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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Tampa Bay Lightning

Bolts open camp with focus on better defense

TAMPA — Sometimes statistics can be misinterpreted or twisted to suit an argument.

But for the Lightning, there is no candy-coating or manipulating one particular stat: no team has allowed more goals than Tampa Bay in the past two seasons.

It doesn’t matter how many goals Tampa Bay scored in that same span. Nor does it matter that in the past two seasons Steven Stamkos won a Rocket Richard trophy with a 60-goal season and Marty St. Louis a scoring title.

The Lightning were at the bottom of the standings, well outside the playoff picture.

So, right from the first team meeting of training camp, that point was emphasized. Once the players hit the ice for the first time on Thursday, it was reinforced as the coaching staff began implementing the system the team will use.

It focuses on shoring up defensive-zone play.

“I would say that’s definitely a theme,’’ head coach Jon Cooper said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to open up the stat pack and see. We are the only team to give up more than 400 goals the past two seasons, and we have to shore that up.’’

In 2011-12, Tampa Bay finished last in goals against, allowing 278. Last season, they were 26th overall, giving up 147 in the abbreviated 48-game season. With a combined 425 goals allowed in the past two seasons, the Lightning gave up 29 more goals than any other team during that same span.

Although the Lightning are among the top scoring teams in the league, finishing third with 147 goals last season and ranking fifth overall the past two seasons combined at 2.9 goals per game, that formula of high-octane offense combined with shoddy defense does not translate into victories.

“We want to score, but we want to win 3-2 and not lose 4-3,’’ new assistant coach Rick Bowness said. “So, we are not trying to affect the offense at all. In fact, the better quality defense you are going to play, the better quality offense you are going to get, really.’’

The onus does not fall squarely on the goaltender, nor just on the defensemen. While the goaltending needs to improve and the defense can be better, one or two positions were not responsible for what went on the past two seasons. Nor are improvements in just those areas going to lower the goals-against average this season.

“It takes a team to do it,’’ Cooper said. “You can’t sit there and rely on your goaltender to make every single save. All five guys have to buy in when they are playing defense. It’s not as fun playing (defense); it’s a lot more fun to score goals. Do you need to score goals? Yes, you do to win a hockey game. But to win in this league, it’s a premium to keep the puck out of the net and we are working on that.’’

During the past two seasons, Tampa Bay’s struggles were no secret. But to be presented with the statistical analysis in the first team meeting of the season served as a reminder of what needs to be done.

“We went around the stats the last couple of years and saw how well we have done as a team offensively and how (poorly) we have done defensively; that definitely is the theme of our camp,’’ Stamkos said. “We saw it on Day One. We did a lot of defensive zone stuff, a lot of detail things.

“If you look at a lot of the teams that have been successful the past couple of years, they can put the puck in the net, but they can keep it out just as well. So, as Coop says, why can’t we be good at both? And that’s something we are working on, for sure.’’

It requires everybody to have the same goal.

“The most important thing is for us to commit to defense,’’ defenseman Victor Hedman said. “As soon as we don’t have the puck, we need to have five guys thinking defense. Our philosophy has to be focus on defense. While we have the puck, we have the speed and the skill to create offense, so (better defense) is going to be our theme this year.’’

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