Lightning need a return to Defensive Offense, no matter who’s in goal

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With Goalie Ben Bishop’s status for the pivotal Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals still in question, how are Lightning Coach Jon Cooper and his staff preparing his team to face the Chicago Blackhawks?  It’s a safe bet Team Cooper has a good idea who will start on Saturday night, but they will keep that to themselves.  Yes, and will likely keep it from their own players

If Bishop can go, Tampa Bay is clearly a better team.  Not that Andrei Vaslevskiy is devoid of skills, but he is a different goaltender with little experience.

The Lightning coaches and players say all of the right things about confidence in the 20-year-old from Russia, but true confidence – trust – comes from weeks, months, or seasons of demonstrating a foundation for that confidence.

“When it comes to confidence in our goaltending, it’s there for both guys,” center Brian Boyle told NHL.com.  Center Steven Stamkos said Vaslevskiy did “all you can ask for in a goalie being put in that situation.  He stepped up, made some big saves, and we had a chance.”

All of that is true, but the numbers may define confidence or trust in a different way.  With Bishop in the lineup, the Lightning play an outstanding game best described as Defensive Offense.

Bishop is well known for his ability to handle the puck and start the transition from defense to offense.  He had four assists during the regular season, but has three more during this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Victor Hedman is among the league’s elite defensemen.  He and Anton Stralman, who play the most minutes on defense, can also score and set up teammates with toughness and precision.

Classic Hedman was his rush into the Chicago end late in Game 3 to set up Cedric Paquette with the game winner.  Clearly, he felt comfortable being a defenseman on offense.  In Game 4 we saw strong defense around Vaslevskiy, but seemingly less of a focus on offense.

In the first three games, with Bishop in the net for nearly all of the 180 minutes, Lightning defensemen scored one goal and had seven assists.  Through the first 23 games of the playoffs, they had 7 goals and 36 assists.

  In Game 4, with Vaslevskiy in goal, the Tampa Bay defensemen held Chicago to just 21 shots on goal.  But, for the first time in the finals, no points came from the defensive corps.  Before Wednesday, in only one game during the playoffs did Tampa Bay score without the defensemen either scoring a goal or having an assist.

To be sure, Chicago goalie Corey Crawford and the Blackhawk defense prevented a few goals or assists in Game 3.  The stoning of Stamkos during the final frantic minute comes to mind.

If Bishop is healthy enough to be back in goal, expect to see more of the Lightning team we saw in Games 1-3 that dominated the Blackhawks for extended periods.

If it’s Vaslevskiy, perhaps they can flash back to Game 2 when Jason Garrison scored the game winner (with an assist by Hedman) during Vaslevskiy’s 9 minutes of relief for Bishop.  Vaslevskiy would also benefit from the same strong effort at home in Game 5 as they put forth in Games 1 and 2.

The Lightning know they do not need to concentrate on offense to the point of being reckless.  That is why they are in the finals.  However, if they really have the confidence in Vaslevskiy as they say they do, some Defensive Offense will go a long way toward bringing the Stanley Cup back to Tampa Bay.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.