Getting defensive: Lightning focusing on limiting open looks in their own end

Tampa Bay is playing well, but it needs to prevent opponents from getting Grade-A scoring chances.
Lightning goaltender Brian Elliott (1) blocks a shot from Buffalo Sabres right wing JJ Peterka (77) during the third period of Saturday's game at Amalie Arena.
Lightning goaltender Brian Elliott (1) blocks a shot from Buffalo Sabres right wing JJ Peterka (77) during the third period of Saturday's game at Amalie Arena. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 7, 2022|Updated Nov. 8, 2022

TAMPA — Despite another third-period comeback that gave them two points against the Buffalo Sabres, the Lightning were far from content with the way they played Saturday night at Amalie Arena.

“The problem was, when we gave up a (scoring) chance it was a ten-beller,” coach Jon Cooper said following the 5-3 win. “And that’s something we need to tidy up. There were just too many Grade-A chances in the slot.”

Lightning goaltender Brian Elliott faced 14 high-danger chances, including 12 in 5-on-5 play, two nights after Andrei Vasilevskiy faced 19 against Carolina.

The Lightning have allowed at least 13 high-danger chances in seven of their 12 games this season. Tampa Bay’s improved overall play has been tempered by the opportunities it has allowed in its own end.

“We had a couple breakdowns, and the bottom line is that the ice you have to protect is the middle of the ice, and we got away with it,” Cooper said following Monday’s practice. “(Elliott) bailed us out a few times. But it’s something we’re definitely working on this week and trying to show the guys the wrongs of their ways and what we have to protect.”

One of the most egregious errors in their own end almost cost the Lightning Saturday’s game. With the score tied at 2 in the third period, the Sabres created a 3-on-2 rush and center Jeff Skinner shot a puck wide of the net that deflected off a stick into the corner. Buffalo’s Dylan Cozens won a puck battle with three Tampa Bay players and fed Alex Tuch above the left dot.

Victor Hedman came out to challenge the shot and Steven Stamkos went toward the point, anticipating a pass up top. The Lightning lost Skinner, who circled around the back of the net and found open ice along the far post, where Tuch found him with the puck. Skinner skated around Elliott and tucked the puck past his right pad, giving Buffalo a 3-2 lead.

“I think we’ve got to slow it down a little bit mentally,” Hedman said. “We’re trying to do the right things when you see a guy open, but you just have to do your job. You’ve got to trust the guys around you. If there is a breakdown, you can’t fix it yourself because then there’s another breakdown and then there’s a guy alone at the net.

“So, I think guys have got to calm down a little bit, assert ourselves and keep our heads on a swivel to make sure we know where the high-danger guys are, and if there’s going to be a breakdown try to let the goalie see the puck and don’t try to do too much.”

While high-danger chances — shot attempts assigned the highest value based on proximity to the net — give added value to shots on the rush, they don’t account for how open a player is when taking a shot.

The Lightning will face another high shot-volume team Tuesday against Edmonton, which has two of the league’s most dynamic offensive players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Last season, the Oilers tied for third in the league for most goals scored off high-danger chances with 159.

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“I think it kind of boils down more so to execution,” Stamkos said. “You’re expected to make a certain level of play when you’re playing in the NHL. And sometimes, whether it’s fatigue or just not doing the right thing on the ice, it can cost you and lead to some chances.

“Those things are correctable. For the most part, when we’ve been allowing those chances in the high-danger areas, it’s not something the other team has done. It’s mostly what we’ve done to ourselves. So, the good news is in those situations, you usually can correct them.”

The Lightning spent Monday’s practice, their first since the Buffalo game, focusing on limiting those wide-open looks. They concentrated on defending odd-man rushes, winning puck battles in their own zone and having better awareness away from the puck.

“There’s a few things to it,” Cooper said afterward. “Basically, when you’re playing D zone, it’s all about winning your battles, and it’s all those things you have to do away from the puck. And everybody wants to have the puck on his stick, and I understand that. But if you want to get it back, these are things you have to do. Whether it’s mental lapses, whether you’re a little tired, you can’t sway from what our principles are and what we’re doing. Because if one guy does it, then if there’s a breakdown, it’s just a trickle-down effect.”

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