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Lightning's success in details

Doing the little things on defense is the reason for the team's recent hot streak.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003


RALEIGH, N.C. -- On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most glamorous part of a hockey game and one being the least, playing good team defense gets, maybe, a two.

Okay, a three if a player steals the puck as a result of a huge body check.

That is because good team defense is made up of little things -- "details" Lightning coach John Tortorella calls them -- that are as crucial to winning and losing as goals and saves but are not nearly as noticeable.

Things as simple as winning a battle for the puck along the boards, and making sure the puck is chipped out of the defensive zone or not turned over in the neutral zone.

It happens in the offensive zone with a forecheck and when a defenseman pinches and a forward covers the point to ensure an odd-man rush does not go the other way.

"It's just grunt work," Tortorella said Thursday. "But you are not able to compete in this league unless you play good defense."

And that is just what Tampa Bay has done during an impressive streak in which it has won three straight and is undefeated in four (3-0-1).

"Team defense wins games," defenseman Brad Lukowich said. "That's the hockey we said we wanted to play, and we're doing it now and reaping the benefits."

The Lightning has allowed five goals in its past four games and outscored opponents 9-1 in the third period.

Goaltending has been a big part of that as Nikolai Khabibulin won consecutive games, against the Bruins and Capitals, for the first time since Dec. 27 and 29, and John Grahame shut out the Thrashers on Wednesday. But it also has to do with clogging the middle of the ice in the defensive zone so shots are taken from the outside, making them much easier to stop.

Puck possession also is key. And there always is room for the good, old-fashioned body work that neutralized Washington's Jaromir Jagr and helped limit the Capitals to 15 shots.

"Defense is not always behind the blue line," Tortorella said. "When you don't have the puck, you're on defense. You've got to get it back. You can't go on the offensive and be a creative player until you take care of the details on defense. It has to go in that order or you're going to have a tough time."

The Lightning calls its system one of puck pursuit because its trigger is a forecheck it sends against the opposition when it has the puck. The idea is to disrupt the play, steal the puck, create a turnover.

"That's how our system is," Tortorella said. "We want to chase. We want to pursue. We want to create a turnover before you're mucking it up in the corner and spending time in your (defensive) zone."

It is a tiring way to play because it demands constant motion. That is one reason the coaching staff spent so much of training camp on conditioning.

The rewards are obvious: check the scoreboard. Recognition is a little bit tougher to come by.

"You score a goal, you see that," left wing Fredrik Modin said. "You make a save and you see that. When we're playing team defense, we're all just working together."

"Those are the things the players respect, other teams respect," Lukowich said. "Sure we make mistakes, but that's hockey. It's a game of mistakes. You just try to eliminate as many as you can."

The Lightning made a big one in the second period against the Thrashers when it could not clear the puck from the defensive zone. It led to three or four shifts in which Atlanta controlled play.

Finally, the line of center Tim Taylor and wings Chris Dingman and Dave Andreychuk pushed the play back into the Thrashers zone.

"We didn't get a scoring chance," Tortorella said. "We just held on to the puck and controlled it a little bit. So those are the little momentum swings that are so important and so intriguing."

And are worth way more than a two on the glamor scale.

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