that.”

That has come by prioritizing puck possession, an area at which the Lightning desperately needed to be better when the line was assembled.

Corey Perry has fit in nicely with the Lightning and is having one of his better scoring seasons in years.
Corey Perry has fit in nicely with the Lightning and is having one of his better scoring seasons in years. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Regardless of the opponent that we’ve been facing, our game hasn’t changed because we know what’s made us successful,” Bellemare said. “It’s skating out of the zone as fast as possible, coming into the zone. We don’t have to try to make the grand-slam pass. We know that if we are staying the course and have the puck deep, eventually we’re going to win the puck and we’re going to be able to create out of it.”

Maroon and Perry like to get the puck deep. Both battle for the puck behind the net, and both, particularly Perry, have a knack for finding scoring areas in front of the net. Bellemare is the quarterback, slowing the game for his high-motor linemates. He’s vocal on the ice and helps position Perry and Maroon in the right places.

Maroon nicknamed them the “school bus” line because they carry each other.

Assistant coach Derek Lalonde credits Perry and Maroon for their responsible play in their zone, and Bellemare — who also is on the top penalty kill unit — also complements the two in that way.

“(Not everyone thinks) about their defensive game,” Lalonde said of Perry and Maroon. “But they’ve done a good job of it, and they’ve been committed to it. And that’s why they’re spending less time in the zone.

“You never know with chemistry in lines. I don’t know if that line was on our radar. … And they’ve kind of fed off each other very well.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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