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Utilizing the entire offensive zone, including with the man advantage
The New York Rangers have received attention for their tactic of using the space below the goal line as a realm where they can play point guard. They can find necessary time and room, which allows their teammates to cut toward the slot and off slot or for them to use the player(s) at the point.
But the Rangers are not the only playoff team that has done interesting things in this area of the ice. The Blues’ power play had its peaks and valleys against the Wild, but it was clever how they utilized the isolated man in the overload formation. The sequestered skater for the Blues was defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who normally is at the point or in the proximity of the far circle.
Shattenkirk was allowed to move below the goal line so that two Blues players were stationed at, or below, the icing line on opposite sides. That left Blues players at the point, along the half wall, and in the low slot as shooting options. Having two creators outside the goaltender’s vantage point allowed St. Louis to cloak its passing target, and what they lost in manpower (in shooting areas), they gained in unpredictability.
It is not uncommon to see the far-side option move between the point and the circle, or even dash to the backdoor, but having Shattenkirk dip all the way to the icing line changes the passing angles and makes life challenging for the goaltender. The Blues players are watching the playoffs from their couches, but the ingenuity behind this power-play maneuver should be applauded.
The perfect storm
Despite each team wishing to slow its opponent down, the counterattacks have been especially potent in the New York Rangers-Tampa Bay Lightning series. Both teams have a defenseman jumping into the rush and are replete with speed and strong passing acumen, which makes unexpected turnovers extremely dangerous. Even a misfire in the offensive zone can prove costly; the opposing team has the artillery to gallop up the ice 150 feet and strike with its offensive skill and two-to-four skaters descending on the net.
Master of the finer points
It is impossible to miss Corey Perry. He aggravates his opponents to no end. He can lay a thunderous bodycheck and recognize when his target is most vulnerable. The former Hart Trophy winner also has a bullet for a shot, and his release is a thing of beauty.
But there are subtleties to Perry’s game that magnify his efficacy. His ability to tweak the angle on his shot by buying an extra fraction of a second, or to outwait his opponent when he is puck-handling and move the puck just when his opponent is at his most defensively vulnerable, continues to work brilliantly. Perry has a sixth sense for when he can drag the puck through traffic and when the goaltender’s posture has slumped just a centimeter. His patience to exploit that weakness is what makes him an elite scorer.
A way to overcome Tampa Bay’s aggressiveness
One way the Bolts’ aggressiveness can be exploited is by the opponent pressuring the back end hard when Tampa Bay’s defenseman engages as an F3. Tampa Bay is comfortable with its centers retrieving the puck in its own zone, but some are better than others.
Tyler Johnson is adept at recognizing when the boards are sealed off and he can make a bump pass up the middle, but not every Bolts center (or forward) is as defensively proficient as he. The logic is simple: Performing the task of the breakout from the goal line is regularly executed by defensemen, not forwards, and even the most skilled two-way forwards Tampa Bay employs can get flustered by a surging forecheck. The Rangers understand the potential of the forecheck to nullify the Lightning’s speed and enable New York to accrue lots of shots. When Tampa Bay’s forwards go back to fetch the puck in their defensive zone, opportunity is there to be seized.
The Bolts’ “5s” continue to be exposed
No. 55 Braydon Coburn and No. 5 Jason Garrison are a defensive pairing, but despite Tampa Bay’s success, the duo has struggled mightily. Coburn and Garrison have a -52 and -45 even-strength scoring chances differential, respectively, and that ranks them worst on Tampa Bay and among any player in the playoffs, per war-on-ice.com. Opponents are preying on this pairing whose troubles have manifested in different facets: puck retrieval, the first pass, impeding offensive flow on the forecheck and rush.
The Bolts have made it to the conference finals despite Coburn and Garrison as their second defensive pair. That is a positive. But with how well Tampa Bay’s top rearguards have performed (Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman each have a +9 even-strength scoring chances differential this postseason, second and third best on the team overall) it makes one wonder how dangerous the team would be if their second unit was not a liability. The Bolts need their third and fourth TOI leaders among their defensive group to sharpen their play immediately. If they do, the past foibles will be a footnote on their march to the Cup.