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Tampa Bay Lightning focus on improving power play

ESTERO - Carry the puck up the ice, get stuffed at the blue line, go back to retrieve the puck. Pass the puck up the ice, have the pass intercepted, go back to retrieve the puck. That's essentially the Cliff's Notes version to sum up the struggles of Tampa Bay's power play last season. Despite a wealth of offensive talent, the Lightning finished near the bottom of the NHL with the man advantage, ending up 25th out of 30 teams. While there were plenty of other ailments that left Tampa Bay outside the playoffs, not taking advantage of the man advantage proved a pesky problem. Sure, to some extent, the ailments were rectified in the final stretch of the season as the Lightning converted at 19.3 percent from Feb. 21, but to end up at 15 percent for the season after finishing in the top five the previous year certainly had many searching for answers.
"It was very, very frustrating and you kind of scratched your head a little bit,'' Tampa Bay captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "We weren't used to that.'' The lack of success was such an Achilles' heel in the first half of the season, some fans were asking the team to decline penalties committed by the opposing team. There were stretches — 1-for-19, 3-for-32 and 2-for-35 — that were almost inexplicable considering talent such as Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Lecavalier on the ice at any given time. So Wednesday, the Lightning went about the business of trying to improve the power play, spending 30 minutes before practice working on the power play without penalty killers. They ended the day by doing a special teams scrimmage – power play vs. penalty kill. The two power-play units were divided up as follows: Stamkos, Purcell, St. Louis, Malone and Sami Salo on one squad; Matt Carle, Cory Conacher, Benoit Pouliot, Bergeron and Lecavalier on the other, with Victor Hedman stepping in for Bergeron and Tyler Johnson filling in for Conacher at various points. The Lightning feel the additions of Salo, who has 55 career power-play goals in 761 career games, along with Carle (17 power-play goals in 471 games) will help Tampa Bay balance out the power play and give them two formidable units. Bottom line, however, is they know they have to be better. "We realize that we have the personnel to be a top five power play in the league," said Stamkos, who has 53 power-play goals in the past three seasons, but only 12 last year. "For whatever reason last year it didn't work out, but we feel that we have two really balanced power plays now." The key to any successful power play often lies in getting everybody set up. To do that, teams have to get a clean entry into the offensive zone either by one player weaving his way into the zone or by making good passing plays to spring a teammate across the blue line. That was a big reason for Tampa Bay's struggles last season: getting the puck across the opposing blue line cleanly enough to get everybody into the correct spots on the ice to create scoring chances. It seemed at many times, out of a full two-minute power play, the Lightning would spend less than 30 seconds in the zone with possession of the puck. With Salo running the point on one power play and Carle the other, the general feeling is that trend will turn around more consistently heading into this season. "The quality of the defense that we see right now, with Salo – and he's just so smart and poised and has an unbelievable shot as a right-hander – that certainly makes a difference,'' coach Guy Boucher said. "But the other power play with Matt Carle, walking that line so well and having such good vision to be able to feed the guys is definitely a great option that will improve our power play.'' While Wednesday's work was not exactly a sample of how things will work come Saturday when the games start, there was enough taking place at both ends of the ice with each unit to at least have some encouragement that perhaps Tampa Bay will return to the 2010-11 form that saw the Lightning finish the season ranked sixth overall at 20.5 percent. "We had enough skill and pieces (last year) but something was just off . . . we were playing catch-up too much,'' Purcell said. "It all starts with our entries and I think we are all on the same page (right now), we all support each other well. And having Sami is going to help a lot.''

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