TAMPA — When Lightning coach Jon Cooper says the penalty kill has been a "sore subject" for some time, it's not a punch line.
This special teams unit is a significant concern, especially when it costs Tampa Bay games. Tuesday's 5-3 loss to Buffalo was just the latest example, the Sabres scoring twice with the man advantage. And now the Lightning's lead in the Atlantic Division has shrunk to one point over surging Boston heading into Thursday's game against Detroit.
There have been a lot of reasons for Tampa Bay's second half slide — 9-8-1 since Jan. 4 after starting 29-8-2. But it appears the team's defensive issues have bled into the penalty kill, which has been successful just 75 percent in the last 25 games, dropping the unit to 25th in the league (78-percent).
"We make every power play look like they're the best power play in the league," Cooper said.
What's gone wrong?
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After reviewing video of the last 20 power play goals allowed, it appears like it's been a perfect storm of problems on the penalty kill.
Sure, the Lightning is missing one of its best penalty killers in Ondrej Palat, a key two-way forward who is out 6-8 weeks with a lower body injury. But this isn't about personnel, especially when you consider the penalty kill was supposed to be getting a boost this season with a healthy Ryan Callahan and the acquisition of shot-blocking specialist Dan Girardi.
The penalty kill problems start in the dot, with the Lightning one of the worst teams on faceoffs. That holds especially true shorthanded, when Tampa Bay is at just 39.1 percent, second worst in the league ahead of only Colorado (37.8 percent). Boston, which is second in the division, is best at 51.2. When you give a team possession, and aren't particularly strong at recovering it, its a recipe for disaster. There was Minnesota's Jared Spurgeon ripping a shot seconds after a lost defensive zone faceoff by the Lightning Jan. 20. Or on Dec. 19 in Vegas, when the Golden Knights power play had barely started when — moments after a Brayden Point lost faceoff — Erik Haula scored on a nifty redirection.
Then the Lightning has trouble clearing the puck when it gets it back. You saw a striking example in the second period Tuesday, with two failed clears by Tampa Bay leading to one unit being on the ice for a stunning 1 minute, 43 seconds. There was also Nashville Ryan Ellis' blast on Jan. 23, which was enabled after Tyler Johnson's failed attempt to stickhandle and clear the zone. It resulted in a scramble, and a Predators goal.
"It seems like we're running around," Callahan said. "Once you get caught in your own end, you get tired, and it's hard to pressure."
The Lightning is also quick to come out of its structure, the team's out of sync play in 5-on-5 seemingly bleeding into its special teams. Take this goal by Calgary's Micheal Ferlund Feb. 1, the forward left all alone in front with two Lightning defenders behind the net.
"It's been a battle all year," Girardi said.
Girardi's strength is shot-blocking, and the Lightning isn't getting in enough lanes on the penalty kill. Captain Steven Stamkos sagged too far into the middle against Vancouver Dec. 8, leaving sharpshooting rookie Brock Boeser too much space for his one-timer.
This group needs more desperation, more sacrifice. The Sabres showed this with three blocked shots in killing off nearly two minutes of the Lightning's 5-on-3 Tuesday. It completely swung the game.
The Lightning has had some bad luck too, one goal by Calgary's Sam Bennett going in off the stick of Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn. There was Point losing his stick just before a goal by Carolina's Justin Faulk. And, against Montreal Dec. 28, a point shot by Charles Hudon went off goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, then caromed off the hand on Brendan Gallagher.
But your best penalty killer is your last line of defense — the goalie — and even Vezina Trophy-caliber Vasilevskiy has struggled shorthanded, his .886 save percentage on penalty kills 15th in the league. There were goals like the one by Vegas' James Neal that Vasilevskiy would like to have back.
"The guys are trying," Cooper said. "Penalty killing is tough. You have to be in lanes, you have to do a good job structurally. You have to block shots. You have to commit. We've just got to find a way to do that."