TAMPA — Last season’s Lightning squad rode its power play in the playoffs to a second straight Stanley Cup. As the start of another postseason approaches, the team’s power-play unit seems to be playing its best hockey at just the right time.
Despite its bevy of weapons, the Lightning power play struggled to be the game-changing special-teams unit it has been in the past.
But over the past four games, all convincing Tampa Bay wins, the Lightning are 9-for-16 (56.3 percent) with the man-advantage.
“That’s another confidence thing too, right?” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who has four power-play goals over the past four games, including a game-changing, go-ahead goal in the first period of Tuesday’s 4-1 win over the Blue Jackets.
“You start to gain some momentum and you see the puck go in the net, and then you’re making the right reads. And I think when we’re on our game, we’re deliberate in shooting the puck and making those right plays.”
In mid-March, the Lightning’s power play was middle of the road, ranking 16th in the NHL. It was in a 1-for-19 drought with the man-advantage over a six-game stretch.
But since then, Tampa Bay has scored at least one power-play goal in each of its past six games and is humming along at a 52.4-percent success rate (11-for-21). It is now up to eighth in the league entering Wednesday night’s games.
Each member of the Lightning’s first-team unit — Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman — has scored at least once on the power play over the past four games. Kucherov, positioned along the halfwall, has been in the middle of most of those goals, assisting on six of the nine and scoring two others.
“We have a lot of threats on the power play,” Hedman said. “We have the best playmaker on the right side (Kucherov), the best shooter on the left side (Stamkos). You have the bumper in the middle with Pointer, and Killer in front.
“So for us, we have a lot of threats. And we don’t have any set plays, per se, where we’ve got to go. Whatever’s open, we’re going to make those plays. So it’s good to have those kind of threats, and we just look to gain momentum for the team and hopefully score some goals.”
New linemates Stamkos and Kucherov have found chemistry in 5-on-5 play, and that synergy is carrying over to the power play. The Lightning have been more aggressive shooting the puck in man-advantage situations, including Hedman taking well-timed shots from the point. They’ve chased the puck better, keeping possession in the zone, and Kucherov is deftly handling more entries.
The Lightning’s one power-play goal Tuesday was a good example of what’s going right. Some pinpoint passing down low freed up a shot in front of the net for Point. The puck kicked out to Hedman at the point, and he put a shot on net. Killorn chased down the puck to keep possession and cycled it out, leading to a shot opportunity for Stamkos at the left circle.
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Even though Stamkos missed, the Lightning maintained possession, reset and Hedman passed to Kucherov in the right circle. Kucherov sent a cross-ice pass between two Columbus defenders to Stamkos for a one-timer from the left circle.
“The entries have been really good, the faceoffs have been good — you start with possession — the retrievals have been good,” Stamkos said. “Those are the characteristics of a good power play, when all those things are clicking, because you wear the penalty-killers down.
“And that’s where little seams open up, and usually that’s where Kuch makes a great seam pass like he’s done so many times because either a guy’s a little fatigued or he’s a little out of position. You obviously want to keep clicking heading into the playoffs here.”
Last season, the Lightning were ranked ninth in the league in power-play percentage (22.3) in the regular season. But with Kucherov’s return to the lineup after missing the entire regular season due to injury, that number jumped to 32.4 percent in the postseason, mostly because they went 15-for-36 (41.7 percent) in the first two rounds in series wins over the Panthers and Hurricanes.
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