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Special teams get attention

The Lightning is working on efficiency by the book of numbers.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000

BRANDON -- Special teams in the NHL are played by the numbers.

Add a team's power-play efficiency and the percentage of penalties killed. If it comes to 100, chances are the team does pretty well in odd-man situations.

Power plays must generate at least a 15 percent efficiency rate to be considered, well, efficient, and even that is on the low end. The penalty-killing rate must hit the mid-80s.

Now try these numbers on for size.

The Lightning power play was 24th in the league last season with a 14 percent efficiency (51 goals in 365 chances). The penalty kill was ranked 22nd at 80.7 percent (77 goals allowed in 399 chances).

"We gave up too many and didn't score enough," right wing Stan Drulia said.

That's one of the reasons Tampa Bay hired associate coach John Tortorella, who last season directed the Rangers' power play to a 16.9 percent efficiency, which was 10th in the league.

That's why associate coach John Torchetti's main focus will be the penalty-killing unit.

And that's why coach Steve Ludzik said the Lightning will spend up to 30 percent of its practice time on special teams. Ludzik admitted special teams were neglected last season because "there were so many other things to work on."

But back to the numbers.

The Lightning and Hurricanes were called for 48 penalties in two games over the weekend, resulting in six five-on-three situations.

Tortorella said the league has told teams it expects referees to crack down on high-sticking and slashing infractions. If that holds true, special teams might be more important than ever.

Tampa Bay killed seven of Saturday night's 14 of 17 short-handed situations, an 82.4 percent rate. The power play converted on three of 23 tries, a 13 percent efficiency.

Tortorella said no conclusions can be drawn on either unit because the personnel is not set and no real work has been done on schemes.

Still, broad blueprints can be discussed on both sides of the puck.

Tortorella said a power play walks a fine line between improvisation and planning. The plan, he said, is used to get the puck up ice and set up in the offensive zone.

Then, he said, "you let your creative people take over."

That means letting Vinny Lecavalier, Tampa Bay's best playmaker, roam the boards and feed his teammates.

"You have to take what they give you," Tortorella said. "If you have the right puck movement and get the right setup, there will be two-on-ones, and this is when the creative people take over. They have to find the open man."

Many times those are the point men, and Tortorella said he will tell them not to hesitate. Fire at the net. That causes rebounds, and it is more likely the team with the man advantage will get to the puck.

Lecavalier agreed and said the Lightning hurt itself last season by passing too much.

"We were trying to make the perfect pass and you can't do that in the NHL," he said. "Shoot it, get a few guys in front of the net and get the rebound."

The Lightning also tried numerous player combinations in an attempt to find a unit that clicked. Lecavalier even was put on the point.

Tortorella said the key is consistency.

"You have to let the unit jell and work with one another and let the communication develop," he said.

The most dramatic development for the Lightning has been the increase in team speed, and Torchetti said he will incorporate that into the penalty-killing unit. More speed means better coverage and a more aggressive forecheck.

It is a strategy Drulia endorses.

"We have to be more aggressive, a little more disruptive, in the offensive zone," he said. "We have to bottle things up in the neutral zone. If you can keep them bottled up for 30 or 40 seconds, you're not allowing them to do what they want to do."

General manager Rick Dudley said that is part of the brave new world of penalty killing.

"It has become a science," he said. "It used to be you threw four guys out there in a box and you kept everything out wide. Now there are different routes and modes."

Torchetti said he plans three penalty-killing units with the forwards dedicated to "25 seconds of complete hustle and determination" before being given a breather.

He wants all his penalty killers to block more shots, and he is counting on better goaltending.

"We're going to be feistier," Torchetti said. "We were pretty much teaching last year the basics and fundamentals for the young guys."

Now the Lightning expects its special teams to be fundamentally better.

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