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Here are 4 reasons to believe in the Lightning’s penalty kill

There have been a lot of things to like about Tampa Bay’s rebuilt PK. There should be even more to come.
 
Lightning forward Tyler Motte, left, battles Edmonton Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard for the puck during last Saturday's game at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay killed all five Edmonton power play opportunities in a 6-4 win.
Lightning forward Tyler Motte, left, battles Edmonton Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard for the puck during last Saturday's game at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay killed all five Edmonton power play opportunities in a 6-4 win. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 24, 2023|Updated Nov. 25, 2023

TAMPA — Assembling a successful penalty kill is a work in progress. There are ups and downs over the course of a season, and the Lightning’s is no different.

Tampa Bay entered Friday’s game at Carolina ranked 11th in the NHL with an 84.5% kill rate, including a pair of perfect games against two vaunted power-play units in recent wins over Boston and Edmonton.

A successful penalty kill can create momentum, while a power-play goal for the opposition can give it away. In Wednesday’s overtime loss to the Jets, the Lightning allowed a goal on Winnipeg’s first power play, putting them in a two-goal, first-period deficit.

There are several new faces on the Lightning penalty kill this season. Veteran forwards Luke Glendening and Tyler Motte were signed in the offseason in part to improve a penalty kill that already included Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel. Having Glendening and Cirelli gives Tampa Bay strong faceoff men from both sides.

Defenseman Calvin de Haan stepped into the left-side role Ian Cole used to have, joining long-time penalty-kill defensemen Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. Rookie forward Waltteri Merela earned some PK time before being sent to AHL Syracuse. Defenseman Darren Raddysh and forward Nick Paul also have contributed in shorthanded situations.

“They’ve all adapted,” head coach Jon Cooper said before a 5-for-5 penalty-kill performance against Edmonton on Nov. 18. “It’s been one of the bright sparks of this year. With the PK, you think about the points we have gotten to this point, the PK has been a big reason for that.”

The return of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy should further help. As we cross the quarter-mark of the regular season, here are four reasons to believe in the Lightning’s penalty kill. Stats are before Friday’s game at Carolina.

Stay out of the box, stay out of trouble

Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy (73) gets past Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) as he moves in for a shot on goaltender Jonas Johansson (31) Monday in Tampa.
Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy (73) gets past Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) as he moves in for a shot on goaltender Jonas Johansson (31) Monday in Tampa. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

This seems obvious, but in the nine games this season in which the Lightning have allowed two or fewer power-play opportunities, they own an 85.7% success rate (10-for-12). The good thing is that after being one of the most penalized teams in the league over the past several years, Tampa Bay has cut back on the minor stick penalties that lead to 5-on-4 situations. Their 71 minor penalties rank in the middle of the league. Cooper likes to say the best way to kill penalties is to not get in the box in the first place, and it’s true. When the Lightning have limited their penalties, they have been efficient.

Hagel, Cirell will get their share of shorthanded goals

Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli (71) congratulates Brandon Hagel (38) following his goal against the Florida Panthers in October in Sunrise.
Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli (71) congratulates Brandon Hagel (38) following his goal against the Florida Panthers in October in Sunrise. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
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The Lightning don’t have a shorthanded goal this season, but expect that to change. Cirelli and Hagel are aggressive puckhounds during 5-on-5 play, and it’s no different on the penalty kill. They fight for the puck and push it forward into the offensive zone, which keeps it away from the opponent and creates shorthanded scoring chances. The Lightning have nine shorthanded chances with Hagel and Cirelli on the ice together, combined with five PK scoring chances in all other situations. They also can draw penalties, something they did 11 times last season. “Tony and I kind of have that experience together,” Hagel said. “We’re really comfortable together. We read off each other. We have the same instincts at this point.”

Glendening, Motte will become more familiar with one another

Lightning forward Luke Glendening (11) takes a faceoff against Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho (20) during a game in September in Tampa.
Lightning forward Luke Glendening (11) takes a faceoff against Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho (20) during a game in September in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Glendening and Motte play a much different penalty-killing game than Hagel and Cirelli, one based on blocking shots, playing physical and interrupting passing and shooting lanes with their sticks. Glendening’s ability to win faceoffs in the defensive zone can be a game-changer on the PK because it results in less time chasing the puck, and he’s won 55.2% of PK faceoffs (26 of 47). “We’ve got (strong faceoff guys) on both sides, and that was something we never had last year,” Hagel said. “So it definitely helps wining the draw, getting it down and wasting, let’s say, 20 seconds early.” Because of Motte’s hand injury in the season opener, he and Glendening have played only nine games together, so they will only continue to mesh.

Cernak has developed into an elite short-handed defenseman

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) gets set for a faceoff during Wednesday's game against the Winnipeg Jets in Tampa.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) gets set for a faceoff during Wednesday's game against the Winnipeg Jets in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Cernak’s hard-nosed style largely goes unnoticed, and that’s especially true on the penalty kill. But there’s no player who has logged more shorthanded minutes than Cernak this season (55:46). The team’s top right-shot defenseman’s shorthanded play hasn’t been perfect, but his gritty style shines on the PK. He plays physical down low, clearing the crease and using his body and stick to protect the front of the net while also battling for pucks in the dirty areas. He leads the team in hits (eight) and is second in blocked shots (six) in shorthanded situations. He’s also drawn two penalties on the PK this season, as many as he did all last season. His biggest issue is staying on the ice, as he’s a magnet for blocked shots, which can lead to missing games due to injury. But the Lightning penalty kill is significantly better when Cernak is on the ice.

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