Based on the defensive rotations in Thursday’s morning skate prior to their game against the Colorado Avalanche, it appears that the coaching staff for the Tampa Bay Lightning might be tweaking the defensive pairings a bit after a couple of months of stability.
Cernak and Perbix swap places for today's #Bolts morning skate lines and D-pairings:— Chris Krenn (@Chris_Krenn) February 9, 2023
For most of the last two months (injuries not withstanding) the pairings have been:
Victor Hedman/Zach Bogosian
Ian Cole / Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev / Nick Perbix
Of those combinations, the Cole/Cernak has been pretty solid. For December and January the duo played 330:37 minutes of 5v5 time together, by far the most of any pairing. Granted, that was due in part to the injury to Zach Bogosian that sidelined him for a few games or else the Hedman/Bogosian pair would have more than 166:07 minutes together.
Still, Cole and Cernak not only played together a lot, they played well. Of the top three combinations they had the lowest Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes (2.11), the lowest Scoring Chances Against per 60 (22.32), and the lowest High Danger Chances Against per per 60 (8.71). They had emerged as the shut down pair Coach Cooper had been looking for to replace the Ryan McDonagh/Erik Cernak pairing that he had relied on heavily during the last couple of years.
Unfortunately, February has been a bit of a disaster for that pairing. Granted, it’s only two games but their numbers have skyrocketed. Their xGA/60 is up to 5.48, their GA/60 is at 5.36, SCA/60 48.21, and their HDCA/60 is 21.43. Most of that was the result of the Florida Panthers game where they were on the ice for 2 goals against at 5v5 and gave up a team high 12 scoring chances. They were better against the Sharks, not allowing a goal, but their 6 scoring chances against still led all pairings.
So, it looks like the coaching staff has decided to break them up for at least tonight. That is something that happens throughout a long season. Much like scoring lines need to be shaken up from time-to-time, defensive pairings can get a little stale. Playing with new partners can shake players up a little and make sure they are focusing on doing the little plays to get the puck clear and helps to break assumptions.
These new combinations may last a month, a week, a day, or a period, but the staff will be watching throughout the game and then on video to see how they do. Hopefully, with a tough road trip approaching, the switch up helps the Lightning get back to the strong defensive play that marked their winning ways in December and January.