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Even contenders need to remember defense is the key to Lord Stanley’s trophy case

John Romano | The Lightning have given up three goals or more in 12 of their first 15 games this season. Do not expect that trend to continue.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy's goals-against average of 3.10 this season is, by far, the highest of his career, although the blame is equally shared with a defense that has been less-than-stellar through 15 games.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy's goals-against average of 3.10 this season is, by far, the highest of his career, although the blame is equally shared with a defense that has been less-than-stellar through 15 games. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 15

TAMPA — The philosophy is simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to follow.

Not even with Stanley Cup banners hanging above their heads. Or a wealth of data at their fingertips. Or the memories of a lifetime locked in their hearts and minds.

The Lightning know their path to success is with a greater commitment to defense, and yet they find themselves in the bottom half of the NHL when it comes to preventing goals this season.

Is it due to roster upheaval? Sure, that could be it. Is it a lack of focus at times? That’s definitely played a role. Is it something to worry about? Not really. At least not yet.

“Expectations are always going to be high for our group, but it’s a different type of team from last year, different guys in the lineup,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We lost some really good players, and we have some guys coming in and trying to find their way. Sometimes, it takes time.

“But, yeah, that’s kind of the key to success in any league, right? Defense wins championships. That’s always been the same, so I don’t think it’s anything we have to relearn.”

Relearn? Maybe not. Recommit? Definitely.

The Lightning began the 2019-20 season in a similar defensive funk. That team gave up 52 goals in the first 15 games, much like the 49 goals Tampa Bay has given up already this season.

Of course, you remember the rest of the story. The Lightning began to buy into the idea of a defense-first philosophy in December 2019, and what followed was three consecutive Eastern Conference championships and two Stanley Cups.

That sounds like a classic Pavlovian lesson, but there are extenuating circumstances. The truth is, playing defense the right way is not simple. It’s not always glamorous. And it’s definitely not as fun.

Even for players with years in the league and championship rings on their fingers, it can be a grind to backcheck, to block shots, to worry about what’s behind them instead of ahead of them.

“You’ve got to teach the habits every year right from the get-go, and you’ve got to stay on them,” said Lightning assistant coach Rob Zettler. “The players are not trying to defy what we’re telling them, they’re just playing hockey and trying to score goals. But there are some details in defense that are hard, and it takes some discipline to make it happen.

“It’s weird, because you think coming off the successful seasons we’ve had in the past that it would be ingrained, but sometimes you just need to go back to step one and say, ‘Hey boys, this is where we’re stopping.’ It’s literally as simple as that sometimes. They just need to be reminded.”

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This is typically the kind of thing coach Jon Cooper is harping about when he occasionally bemoans the effort after a loss. Even after a largely brilliant 6-3 win against Washington on Sunday night, Cooper was irked about lapses in the final minutes that allowed a pair of easy goals to slip in.

“We’ve got to figure out how not to give up three goals,” said forward Pat Maroon. “We’ve got to figure out how to get back to that Tampa Bay Lightning hockey, which is defense. And defense leads to good offense. Giving up three a night means we have to score 6 or 4 or 5, and that’s not going to happen.”

That three-goal mark is a very simple target to aim at. The Lightning are 92-10 when giving up two goals or less the past three-plus regular seasons. And the numbers in the postseason are even more stark.

The Lightning are 37-3 in their past four playoff appearances if they hold a team to two goals or less, and they are 9-23 if they give up three goals or more.

When you look at it that way, three goals is the cliff they do not want to dance near. And yet, Tampa Bay has given up three or more goals in 12 of their 15 games this season.

“When you’re playing a game that means the world to you in the playoffs (as opposed) to playing game No. 14 in the regular season, sometimes the mindset isn’t quite as intense as it should be,” Stamkos said. “The details in a meaningful game are heightened, whereas in the regular season, sometimes you need some reminders. You need to hear, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to get us back there.’

“You don’t want to be looking too far ahead. We’ve got to get through these games first, and then the instincts will take over.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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