How the Lightning built a shutdown line on the fly — and might change it up again

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

DENVER — During their back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a secret weapon.

Their checking line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow had the unique ability to shut down their opponents’ top players while contributing huge goals of their own. The lone goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders, to send the Lightning to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final? That was Gourde, short-handed. The winning goal in Game 2 of that Final against the Montreal Canadiens? That was Coleman.

But due to external factors, the Lightning lost that entire line last summer. Gourde was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. Coleman was signed away by the Calgary Flames, while Goodrow signed with the New York Rangers, thanks in part to the Lightning’s salary-cap constraints.

One of the biggest questions facing Tampa Bay as it went for the three-peat: Could it still win without that secret weapon in its arsenal?

Easy answer: The Lightning would just make a new one.

The line of Anthony Cirelli centering Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn might not have the offensive contributions that the O.G. checking line did, but they might be even more effective defensively, based on their play in the past several playoff games for the Lightning.

“If our coaches trust in us to go out there and shut guys down, we take a lot of pride in that,” Cirelli said.

The new shutdown line hasn’t given up a goal at even strength in the playoffs in just over 68 minutes together. They have a plus-36 shot attempt advantage, a plus-15 scoring chance advantage and are an incredible plus-15 in high-danger scoring chance differential — meaning they’ve gotten to their opponents’ toughest scoring areas more than the offensive stars they’re defending have.

As head coach Jon Cooper put it: “The more you can make them play D, the less they can play offense.”

Cooper put this line together in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Cirelli had been playing with stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. With his team struggling to a 2-0 series deficit, Cooper moved Stamkos to the middle, added Ondrej Palat to that top line and dropped Cirelli in between Killorn and Hagel to form a new trio.

That checking line was deployed against the Rangers’ top group of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano.

The reason the line was formed?

“Stopping them,” Cooper deadpanned, without elaboration.

That’s exactly what they did in Game 3 against New York, holding an elephantine 19-shot-attempt advantage over the Rangers. Zibanejad didn’t have an even-strength point in the last four games of the series, and not coincidentally these were also Lightning wins.

“It’s really a point of emphasis with our team. We have enough skill and talent to score offensively, but we focus on our defensive game,” Killorn said. “If we win 2-1, we’re happy with that. We don’t have to win by six goals. We want to defend first.”

Like that fabled checking line from the first two Cup wins, this shutdown line was a huge reason the Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. But the Gourde line never had to face a challenge like the Cirelli line is facing in the last round in 2022: superstar Nathan MacKinnon, who has 11 goals in 15 games, and whichever talented wingers the Colorado Avalanche choose to pair with him.

“We know we have a huge job. Probably the biggest job we’ve had in the playoffs,” Killorn said.

Killorn has spent every minute of his NHL career with the Lightning, who drafted him in the third round in 2007. He has been there for Cooper’s entire run as head coach and the roller coaster of postseason failure and achievement that brought the Lightning to the doorstep of a dynasty.

“What makes a dynasty?” Killorn pondered. “I think about the Patriots when they were winning a ton. I wouldn’t call us a dynasty. If this series goes well, I think you could. But when you think about the past 10 years, we’ve been in the conference finals plenty of times, we’ve gone to the Stanley Cup Final a bunch of times. It’s not just three years. It’s everything that comes along with that.”

There were times when it appeared Killorn might have to leave the Lightning because of their salary-cap constraints — his contract carries a $4.45 million annual cap hit, and he has had a limited no-trade clause for the last three seasons. But while other Tampa Bay mainstays, like Gourde and Tyler Johnson, were shipped out, the Lightning hung on to Killorn, protecting him in the Seattle expansion draft as well.

He’s 32 years old now. A thicket of beard makes him look the part of a veteran winger who’s known for a “by any means necessary” approach to the game, whether it’s blocking shots or throwing the body or killing penalties. He has contributed offensively to the Lightning, including eight goals last postseason and 25 goals in this regular season. But in 18 games in the postseason, he has no goals and four assists.

“We haven’t chipped in as much offensively as we’d like, but not for a lack of trying,” Killorn said.

Cooper said the lack of goal scoring hasn’t been a concern, given how much Killorn has contributed in other ways.

“I think he’s played fabulous. You can’t judge all these players on how many pucks they put in the net. It’s hard enough because they judge themselves. But we don’t judge them that way,” Cooper explained.

“It’s great to look on the score sheet and see your name. But as our guys have been well aware of the last few years, it’s way better to see ‘Lightning’ with a number that’s more than the opponent, and I think that’s a big reason why we’ve had success. At this time of year we don’t judge our players on that, and I think Killer’s been awesome.”

The Chicago Blackhawks had entered an aggressive rebuild by the 2022 trade deadline. So aggressive that they were willing to dangle a 23-year-old winger named Brandon Hagel — who had scored 21 goals in 55 games and had a team-friendly $1.5 million cap hit through 2023-24 — to see what they could get back in trade.

They found their answer from the Lightning: Two players (forwards Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh) and two first-round picks in 2023 and 2024, albeit top-10-protected.

“We’re adding a 23-year-old player that is super competitive, can play in all situations, can play with all different types of players,” Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois said. “We noticed how competitive he is, and the consistency in his effort every shift.”

Hagel jumped into the Lightning lineup and … scored four goals in 22 games. He admitted the transition was a difficult one.

“It’s tough getting traded. I had never been traded my entire career. I didn’t know what it was like,” he said.

It wasn’t just getting traded. It was walking into a locker room where the vast majority of the team had experienced the highs, lows and boat parades of two straight Stanley Cup wins. As awkward as it was for Hagel, it was less so for the Lightning, who have learned how to make people feel welcome in an otherwise exclusive club.

“They were all really good. I think the whole team, they just welcomed me in. These guys have been so good for so long that they’re really good at this stuff,” Hagel said.

“But for me, it’s going to take a little bit. You don’t want to step on anyone’s feet with all these guys being together for so long,” he said. “They made me feel comfortable. It was myself that had to take that step and jump right in with them. But they’ve been awesome.”

Hagel has six points in 18 playoff games. His style of play meshes with what the shutdown line wants to do.

“I think with Hages, he’s been a great addition. He’s a great forechecker. For his size, he’s really strong with the puck, makes a lot of great plays. We’ve kind of found some chemistry,” Killorn said.

When Hagel looks at players like Killorn, who have been a foundational part of what the Lightning have built, it gives him confidence that he can be part of that winning tradition.

“It’s just the winning attitude here. Everyone just knows how to win. You go down at certain times and just know there are guys in the room that take it to the next level. That know how to win,” he said. “So we’re down 2-0 [to the Rangers], there’s not much panic. It’s just find the recipe and deliver it.”

Jon Cooper was angry. Not at Anthony Cirelli, but on behalf of Anthony Cirelli.

The Selke Trophy had recently been awarded to Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. Cirelli was fifth in the voting. He was fourth in 2020. He has never been a finalist, and Cooper was pretty sure he knew why.

“This is biased, OK? I’m his coach. But all awards are point-driven. And I have a little bit of a problem with that. Don’t get me wrong: Do I think Aleksander Barkov should be up for the Selke? 100%. Do I think Bergeron should be, or any of the classic guys that are up there? They all deserve to be up there. Tony will lag behind those guys for the time being because he doesn’t put up points like those guys,” Cooper said.

Cirelli was drafted in the third round in 2015 by the Lightning, and has played all five seasons of his career in Tampa. He was an offensive force as a young player in the OHL for the Oshawa Generals, playing at a point-per-game pace. In the NHL, he’s not exactly a black hole for offense. Cirelli had 43 points in 76 games in the regular season. In 2019-20, he had 44 in 68. His 17 goals this season were a new career best.

Good offensive output. Maybe not enough for awards voters.

“It’s a little unfair. Again, I sound like the whiney coach for one of my players. But you can take it the other way and say that Tony finished top five without the points, which I think says a ton for what he does for us,” Cooper said. “He’s going to be the next guy knocking at the door. He’s a selfless player that understands playing selfless defense is important to us and to him, and he’s great at it.”

In the playoffs, he has one goal and five points in 18 games. But again, it’s not about the scoresheet for this trio.

“As a line, we keep it pretty simple. We try to get pucks behind their defensemen, as cliché as it sounds. In those situations, all three of us are pretty good at protecting the puck down low,” Killorn said. “Maybe we haven’t produced as much as we’d like to, but as a line making them play defense for the majority of the game, that’s successful for us and what we’re trying to do.”

Cirelli is the player who makes the shutdown line click. He hounded Zibanejad in the Rangers series and faced players like Auston Matthews and Barkov in earlier rounds.

“In different areas of the ice, I just try to be on top of guys and play them hard. You just have to be aware when those guys are on the ice and try to be in good spots,” he said.

He’s aware when MacKinnon is on the ice in the Stanley Cup Final. And the Avalanche are aware of Cirelli.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar called it an inevitability: That MacKinnon couldn’t avoid seeing Cirelli on the ice “if that’s the matchup Coops wants” in this series.

“You guys know Nate; he’s not afraid or intimidated to go against anybody. In fact, he embraces some of those matchups,” Bednar said.

Cirelli was on the ice against MacKinnon for 5:06 at even strength in Game 1. During their shared ice time, the Lightning were plus-6 in shot attempts, plus-3 in scoring chances and most importantly outscored MacKinnon’s line 1-0.

But Bednar said he’s not going to react to what the Lightning are deploying against his top players — for now.

“I’m not going to interrupt the flow of our game to avoid something until I see that it’s not working. If it’s working and our team is comfortable with it, then we’ll use it a little bit and not run away from it. If I want Nate on in certain situations and they put out Cirelli, I’m going to put Nate out,” he said.

Matchups can change. So can lines. For as good as the trio of Cirelli, Hagel and Killorn has been, they didn’t exist until Game 2 of the conference finals. Thanks to a significant change to the Lightning’s lineup in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, there’s a good chance this successful group is also a short-lived one, owing to Brayden Point.

Game 1 was Point’s first game since May 14, skating with Nick Paul and Ross Colton. Those two used to have a different linemate back in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs: Hagel.

When Point suffered his lower-body injury against the Leafs in Game 7, he was on a line with — you guessed it — Killorn and Cirelli.

Point was still finding his rhythm in Game 1 against Colorado. “I think he played 18 minutes last night. That’s probably a little more than I thought he might, but he handled it pretty well. He’s getting his game and his hands in order. I can expect him to get more ice time if he’s feeling better,” Cooper said.

Does his return mean he could move up the lineup to his old spot with Killorn and Cirelli?

“Our lines have changed throughout the playoffs, from the Toronto series all the way up. Our lines have even changed from Games 1 and 2 in the Rangers series to our last four,” Cooper said on the day of Game 1. “What we start with today may not be what we end up with, even at the end of the game, let alone the end of the series.”

It’s a good problem to have: Keep the postseason’s best shutdown line together, or potentially subtract Hagel and add Point, a dynamic two-way player who has the most postseason goals in the NHL over the last three postseasons (30).

In either case, three great hockey players — Hagel, Killorn and Cirelli — will continue to make their mark on the playoffs with what they do, and not just what they prevent their opponents from doing.

“We don’t want to play against the other line. We want to play to the best of our abilities,” Killorn said.

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