TAMPA — The early portion of the Lightning’s season has involved shuffling and mixed results on the power play. But on Thursday, for the second time in as many games, they had a different problem. And it didn’t entirely revolve around a lack of scoring.
Instead, the issue stemmed from holding — or building on — a one-goal lead with the man-advantage. Tampa Bay led the Hurricanes 3-2 in the third period Thursday night, but that changed when three Carolina players raced down the ice and Brady Skjei ripped a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy. A sloppy pass to Brayden Point along the boards led to the counter and, ultimately, the goal.
Skjei’s goal meant the Lightning had allowed a short-handed goal in back-to-back games, with the first tally coming via the Senators on Tuesday. Tampa Bay has only allowed a short-handed goal in consecutive games five other times under coach Jon Cooper — with one of those a three-game stretch — including three last season.
One possible root of the problem, Cooper said, is that they’re “trying to make plays that probably aren’t there.” The two scenarios against Ottawa and Carolina — a 5-on-3 and 5-on-4, respectively — are “completely different,” assistant coach Jeff Halpern said, but he added that the Lightning still need to address them in practice, learn from their mistakes and correct everything moving forward.
“It’s definitely not a recipe,” forward Corey Perry said Thursday. “So we as a (power-play) group have to figure that out, how to keep it out of the net. We have to be more responsible even when we’re up a man. "
The power play has already dealt with some changes the last two games, with Victor Hedman nursing an upper-body injury and out of the lineup. That meant Mikhail Sergachev slid to the top line, while Cal Foote ran the point for the second unit.
Foote said he has skated on power-play units at every level of hockey — in the minors with AHL Syracuse, even dating back to his youth days. But that hadn’t translated to the NHL. In his first two seasons and 91 NHL games, Foote logged less than three total minutes of power-play ice time.
Because of Hedman’s injury, he has already skated seven minutes in 2022.
Early-season shuffling also placed Vladislav Namestnikov on the first unit alongside the Lightning’s traditional core — former linemates from his first stint with Tampa Bay — and Brandon Hagel on the second line. Alex Killorn moved from the first line into a different role, too.
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Halpern said Friday that the second line has been “exceptional” at creating chances and momentum, contributing beyond the traditional expectation of setting up for 5-on-5 near the end of a man-advantage.
The power play had also avoided allowing any short-handed goals, for the most part. Entering this week, the Lightning had not allowed one since opening night against the Rangers. Their power-play unit’s production had ebbed and flowed — with goals in eight of 11 games undermined by a conversion percentage (23.4%) that ranks 12th in the NHL — throughout the season, but they had avoided the short-handed mistakes.
Then, in the second period against the Senators, Nikita Kucherov, one of five Lightning forwards on the ice, mishandled a puck near the blueline. Mathieu Joseph raced Steven Stamkos to the puck, collected possession as Stamkos dove and missed on a backcheck, and lifted a shot past Vasilevskiy to snap a tie score just nine minutes after Tampa Bay evened it.
Two days later, a poor entry kick-started Carolina’s short-handed goal, Namestnikov said. The Lightning misread how the 5-on-4 situation developed — compounded by not taking care of the puck — and that allowed the Hurricanes to skate back with a 3-on-2 rush. The solution: “just paying attention,” Namestnikov said. He added it isn’t something that can really be practiced, either.
“5-on-3, it’s not something that you’re really analyzing how to stop chances against,” Halpern said. “Obviously, on 5-on-4, you’re looking at everything: Offensively, how you’re breaking out, recoveries in-zone, faceoffs and even how you’re staying above stuff. It goes into everything that we talk about as a group and throughout the year. It all goes into the plan every day.”
But overall, Halpern said, the Lightning’s power play was “really good” to start the year. Then, a “dry stretch” arrived. They have flashed at times — like Thursday, when the Lightning converted twice — while also trusting they can still lean on their top unit to win games.
Eventually, that will involve avoiding the short-handed goals from opponents, too.
“Instead of putting them away, or taking some momentum away, we give up the shorty,” Cooper said. “That’s a tough one to swallow, and that’s something we have to most definitely get better at.”
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