Jones Is Getting Defensive

Just call him “The Eraser.”

Already known for his grit and forechecking abilities, Blair Jones has taken his two-way game to another level this year. And Lightning coaches are taking it even further.

In Saturday night’s key Southeast Division clash against the Atlanta Thrashers, Jones, who earlier this month was still playing in AHL Norfolk, got the tap on the shoulder to help kill a first period penalty. It was his first significant action shorthanded this season, and to make matters more intimidating, he was lined up opposite Thrashers superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, who entered the game among NHL goal leaders with 21 and the league’s fifth-best shooting percentage

“Whatever the coaches ask me to do I’m going to do it,” Jones said. “It’s not the most glorifying job to stand in front of one of the hardest shots in the league, but whatever keeps me out on the ice.”

Seconds into his first shorthanded shift he took a Kovalchuk slap-shot off his lower leg.

The puck caromed out of the Lightning zone.

Moments later, he was again one-on-one with Kovalchuk and quickly eliminated the space between them, knocked the puck off Kovalchuk’s stick, gained possession, cleared it down the ice, and ended his shift.

This textbook effort earned him another shorthanded shift, and when the Lightning needed a key penalty kill to start the third period, Jones again got the call. Matched up one more time with Kovalchuk, Jones won another individual battle, helping the Lightning kill off the penalty and eventually win the game 4-3.

When asked after the game where that first Kovalchuk slap-shot got him, Jones couldn’t remember, but smiled and said, “I got a couple of them.”

It’s his defense that’s been the difference for the fourth year pro this year compared to previous seasons. Combining this defensive effort with a simplified approach to the game, Jones has been able to find more on-ice success.

“I’ve started to play more defensive,” he said. “I’m not pushing it … so I’ve started making plays I would never make.”

Not many would have picked Jones to be a power play match-up nightmare for Kovalchuk Saturday night, but he was, and in the process earned over 14 minutes in ice time for just the second time this season.

Jones’ forechecking abilities are still a prominent part of his game, and he was able to draw a hooking penalty on Atlanta deep in the Thrashers’ zone early in the first period.

It all contributed to a big win for the Lightning, who gained two points on the second-place Thrashers in the division. The win wasn’t without some suspense, however, as the teams entered the third period tied at two.

“It was the same situation as we were in the game against Philly and we came out flat that game,” Jones said. “It was kind of a make-or-break game for our season and we stepped up big time.”