TAMPA — The Lightning rolled past the Devils in five games of the Stanley Cup playoffs quarterfinal series largely because the penalty kill became a beast, killing off 16 of 19, including the final 15 when down a man.
Two of those three goals allowed came with the Devils skating on a 5-on-3.
"All the matters is killing the next penalty," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "Doesn't matter what's gone on. Doesn't matter where you finished the regular season. Right now, all that matters is killing that first penalty (of the next game)."
It was quite the turnaround for a team that searched all season for the right mix. The Lightning penalty kill during the regular season was ranked 28th out of 31 teams. Four factors contributed to the reversal:
Coach Jon Cooper settled on regular forward and defensive pairings.
The additions to the roster of veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh and rookie forward Tony Cirelli.
It is the playoffs and the players are more focused.
The Lightning and Devils played each other in five straight games.
The latter allowed the coaching and scouting staff to zero in on one team and detect tendencies in Jersey's power-play units.
But that only works if you can shut down the other team's man-advantage, and the road to 16 out of 19 began with two late additions to the roster.
McDonagh arrived at the trade deadline. Cirelli made his NHL debut March 1. That allowed Cooper, in short time, to settle on the pairings.
"The big part of penalty killing is going with the same guy all the time," Bowness said. "You instinctively read off each other. If you're out there with someone different all the time you're a little hesitant… And when you're hesitant in this league you get burnt."
McDonagh is paired with Anton Stralman. Forward Alex Killorn is paired with Cirelli. Forwards Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette are usually on the ice together. Defensemen Victor Hedman and Dan Girardi are a tandem.
"We've talked about having the same pairings at forward and having the same parings as D whenever possible," McDonagh said. "I think that's really helped. Guys pick up on reads. Where they're supposed to be. When we can be aggressive. When he have to be patient. It certainly helps to have big saves there, too."
Yes, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is able to make it all work.
Cirelli is the wild card. He played half of the 10-plust minutes the Lightning skated shorthanded in the game that tilted the Devils series in Tampa Bay's favor – a 3-1 Game 4 victory in New Jersey.
"He's reliable," Bowness said. "Makes good reads."
Lastly, the playoff factor.
Said Stralman, "Everybody is giving their max. Sometimes during the regular season you lose that a little bit, and we definitely lost that edge sometimes during the regular season. Right now, we played good. We feel confident about it. Just to wipe our PK record clean and start from scratch is a big thing for us. We played some really good PK, and it's been fun to watch."
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50