Lightning hoping for more active defensemen to even Semifinals

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have zero goals from defensemen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after averaging nearly one every two games in the regular season.

That’s a statistic that doesn’t seem to matter until a team trails in a best-of-7 series, which the Lightning do for the first time in the playoffs, after a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals on Sunday.

“We won two series without them scoring,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Monday. “I can’t sit here and say, ‘Well, because the ‘D’ didn’t score (in Game 1), we lost.’ That wasn’t it at all.”

The Lightning, who got 25 goals from defensemen in 56 games in the regular season, won’t necessarily need one to defeat the Islanders in Game 2 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVAS). 

But a more involved group of defensemen will give them a better chance of evening the series. That is obvious to the Lightning, especially after the winning goal in Game 1 was scored by Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock.

“We’ve got to be a little bit more active, more of a threat to shoot and we’ve got to be a little bit more aggressive up ice, joining the rush and as soon as we get the puck we have to look to shoot and create scrambles,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “At the end of the day we’re looking to win games, it doesn’t matter who is scoring goals, but we for sure have to be more aggressive up ice.”

Hedman, who led Tampa Bay defenseman with nine goals during the regular season, has no goals and 11 assists in the playoffs.

Lightning defensemen have 96 shots on goal and 23 assists in the playoffs. They combined for seven shots on goal and 12 total shot attempts at even strength in Game 1, which wasn’t enough against the Islanders, who are among the best in the NHL at keeping the opposition on the outside and the netfront clean.

Video: Varlamov, Islanders hold off Lightning for Game 1 win

The Islanders are also strong at preventing transition opportunities because their forwards are aggressive on the forecheck and their defensemen sag, allowing entry into the zone but usually not with speed. 

The Lightning didn’t generate much off the rush in Game 1.

“There’s not going to be a ton of that in this series,” Tampa Bay forward Alex Killorn said.

That should emphasize the importance of getting the defensemen more involved through the neutral zone and once they get set up in the attacking zone.

A shot from the point can break down the Islanders’ defensive zone structure and lead to, as Hedman said, scrambles in front, rebounds that carom off goalie Semyon Varlamov or a stick or skate in front, and second-chance opportunities. 

It could even go directly into the net, as Pulock’s 48-foot slap shot did.

Hedman said the Lightning’s defensemen passed up opportunities to shoot in Game 1. The evidence was in the video session they had Monday, which gave them indications of adjustments that need to be made against a team they haven’t faced since the Eastern Conference Final last year.

“It’s tough when you haven’t played a team for nine months,” Hedman said. “We’ve been seeing the same teams over and over again (during the regular season and first two rounds of playoffs) and same for them so it’s a little bit of an adjustment. It’s good to get that game and now you have some video you can look at. For us, it’s just important to get back to playing our game. We’ve done a good job so far, I think, adjusting to who we play against. We looked at the video and there’s a lot of things we left out there that we weren’t happy with so looking forward to doing a better job tomorrow.”

None of it will matter if the Lightning are as turnover-prone as they were in Game 1. 

They were credited with seven giveaways, including four from defensemen, three off Mikhail Sergachev‘s stick.

“We kept turning the puck over so we weren’t really giving ourselves a chance to play offense,” Cooper said. “We have a recipe, we didn’t follow the directions last night and what turned out didn’t look too good. We addressed some things today.

“Give the Islanders credit, they’ve got a good team. … But we know they are, and we know we can be better. Getting our ‘D’ involved is one of the answers, but we have to get ourselves in the zone first before we can do any of that stuff.”

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