Tweaks here and there turn Light­ning above great

Open play­offs at home tonight

The Buffalo News - - NHL - By John Ro­mano

TAMPA, Fla. _ The scor­ers? They’re the same.

The six play­ers who led the Light­ning in points last sea­son, are in near-iden­ti­cal or­der again this sea­son.

The goal­tender? No change there.

An­drei Vasilevskiy missed more than a month with a bro­ken foot in Novem­ber but, by sea­son’s end, his save per­cent­age was within .005 of last year.

The reign­ing Nor­ris Tro­phy win­ner?

Vic­tor Hed­man may have got­ten a lit­tle more rest this sea­son and his of­fen­sive num­bers may have dipped a bit, but he is still among the league’s elite de­fense­men.

So what’s the dif­fer­ence? How did the Light­ning make the leap from a snazzy 54-win team in 2017-18 to a his­tory-stalk­ing 62 wins in 2018-19 en­ter­ing their open­ing play­off game tonight against Colum­bus? There were no big-name free agents in the off­sea­son. No trades at the dead­line.

The play­ers like to say it was their un­com­mon fo­cus and purpose through 82 games and, sure, that played a role. But ev­ery NHL team is fo­cused and mo­ti­vated once the post­sea­son ar­rives.

So is there rea­son to be­lieve this Light­ing team is bet­ter po­si­tioned than last year as the play­offs be­gin?

“There’s a lot that’s dif­fer­ent about this group. Whether that’s go­ing to spell suc­cess or not, that’s hard to say,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We are a dif­fer­ent team.”

A plan to so­lid­ify the de­fense worked. Sort of.

It hap­pened a lit­tle later than hoped for, and with a dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tion than ex­pected, but Ryan McDon­agh and Erik Cer­nak have given the Light­ning the shut­down pair the fran­chise has been seek­ing.

The Light­ning got off to a good start on the penalty kill in Oc­to­ber with six con­sec­u­tive games with­out a goal, but that was due more to Vasilevskiy’s prow­ess in goal. Come Novem­ber, Tampa Bay gave up 13 power play goals in a ninegame stretch.

Meet­ings were called, video was dis­sected and strate­gies were tweaked. The Light­ning de­cided to get more ag­gres­sive in terms of push­ing up ice.

Play­ers such as An­thony Cirelli, Cedric Pa­que­tte, Alex Kil­lorn, Daniel Cal­la­han and Yanni Gourde took own­er­ship, and the penalty kill went from li­a­bil­ity to strength al­most overnight.

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