TAMPA — The 2015-16 season wasn’t even over when the Tampa Bay Lightning identified their 28th-ranked power play as the area of play they needed to improve the most before the start of the next season.
The critical question was how.
Strapped by the salary cap, general manager Steve Yzerman was going to have a hard enough time keeping the core of the team, much less the core of the power play together, so adding personnel was out of the question.
That left a change in philosophy as the only option and the Lightning went all in there, letting go of assistant coach Steve Thomas and hiring former Wild coach Todd Richards primarily to doctor up their power play.
As Tyler Johnson pointed out, it’s still too soon to consider the Lightning’s power play cured, but it looked awfully healthy during Tampa Bay’s 6-4 opening night victory over the Red Wings on Thursday.
Led by Jonathan Drouin, who had a goal and an assist during manpower opportunities, the Lighting scored on three of their six power play chances during the comeback victory.
“We have two units we can roll out there and they’re both dangerous,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Sometimes you just have one, but I feel for us, both units are pretty dangerous groups.’’
Drouin, who heads up the second of those dangers squads, scored the first Lightning power play goal when he snapped a wrist shot over the left shoulder of Red Wings goalie Peter Mrazek at the 7:23 mark of the second period.
Johnson scored the second, breaking a 3-3 tie and giving the Lightning their first lead of the game by redirecting a Steven Stamkos pass past Mrazek at the 8:34 mark of the third period.
Eight minutes later, Alex Killorn finished off the special teams scoring, potting his first goal of the year off a feed from Drouin, who says the changes Richards made with the power play are mostly subtle.
“We have a lot of the same set-ups, but we’re making sure we get more shots at the net and more traffic in front of the net,’’ he said. “We’re making sure to pass the puck more but it’s really a matter of getting more shots.’’
The Lightning generated nine shots on goal during seven minutes of power play time against the Red Wings, who were victimized for the most part, Johnson said, by a new manpower mentality.
“We’re doing a lot of the same stuff we did last year, but we do have a few different plays here and there,’’ Johnson said. “And right now we’re getting the results.
“I mean, it’s only one game, so you can’t really hang your hat on it. You just have to keep building to get better and keep working but it’s a good start for us for sure.’’
It was a good start for Drouin in particular. Less than a year after he asked for a divorce from the team, he has been entrusted with a key role on the second of the Lightning’s two power-play units.
Working along the right wing, the Lightning are counting on Drouin to use his vision and playmaking skills to create the opportunities that far too often went unrealized a year ago.
“We talked with Jo quite a bit to find out where’s he’s most comfortable out there and so that power play unit kind of goes through him a little bit,’’ Cooper said.
“He and ‘Kooch’ (Nikita Kucherov) kind of interchange on both sides there, but the thing is, the game’s slowed down for Jo now. I mean, the kid’s got great vision and he had a heck of a game tonight.’’
The Lightning needed a heck of a game from Drouin. They fell behind by two goals early on when Thomas Vanek scored twice in the first 8:26 of the game. Not that anyone should have been surprised by that.
Vanek is one of the newcomers to the Red Wings lineup and he brought with him his long-standing penchant for tormenting Tampa Bay, who he has now scored 27 goals against in 41 career games.
Drouin got the Lightning back in to the game with his goal, though, and after Frans Nielsen scored at the 8:18 mark to recreate the Red Wings two-goal lead, Tampa Bay took over, scoring each of the next four.
“One of the staples of our team that’s really grown since I’ve been here is just the calm we have on the bench,’’ Cooper said. “We’ve seen this before. This has happened in some games.
“We’re just a resilient group. I mean, we make it 2-1 (in this one) and then they come right back but we felt like we were playing well, and so we just kept pushing and pushing and then special teams took over after that.’’