As any team in the National Hockey League, the Tampa Bay Lightning is always considered a work in progress. Entering the 2013-14 campaign however, the attitude in the locker room has taken a 180-degree turn, meaning they do not expect anything less than constant success.
“I think everyone in this league should hate to lose,” center Tyler Johnson said. “One of Cooper’s big motto’s is, ‘you have to like to win, but you have to hate to lose more,’ and I think a lot of the guys in this locker room understand that.”
So the Bolts took it personally when their penalty kill was not up to par with what it should be to produce a winning product. Ranking near the bottom of the NHL in the category, 23rd out of 30 teams to be exact, Tampa Bay immediately went to work on the amount of pressure they applied when shorthanded, especially after Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, in which they allowed three power-play goals.
“We have a young team and this is a team sport and guys are going to take penalties,” head coach Jon Cooper said after the loss. “‘Do I like the way the penalties were taken? Absolutely not. Is it unacceptable? It is.’ We didn’t manage the game. In saying that, you got to kill one of the penalties off. You kill one and we’re still playing.”
“You go through situations where you take a penalty and the other team scores and you learn the hard way,” Steven Stamkos said. “Special teams are so big in this league that we can’t afford to necessarily put our team down.”
Just as the 2008 first round draft pick turned Lightning superstar said himself, discipline will be key for a young Tampa Bay team, who must learn how to balance sticking up for fellow teammates and restraint.
With a core that is not exactly at its peak yet, this is one of the many learning curves that are expected. The Lightning hope the curve is not as hard to overcome though, thanks to the well-established chemistry in the locker room.
And if Tuesday’s 5-1 rout of the Western Conference’s Los Angeles Kings is any indication of how they can quickly reverse problems and put them in their favor, the Bolts’ will be a team who will compete in this league.
In the victory against the Kings, Tampa Bay stopped all five of Los Angeles’ power-plays.
“You feel pretty good as a coaching staff when you go in and deal with things directly, point out some of our issues and they go out and execute,” Cooper said. “When you challenge them in certain areas, they really take it to heart. Even on the bench there was a lot of positive chatter about our penalty kill.”
Seeing the result of adding a defensive component to their game has also done its part in changing the identity of the Lightning. Once known for just their high-tempo offense, now it’s not about simply scoring goals, but more importantly, stopping opponents’ pucks from going into the net.
“Some of the problems in the past were that the team got behind so fast early in games, that they thought offense was the only way they were going to get themselves back into games,” Cooper said. “It’s not the amount of goals we score; it’s the amount that we keep out that’s going to reverse the win-loss column.”
While the Bolts have “always had this in them,” according to Cooper, the rest of the league is slowly learning that this is a very different year for the Lightning, who might have been looked at as an easy two points in the win column.
The ability to play their defensive-centered system consistently during each and every matchup will be the difference in making sure the message is relayed to the rest.
“There’s been certain games where our power-play’s let us down and other games where our penalty kill wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be, we just need to be more consistent at both ends,” Stamkos said. “Usually when both sides are going well, you’re going to win a lot more games then you’re going to lose.”
It may seem like easy math, but sometimes the easiest lessons are hardest to learn. The fact that the Bolts do not take these learning moments lightly shows they have a lot more to prove.
“We keep running into these tests and this whole league’s a test I’m finding out,” Cooper said.
What better way to test themselves with the better part of their homestand featuring the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks for the second time this month as well as a number of other intriguing contests.
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