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After finishing the year as one of the NHL’s best possession teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been having a rough playoffs. Though they’re only one of four teams still standing, they haven’t been getting the majority of shot attempts to go their way; their score adjusted shot attempts percentage at 5 on 5 is a measly 46.9%.
Their possession struggles have led to them looking very beatable in the playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings pushed the Bolts to seven games, and the Montreal Canadiens pushed them to six, with Tampa really only looking dominant in Game 6 of the series against Montreal.
When we looked at Tampa’s successful neutral zone forecheck back in February, it was noted that most of their possession dominance stems from the way the team “pressures their opponents with ferocity on the forecheck, and plays smart positional hockey in the neutral zone to force turnovers and push the puck back into their opposition’s zone.” The team hasn’t been able to do this in the playoffs, and they haven’t been controlling the puck because of it.
When looking at video of Tampa’s play in the playoffs, their possession issues seem to stem from the huge problems they have at their own blue line. Not only are opposition skaters moving into their zone with ease, their own defenseman are having trouble clearing the zone with control of the puck. When they are spending too much time in their zone, they can’t use their speed and aggressiveness on the forecheck, and their system loses most of its effectiveness.
Here’s a perfect example of the team giving up the blue line without pressuring their opponents, and of the team failing to clear the puck with possession. Brendan Smith waltzes through the neutral zone with the puck, and then gets into the zone with possession and gets a shot on goal.
Steven Stamkos wins the resulting faceoff, and Brayden Coburn has tons of room to skate the puck out of his zone. Instead, he fires the puck up to his own blueline, where the puck is tipped over Detroit’s defense and into the Red Wings’ defensive zone.
After a quick battle for possession, the Wings break the puck out, and Darren Helm carries the puck through the neutral zone and across Tampa’s blue line with ease.
These problems didn’t just occur in the series against Detroit, however. Even Montreal, a team with poor possession metrics, was able to out-play Tampa at 5 on 5, where, again, most of the issues started at Tampa’s own blueline.
Andrej Sustr and Matt Carle are playing a very ineffective game of give-and-go here, and they fail to get the puck out of the zone despite being left completely alone for the start of the breakout.
By the time that they’ve reset, the forecheckers are all over them. They have no other option but to chip the puck out of the zone.
From there, the Canadiens are able to enter the zone with possession and speed. Devante Smith-Pelly unleashes a beautiful shot that flies past Ben Bishop and into the net. Obviously not every shot is going to be like this, but, in this situation, Tampa losing their blue line results the puck being on Smith-Pelly’s stick.
Though the issues in the first two rounds have been troubling enough for Lightning fans, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals is what should really be concerning to the people who call themselves “The Thunder”.
Jon Cooper hasn’t made too many changes to his team’s style of play, and his defensemen continue to be ineffective at their own blue line.
Here we see an example of this. Valterri Filpulla makes a good play to get the puck to J.T. Brown in space, but he has no options and has to resort to flipping the puck out of his zone.
A quick regroup by New York results in them getting back across the blue line with ease.
Rick Nash drops the puck back to Kevin Hayes, who victimizes Matt Carle and very nearly puts the puck past Ben Bishop.
The Bolts need more skill on their blue line. So far in these playoffs, their best possession players have been Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman, and Nikita Nesterov. All three have the ability to skate the puck out of trouble, and can force opposing forechecks to play them, creating openings for their teammates to break the puck out.
Scratching Nesterov in favor of Andrej Sustr just doesn’t make sense, especially not when Sustr is getting abused and targeted by the opposition when he isn’t heavily sheltered. Cooper is a smart man, so the most likely conclusion here is that he wants his team playing a more conservative, less risky style of hockey. It’s a classic case of risk aversion, and the once dominant Bolts have become a team that relies on percentages to win hockey games because of it.
If the team wants to win, they are going to need their head coach to step up. It’s clear that some of the defenseman in the lineup – Sustr, Carle, Garrison, and maybe even Coburn – aren’t skilled enough to be playing the type of game that Tampa needs to play if they want to beat the Rangers. The team can’t be forfeiting the blue line and chipping the puck out every time they get defensive zone possession. Teams have figured out how to dominate Tampa when they resort to those tactics.
The Lightning need to re-gain control of their blue line, and dictate play themselves. Their best weapons are taken from them when they have to play in the defensive zone too often, and without their best weapons, it’s hard to see them beating Henrik Lundqvist’s New York Rangers and moving on to the Stanley Cup Final.