Tampa Bay Lightning Defense Making A Difference Offensively As Stanley Cup Pursuit Has Progressed

When Jan Rutta scored his first career playoff goal at 2:16 of the third period of Game 2 of the Lightning’s semifinal series against the Islanders, it marked the team’s first goal by a defenseman this playoff year.

It was not exactly of the token variety, either, as it proved to be the deciding goal in Tampa Bay’s 4-2 win. Rutta’s defense partner, Victor Hedman, scored seven minutes later.

The fact the defense had not scored in the previous 12 playoff games — the unit had 23 assists — obviously did not hinder the Lightning’s ability to defeat the Panthers and Hurricanes in a combined 11 games through the first two rounds. After all, during the postseason it is about “if” and not “how.” 

“You are all about just winning games and moving onto the next one,” said coach Jon Cooper, following the aforementioned victory over the Isles. “You are not sitting here saying, ‘Well, the D hasn’t scored.’ It doesn’t matter that they haven’t scored. It matters that we win the game.”

The defense was certainly helping the cause in several other ways, including blocking shots and otherwise doing its job in making life as easy as possible for goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Also, the 23 assists were indicative of a unit that was helping the cause offensively.

Against that backdrop, Cooper noted how he felt it was a matter of time before a puck off a defenseman’s stick would find the back of the net.

“Some of the weapons we have back there, a couple of games from now we might be saying, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe all the defensive scoring we are getting.’ So I think it all evens out,” said Cooper, who has been behind the Lightning’s bench since March 2013 and is the NHL’s longest-tenured coach.

Nobody may be exclaiming “Holy cow!” but the defense, which had three goals over the final six games of the series against the Islanders, has recorded three more goals to go with six assists for nine points in helping the Lightning build a 3-0 Stanley Cup final series lead against the Canadiens.

Tampa Bay is one win away from joining the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only teams to win back-to-back Cups this century.

The first goal of this Stanley Cup final was scored by a Lightning defenseman. Erik Cernak’s Game 1 tally at 6:19 of the opening period was the first of his postseason career.

“We are always trying to support the offense and trying to make some plays for our forwards,” he said following the series opener.

There was plenty of support in Game 3 when the defense had two goals and five points in a 6-3 win. One of the goals was by Rutta, who struck again when he opened the scoring at 1:52 of the first period.

The goal was Rutta’s second of the playoffs, which is noteworthy because it is one more than he had in 91 games with the Lightning prior to this postseason. His only previous goal with the club was November 29, 2018 at Winnipeg.

“For us as a defense, it is nice to get on the scoresheet even if it is not our main goal,” said Rutta, who did not excuse himself for the pun, after Game 3. “It is always nice and it is a good confidence boost.”

In a display of the team-first quality that underscores the Lightning of the last couple of years, Rutta gave a nod to the forwards who help make goals like his, a shot from between the top of the right circle and blue line, possible.

“Especially on the point shots, you have to give credit to the forwards giving us the puck, going to the net, to the hard areas and taking the goalie’s eyes away,” he said.

Of course, as Cooper and any of his players in the dressing room would be quick to remind whoever cares to listen, it is about winning and not the name on the back of the uniforms of those who are scoring.

“Everybody in the room doesn’t really care where it comes from as long as we get it done and win games,” said Hedman, who enters Game 4 with a stat line of 2-16-18, the most points among defensemen and tied for third overall (with teammate Steven Stamkos) in the postseason. “We do whatever we can to get up into the play and produce, but at the end of the day, we want to win games and it doesn’t matter how it happens.”

As noted above, while the defense may not have scored a goal in the Lightning’s first dozen postseason games — the blueliners had 25 in 56 regular season matches — the unit had 23 assists and provided the forwards with ample support every which way.

“When we play defense, it is all five guys and when we play offense it is all five guys,” said versatile forward Tyler Johnson, who has provided plenty of high-caliber play at both ends of the rink, after his two-goal performance in Game 3 in Montreal. “We have a lot of guys back there (on defense) who can really shoot the puck. They are smart, get into open areas and are really able to find everything. As a forward, it is nice to have the skill back there that we can kind of rely on a little bit and it makes the game a little easier for us.”

To that extent, it would come as no surprise if a goal from the defense triggered the offense in the Cup-clinching game, whether it is as soon as Monday night or a Game 5 back in Tampa.

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