BRANDON — The play didn’t make the event summary of the Lightning’s 5-1 win over the Capitals on Thursday at Amalie Arena, but Tampa Bay defenseman Ian Cole’s breakup of a 2-on-1 rush while pinned in his end in the first period might have been one of the biggest defensive plays of the night.
Tampa Bay was clinging to a one-goal lead after Alex Killorn’s power-play goal midway through the period, and Washington was pressuring. The Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin dissected the ice entering the zone and, from above the left circle, threaded a pass between two Lightning skaters to defenseman John Carlson, who was jumping into the play from the right wing.
Cole was in trouble, on the bad end of an odd-man rush. Carlson had open Capitals forward Dylan Strome approaching the far post. The only help in front of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, Cole read the play perfectly, breaking up Carlson’s cross-slot pass with his stick.
“At that point you’re deciding, all right, what’s the most dangerous situation and what’s the least dangerous chance to give up?” Cole said after Friday morning’s practice. “I’m going to seal the back door, take this guy, and I’m going to let (Vasilevskiy) take the straight shot. And if he shoots it and beats (Vasilevskiy), well, you know what? You took away whatever the most dangerous situation is.
“That’s what I’m trying to assess at that moment, and I think (Vasilevskiy) read it the same way I did. (Vasilevskiy) came out, he challenged. I sealed that back door. They tried to pass through me, it hit me, and it worked out well.”
Steven Stamkos’ goal with 2.8 seconds left in the period gave the Lightning a two-goal lead, and from there they took control.
Cole, back in the lineup after sitting out Tuesday’s 4-0 win at Carolina for what coach Jon Cooper called a coach’s decision, was plus-3 for the game. He had seven shot attempts, including three on goal, and logged 3:31 of shorthanded time for a penalty kill that held the Capitals scoreless on four power-play opportunities.
Asked whether Cole’s absence Tuesday was performance based or to give the 34-year-old rest ahead of the playoffs, Cooper said a lot of factors go into such decisions. He said he needed to get other players ice time, in Tuesday’s situation left-shot defenseman Haydn Fleury, who hadn’t played in nearly three weeks.
Make no mistake, Cole will play a major part in the postseason for the Lightning, who can clinch a berth outright Saturday. When the Lightning were looking to replace Ryan McDonagh, traded in the offseason, they zeroed in on Cole, who brought a similarly heavy style, experience killing penalties and a winning pedigree.
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In Cole’s previous 12 NHL seasons, his team made the postseason every year but one (the Blues in 2010-11). He has played in 103 playoff games over the past seven seasons, a total that includes two Stanley Cup championship runs with the Penguins, the last team to win back-to-back titles (2016-17) before the Lightning did it in 2020-21.
“When I think of ‘Colesy,’ I think of his days in Pittsburgh when they won two Cups of how valuable he was to that team,” said Lightning assistant coach Rob Zettler, who coaches the defensemen. “He brings that element of compete every single night, and he kind of does a lot of the dirty work.
“So there’s a reason why good teams want him, because he can help elevate you and help get you over the hump, and because he is willing to do a lot of the hard lifting.”
Cole doesn’t make the score sheet often. His winning goal for Carolina in Game 1 of the Hurricanes’ second-round series against the Rangers last postseason was just the second playoff goal of his career.
But his pairing with right-shot defenseman Erik Cernak will be critical for the Lightning this postseason. They will log heavy minutes against opposing teams’ top lines.
“We need that from those two guys, because at the end of the day, they’re physical, they’re both heavy, they’re both strong,” Zettler said. “And they’re both willing to kind of put their body on the line, either taking a hit, giving a hit or blocking a shot. And those are key factors when you’re playing against skilled players.”
To Cole, the playoffs are less about thinking and more about knowing instinctively what a player’s responsibility is on the ice moment to moment and executing as games get tighter in the playoffs.
“If my job is to get this puck to the wing, I’m getting it to the winger any way I can,” he said. “I don’t care if I get buried. I’m getting out of my zone. Or … someone blew coverage. I need to go eat this puck.
“It’s just assessing what our responsibility is, and it’s knowing what that is, and then it’s executing that. And I think that’s where you start to see when we play our best. It’s like, this is my job. This is my responsibility. … And it keeps building on itself. So that’s how I view it. It’s a desperation thing for every single play.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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