TAMPA, Fla. — A problematic penalty kill? Oh sure, the Tampa Bay Lightning had talked about it, dissected it, and they were ready to put this quibble to bed.
“We were sharper,” Lightning captain Marty St. Louis told FOX Sports Florida on Tuesday night, after the Lightning’s 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings at Tampa Bay Times Forum. “We discussed it. We were sharper.”
The Lightning entered the third act of a season-long seven-game homestand living some PK blues, their weakness in the category a glaring reason why they dropped a 5-4 result to the Pittsburgh Penguins last Saturday. They allowed three power-play goals, including a cold-blooded score by defenseman Matt Niskanen with 18.6 seconds left, to live the sour end of a heartbreaker to Sid the Kid & Co.
So Tuesday was showcase night in an early season PK Watch, a stage to see if the Bolts had twisted the screws tighter on their defense when down a man. Give them an “A” for effort in this rout, after brushing aside five penalties, 10 minutes total, without a scratch to show for it.
“Against Pittsburgh, for whatever reason, we gave them too much respect, and they picked us apart,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s what good players do. We made a point of getting on (Los Angeles) more. They still got some chances. Ultimately, in the end, your goalie has got to be your best PK guy. And he made the big saves in the end.”
Ben Bishop did precisely that, allowing one goal on 31 shots against the West Coast foe. Tampa Bay’s penalty kill began the night ranked No. 26 in the league, allowing opponents to score at a 31.8-percent clip. Meanwhile, Los Angeles began with the league’s ninth-best power play, scoring with 25-percent efficiency.
With Tuesday’s result, however, that number for the visitors was knocked down a few notches. The Lightning’s highlight came when defenseman Sami Salo was whistled for a pair of high-sticking penalties three minutes, eight seconds into the second period. When the penalty passed, with Los Angeles still stuck with a “0” on the video board, most of the home crowd stood and cheered.
Discussion had turned to action.
“It was something we talked about,” Bishop said. “We weren’t happy with the last few games, and we did a great job (Tuesday). We had a four-minute there in the second that was big. Guys did a great job blocking shots and doing their roles. It’s something we need to do every night.”
Consistency will help. Tampa Bay has outscored opponents 16-8 in this homestand, the production helping the Lightning win four of five games since dropping the season opener to the Boston Bruins on Oct. 3.
If the PK stays strong — it now ranks No. 23 in the league (74.1-percent success rate) -– that helps the all-around cause. Who knows how far the Lightning’s offense can take them if special teams do their part?
“We have to kill those off to help us come through in games,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “Sometimes, you have to kill off a four-minute minor and gain momentum off that. If you kill that off, they lose a little bit of momentum, and you gain some. That was huge for us and probably was the turning point in the game.”
The sequence proved to be a turning point Tuesday night, and if anything, this was a start. But there’s no time to take a victory lap, because Tampa Bay will be tested again, fast. Thursday, the Minnesota Wild arrive with the league’s fifth-best power play, scoring at a 29-percent clip.
But this was a step forward, not another back. Saturday, the Lightning’s PK snapped. Tuesday, there was bend but no break.
Against Los Angeles, Tampa Bay’s penalty kill was just that. Now, the challenge comes in preserving an edge.