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Lightning still searching for defensive consistency

The Lightning played consecutive solid defensive games before being outmatched against league-leading Boston.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gets beat as Bruins left wing Nick Foligno scores to go up 2-1 during second-period action at Amalie Arena on Monday.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gets beat as Bruins left wing Nick Foligno scores to go up 2-1 during second-period action at Amalie Arena on Monday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 22|Updated Nov. 22

TAMPA — The Lightning saw why the Bruins have run out to the best record in the league.

They skate fast, pass precisely and possess a synergy that allows them to know where to find each other on the ice. They attack from angles and in waves, and that exposed the Lightning’s defensive holes in Tampa Bay’s 5-3 loss on Monday night at Amalie Arena.

The Lightning had one of their best opening periods of the season and took an early one-goal lead only to see the Bruins score five in a row. Four of those goals, including two on the power play, were scored in front of the net, the high-danger area that the Lightning have struggled to protect consistently throughout the first 19 games.

“That’s why they’re an elite team in the league,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “When it didn’t go their way, they kept it together and stuck with it and when it didn’t go our way, we didn’t handle it that well. Our game plan in protecting the areas we needed to, we didn’t do it to near where we should have with an urgency of things.”

The Lightning too often have allowed three or more goals (in 14 games), which has been Cooper’s recipe for danger.

“We know and the guys know, but you can’t ... keep up three-plus,” he said. “It’s two or less, and things like this happen for you. You’re not going to win them all. But you’re giving yourself a really good chance.”

After playing eight straight games in which they allowed three goals or more, the Lightning held opponents to two or fewer in wins over Calgary and Nashville last week. So they saw their defensive formula work, at least briefly.

Their 3-2 win against the Predators on Saturday was reminiscent of their postseason blueprint. The Lightning had many glorious chances early and a season-high 18 shots on goal in the first period, but only one goal to show for it.

The Lightning's Ross Colton (79) and Predators' Filip Forsberg (9) battle for the puck in overtime on Saturday.
The Lightning's Ross Colton (79) and Predators' Filip Forsberg (9) battle for the puck in overtime on Saturday. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]

But they were determined to play a strong defensive game for 60 minutes, possess the puck well, cut down on turnovers and limit the Predators’ high-danger chances in front. They kept the Predators to the outside and blocked out the middle to prevent screens and deflections, which allowed goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to see the puck well when it was coming his way.

“Just protecting the middle of the ice better, you know, making a conscious effort to be strong in our D zone,” Lightning center Brayden Point said. “And it’s something that I think is improving. What still needs work is we were not turning the puck over as much and when we were, we were getting back and trying to limit the odd-man rushes.

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“So I think, if anything, it’s just protecting the middle of the ice and trying to limit the odd-man opportunities.”

The Bruins might have been the Lightning’s biggest test so far in this young season. They lead the league in scoring, averaging 4.16 goals a game, so they have filled the net against pretty much everyone. But Monday’s loss was a reminder that the Lightning aren’t where they need to be on the defensive end. It didn’t help that penalties continued to plague them either, allowing Boston four power plays on the night.

The Lightning left Nick Foligno alone in front of the net on the power play, allowing him to bury a rebound to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead. Charlie Coyle gained inside position along the back post to clean up a loose puck for Boston’s third goal.

But the biggest Bolts breakdown was on the Bruins’ fourth goal by Brad Marchand, where a puck was deflected into the air and three Boston skaters surrounded the goal uncovered. Marchand plucked the puck out of the air and snapped a shot from in front past Vasilevskiy.

“It can be focus,” Point added. “But a lot of it’s just being responsible, I guess, with it and then hockey’s a fast game. If you’re going to make mistakes, teams are going to get chances and there’s going to be breakdowns. But I think it’s just kind of how you recover, how your plan is recovering. And ... we’ve been better at that plan.”

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