Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper’s focus on defense is working.
At least the numbers suggest so.
“We’re really happy with what’s gone on so far,” Cooper said. “If you said 6-3 after nine [games], we’d take that all day. But we can’t just rest on this.”
A little more than a month into the season, the Lightning are among the league’s better teams and have shown improvement in almost every area that plagued them last season.
Tampa Bay’s offense remains one of the best, ranking third with an average of 3.44 goals per game. But the Bolts have also held opponents to an average of fewer than three goals a game, while limiting them to an average of 28.4 shots.
Much of that credit goes to the team’s blueliners and the play of goaltender Ben Bishop, which is starting to gel.
“I think the one thing is when guys start playing together a little but, they become more comfortable,” Cooper said. “They know where guys are. They recognize their voices when they are on the ice, where they’re going to be, what they’re going to do.”
That includes the play of rookies Radko Gudas and Andrej Sustr, who have found ideal partners in veterans Matt Carle and Eric Brewer, respectively.
Until Thursday, only one Lightning defenseman — Sami Salo — had a goal to his credit. Carle and Victor Hedman got on the board in the team’s 6-5 overtime win over Chicago.
As the defense settles in even more, Cooper senses the contributions will also grow up front.
“I think with our pairs right now, our guys are getting comfortable with each other and we’re seeing positive results, especially on the offensive side,” Cooper said. “It’s just going to continue to get better.”
The right move
Most teams with 2013 first-round picks in the lineup are hitting the 10-game mark and having to make the decision to keep or send their prospects back to juniors.
Tampa Bay, obviously, does not have to make that decision with Jonathan Drouin as they returned him back to Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before the season.
Considering the winger was touted as NHL-ready, that still may be a source of frustration. But the perspective from across the state, at least, is that the Lightning made a great move for their future.
Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen spoke with Cooper at the end of the preseason about Drouin. According to Dineen, the Lightning coach let out that “big, long, hard sigh.”
“[Drouin] had a heck of a training camp, and that’s a hard thing,” Dineen said.
Dineen faced the same situation in his first season as Florida’s coach when the team opted to send eventual 2013 Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau back to juniors.
But then Dineen, using Huberdeau as an example, believes Tampa Bay will get a more NHL-prepared Drouin by having him skate with the Mooseheads another year.
“I think we’ve got a more mature young man than a teenager,” Dineen said. “He’s not all wide-eyed and enjoying the experience. There’s a level of responsibility to come out and play. That comes with that maturity.”
So far, Drouin does not appear to be negatively impacted by Tampa Bay’s decision to send him back to Nova Scotia. He is averaging a team-high 1.57 points per game, having netted three goals and eight assists in seven games.
What a rebound
Just 31 games into his NHL career, Thursday night might go down as one of Gudas’ most unforgettable and memorable.
The rookie defenseman took a long pass from Carle off his skate that deflected and slipped by Bishop in net with 1:49 left to tie the game late in Tampa Bay’s eventual overtime victory against Chicago.
“It’s tough to rebound from a fluky goal like that with a minute to go when you have the two points in hand,” Hedman said.
It did not take long for Gudas to find redemption. His slap shot from the left point in overtime created scoring chances for Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, who netted the game-winner. Gudas picked up the secondary assist on the play.
“All [Gudas] did was turn the page and got an assist on the winning goal,” Cooper said.
Quote of the week
“I vote for St. Louis. [Bishop] is from there, so I’m going to cheer for his team. Boston just seemed real cocky to me. I don’t like it.” — Teddy Purcell, as told to lightning.nhl.com’s Missy Zielinski, when asked which MLB team will win the World Series.
Of the eight players and coaches polled, seven chose the St. Louis Cardinals to beat the Boston Red Sox.
Tampa Bay has a busy stretch ahead with five games in eight days.
The Lightning face the struggling Buffalo Sabres on Saturday before heading south to face the rival Florida Panthers in a late afternoon game Sunday.
The Lightning continue their three-game road trip with a Tuesday contest against the New Jersey Devils, followed by tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.
Tampa Bay returns home for its second of a back-to-back Saturday against the St. Louis Blues.