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The key ingredient to the Lightning’s playoff success? It’s defense

Tampa Bay has put together back-to-back stellar defensive efforts against the top two offensive teams in the NHL.
Lightning forward Nick Paul (20) defends against Panthers forward Claude Girioux (28) as Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a save during Game 1 Tuesday in Sunrise. Tampa Bay has learned that the work it does in front of its goaltender is one of the biggest keys to winning in the postseason.
Lightning forward Nick Paul (20) defends against Panthers forward Claude Girioux (28) as Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a save during Game 1 Tuesday in Sunrise. Tampa Bay has learned that the work it does in front of its goaltender is one of the biggest keys to winning in the postseason. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 18|Updated May 19

SUNRISE — You might as well call it Cooper’s Law.

Those who have been paying attention have heard Lightning coach Jon Cooper say it often after wins and losses: You hold an opponent to two goals or fewer and you give yourself a chance to win. Anything more and you’re playing with fire.

Over the course of this regular season, Cooper had to remind his team of that more often than he would have liked. The Lightning allowed the sixth-fewest goals in the league, but game to game, coaches and players were frustrated by defensive lapses that led to turnovers and odd-man rushes that too often ended with the puck in the back of their net.

As the Lightning chase a third straight Stanley Cup, they know postseason success is rooted in strong defense.

As they enter Game 2 of their second-round series against the Panthers tonight, the Lightning have started looking a lot like the team that won the past two Cups by how they are playing in their end.

In their past two games — the Game 7 win against Toronto in the first round and Game 1 versus Florida — Tampa Bay has shut down the league’s two most dynamic offenses, holding each to one goal.

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has stopped 63 of 65 shots over the past two games. But the Lightning’s commitment to protecting their net has been equally impressive. The Lightning have blocked 42 shots. They’ve taken away shooting and passing lanes. And they’ve prevented opponents from getting into the soft spots in the middle of the ice that result in rebound opportunities and in front of the net that lead to deflections.

“Defense is about commitment,” Cooper said. “When you’re playing (defense), you don’t have the puck and there’s a lot of choices that have to be made. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but when you play 82 games, the same commitment to playing (defense) is not always there, and it’s understandable. Guys are tired. They’re playing five (games) in eight nights.

“But we have a recipe that’s worked for us these past few springs, and these guys have an ability that when it gets tough — and now it’s time to dig your heels in — they do it. But it’s done in so many different ways. But it is the play when they don’t have the puck that’s really kind of stabilized us these last couple games.”

The proof is in the results. Dating to the beginning of the 2020 postseason, the Lightning are 29-2 when allowing two goals or fewer. The only losses are a 2-1 double-overtime defeat to the Islanders in Game 5 of the 2020 Eastern Conference final and a 2-1 loss to the Islanders in Game 1 of last season’s playoff semifinals.

When the Lightning have allowed three goals or more over that span, they are 9-15.

This postseason, the Lightning allowed more than three goals in each of their first six games against the Maple Leafs. They went 3-3. Before Game 7 in Toronto, the discussion in their locker room focused on doing everything they could to shut down the Maple Leafs.

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“There’s always constant reminders,” assistant coach Rob Zettler said. “We talk about that a lot. It was obviously a huge part of this team’s success in the past. If you’re not playing well defensively, at the end of the day you’re not going to win. You’re not going to win a championship. You may win here and there, win a few games (in the postseason), but I don’t think you’re going to win the championship.”

The Lightning have learned the hard way that defense trumps offense in the playoffs. Throughout the season and in the Toronto series, they were burned by bad passes out of their zone.

But against the Maple Leafs and in the first game against the Panthers — teams that love to pounce on turnovers to create scoring chances — they’ve played a safer game, making fewer risky passes. And though what will be remembered are plays such as Nikita Kucherov’s highlight-reel assist on a Game 1 goal, the Lightning know that blocked shots by players such as defensemen Cal Foote, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev are just as important.

“We know how we have to play, and you look at Toronto, now Florida, two of the most dynamic offensive teams,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’re going to have to really buckle down and play well defensively to give ourselves a chance. We have to rely on playing the right way. Guys can still make plays, but just be smart with the puck.

“And when you play teams of this caliber offensively, it’s just those little tiny mistakes that can lead to offensive chances. And we’ve seen that when we have gone away (from good defense) for a couple minutes, that’s usually the case. This group has had a lot of experience the past couple years in knowing what it takes to win at this time of the year. And it’s not always pretty, but it’s about wins, and that’s what this group, I think, understands.”

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

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