DENVER. During two Stanley Cup championships, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a secret weapon.
Their control line of Yanni Gourd, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow had the unique ability to block their opponents’ best players while scoring huge goals of their own. The only goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders to send the Lightning to the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals? It was Gurd, with short arms. The winning goal in Game 2 of the Finals against the Montreal Canadiens? It was Coleman.
But due to external factors, the Lightning lost this entire line last summer. Gurd was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. Coleman was signed by the Calgary Flames, and Goodrow signed with the New York Rangers, thanks in part to the Lightning’s salary cap restrictions.
One of the biggest questions facing Tampa Bay as they went after the trio: can they win without this secret weapon in their arsenal?
Simple answer: Lightning will just make a new one.
Anthony Cirelli’s line with centers Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn may not have as much offensive input as OG’s test line, but they may be even more effective defensively based on their performance in the last few playoff games for the Lightning. .
“If our coaches believe that we will go out there and close the guys, we are very proud of it,” Cirelli said.
The new shutdown line didn’t concede a playoff goal in just 68 minutes. They have an advantage of plus 36 shot attempts, a plus 15 chance to score and an incredible plus 15 advantage in the high danger odds differential – meaning they have hit their opponents’ toughest areas than the attacking stars. they protect there.
As head coach John Cooper put it, “The more you can get them to play D, the less they can play offensively.”
Cooper made that line in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Cirelli played with stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. As his team struggled to fall behind in a 2-0 series, Cooper moved Stamkos to the middle, added Ondrej Palat to the top line and placed Cirelli between Killorn and Hagel to form a new trio.
This line of control was deployed against Rangers top group Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano.
The reason why the line formed?
“Stop them,” Cooper replied calmly, without going into details.
That’s exactly what they did in Game 3 against New York, with a 19-run lead over the Rangers. Zibanejad hasn’t had an equal score in the last four games of the series, and it’s no coincidence that they were also lightning wins.
“Our team pays special attention to this. We have enough skill and talent to score offensively, but we are focused on playing defensively,” Killorn said. “If we win 2-1, we will be happy. We don’t need to win by six goals. We want to defend first.”
Like that legendary control line after the first two Cup victories, this stop line was an important reason why the Lightning made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. But Gourda’s line never had to deal with the problem that Cirelli’s line faced in the final round of 2022: superstar Nathan McKinnon, who scored 11 goals in 15 games, and any talented winger the Colorado Avalanche would choose to pair with him.
“We know we have a huge job to do. Probably the biggest job we’ve done in the playoffs,” Killorn said.
Killorn spent every minute of his NHL career with the Lightning, who drafted him in the third round in 2007. He’s been by Cooper’s side throughout his journey as head coach, as well as the rollercoaster of post-season failures and achievements that brought the Lightning to its doorstep. dynasties.
“What makes a dynasty?” Killorn considered. “I think of the Patriots when they won tons. I wouldn’t call us a dynasty. If this series goes well, I think you might. But if you think about the last 10 years, we were at a conference. we’ve reached the Stanley Cup final many times. It’s not just three years. That’s all there is to it.”
There were times when it looked like Killorn might have to leave the Lightning due to their salary cap restrictions — his contract has a $4.45 million annual cap, and for the past three seasons he has had a limited clause on exchange ban. But while other Tampa Bay mainstays like Gourd and Tyler Johnson were retired, the Lightning held on to Killorn, defending him in the Seattle expansion draft as well.
Now he is 32 years old. His bushy beard makes him look like a seasoned winger known for his “by any means” approach to the game, be it blocking shots, body shots or deadly penalties. He contributed to the Lightning’s offense, including eight goals last postseason and 25 goals this regular season. But in 18 postseason games, he has no goals and four assists.
“We didn’t chip in as much offensively as we’d like, but not because we didn’t try,” Killorn said.
Cooper said the lack of goals scored was not a concern considering how much Killorn had contributed in other ways.
“I think he played amazing. You can’t judge all these players by how many goals they have. It’s hard enough because they judge themselves. But we don’t judge them that way,” Cooper explained.
“It’s nice to look at the protocol and see your name. But because our guys have known the past few years, it’s much better to see the Lightning with a higher number than the opponent, and I think that’s a big reason why we’ve been successful. At this time of the year, we don’t judge our players on that and I think Killer was amazing.”
The Chicago Blackhawks have begun an aggressive rebuild in time for the 2022 trade deadline. So aggressively that they were ready to bring on a 23-year-old winger named Brandon Hagel, who scored 21 goals in 55 games and into the 2023-2024 season. made $1.5 million to see what they can get. back in the trade.
They found their answer with the Lightning: two players (forwards Boris Katchuk and Taylor Raddysh) and two first round picks in 2023 and 2024, albeit with a top 10 defense.
“We’re adding a 23-year-old who is very competitive, can play in all situations, can play with all types of players,” Tampa Bay general manager Julien Brisebois said. “We noticed how competitive he is and the consistency in his efforts every shift.”
Hagel moved to the Lightning and… scored four goals in 22 games. He acknowledged that the transition was difficult.
“It’s hard to be traded. I have never been traded in my entire career. I didn’t know what it was like,” he said.
It was not just an exchange. It’s a trip to the locker room where the vast majority of the team has experienced the ups and downs and boat parades of two consecutive Stanley Cup victories. As awkward as it was for Hagel, it wasn’t so for the Lightnings, who have learned how to make people feel welcome in an exclusive club.
“They were all really good. I think the whole team just greeted me. These guys have been so good for so long that they are really good at this,” Hagel said.
“But for me it will take some time. You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes when all these guys have been together for so long,” he said. “They made me feel comfortable. It was I who should have taken that step and jumped right in with them. But they were amazing.”
Hagel scored six points in 18 playoff games. His playing style is in line with what the cutoff line wants to do.
“I think with Hages he was a great addition. He is an excellent forechecker. For his size, he’s really strong with the puck, making a lot of great plays. We kind of found some chemistry,” Killorn said.
When Hagel looks at players like Killorn, who were a fundamental part of what the Lightning built, it gives him confidence that he can be part of that winning tradition.
“It’s just about winning. Everyone just knows how to win. You fall at a certain time and just know there are guys in the room who take it to the next level. They know how to win,” he said. “So we lose 2-0 [to the Rangers], there is no particular panic. You just need to find the recipe and deliver it.”
John Cooper was angry. Not with Anthony Cirelli, but with on behalf of Anthony Cirelli.
The Selke trophy was recently presented to Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. Cirelli finished fifth in the voting. He was fourth in 2020. He was never a finalist and Cooper was sure he knew why.
“It’s biased, okay? I am his coach. But all rewards are calculated by points. And I have a little problem with that. Selke? 100%. Do I think Bergeron should be there or any of the classic guys that are there? They all deserve to be there. Tony is going to be behind these guys for now because he’s not scoring like these guys,” Cooper said.
Cirelli was selected by the Lightning in the third round of the 2015 draft and spent all five seasons of his career with Tampa. As a young man, he was an offensive tackle in the OHL for the Oshawa Generals, playing at a point-per-game pace. In the NHL, he’s not exactly a black hole to attack. Cirelli scored 43 points in 76 regular season games. In the 2019/20 season, he scored 44 goals out of 68. His 17 goals this season set a new career high.
Good offensive move. Maybe not enough for voter awards.
“It’s a little unfair. Again, I sound like the whiny coach of one of my players. But you can take it the other way and say that Tony finished in the top five with no points, which I think shows what he’s doing for us,” Cooper said. “He will be the next guy to knock on the door. He is a dedicated player who understands that selfless defense is important to us and to him, and he does it very well.”
In the playoffs, he has one goal and five points in 18 games. But then again, it’s not about the protocol for this trio.
“As a line, we make it pretty easy….