Steve Yzerman has built the Tampa Bay Lightning into quite the hockey team this season, with homegrown pieces such as Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Victor Hedman starting to move into their prime and free agent additions such as Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle contributing to the team, with Stralman in particular playing a key role on Tampa’s blue line.
They currently stand at third overall in the league standings, and first in the East, even if they are seventh in the league at percent of possible points earned. Their special teams numbers are nothing to be wowed by (16th on the power play and 14th on the penalty kill), but at even strength, Tampa is elite. At 5 on 5 their score adjusted Corsi for percent is 55.5%, a number bested by no one else in the league.
Most of this success comes from their coaching, as Jon Cooper has a system in place that utilizes his skaters skills to the fullest, and allows for the team to dominate the opposition at 5 on 5.
Tampa 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 example below shows this. First, Alex Killorn forces the defenseman back into the corner while Jonathan Drouin takes away the cross-ice pass. With no other options, the puck gets fired up the boards where Tampa takes control of it, again.
They then get a line change and dump the puck back in.
After the puck is dumped in, Brian Boyle goes in hard on the forecheck and forces a clear up the boards instead of a pass to a teammate. Then, both Brett Connolly and Brenden Morrow are able to pressure the winger along the boards, and take away the pass to the middle. With no other option, and two men covering him, the winger has to chip the puck back to his defenseman.
Vancouver tries to restart their breakout, but when the winger gets the puck along the boards, he has no options. The Vancouver center tries to skate into open space, but isn’t quick enough and Andrej Sustr pounces on him before he can get control of the puck. Victor Hedman gathers it in, and feeds it to a wide open Brian Boyle who gets easy entry into the zone.
Boyle gets a rush shot off, something that wouldn’t have been made possible without the 30 seconds of pressure that repeatedly forced turnovers and kept Vancouver pinned in their own zone.
Tampa’s system doesn’t result in tons of offensive zone turnovers, but it does create lots of neutral zone turnovers. This is a better fit for Tampa’s skaters, because they can then use their speed and creativity on the rush to consistently create high quality scoring chances.
The line of Ondrej Palat – Tyler Johnson – Nikita Kucherov is especially adept at this. That trio is first, second, and third in the entire league at scoring chances for per 60, and most of it stems from their dominance in the neutral zone. We can see just how effective they are in the example below.
Tyler Johnson pressures the defenseman, forcing him to clear the puck up the boards. Then, Kucherov and Sustr pressure the winger along the boards (who never really had time to gather the puck in and pass to a teammate). They force the turnover, and Kucherov slides the puck to Johnson, who has plenty of time to gather speed as he moves into the offensive zone.
Johnson blows by the defender, goes around the net, and feeds the puck to Kucherov. Though Kucherov’s shot is saved, the rebound goes right to Ondrej Palat, who has a wide open net and easily picks up the goal.
Whenever they do find themselves in their defensive end, the Lightning skaters still utilize their speed to constantly pressure the opposing team’s forwards.
In the example below, there are three separate occasions where a Vancouver forward might have been able to create offense, but is instead pushed into the boards and locked off by a member of the Lightning.
Sustr corrals the puck behind his net, and starts Tampa’s breakout on the other side of the ice.
Tampa has become one of the best teams in the league, and they do it by playing a system that utilizes their speed, skill, and hockey sense. Though they don’t constantly possess the puck, they keep their opponents pinned in their own end and create scoring chances for themselves off the rush. Their puck possession is meaningful, and it’s the perfect example of why we use Corsi, and not raw possession times (cc: Ken Campbell).
In order for a team to beat Tampa in the playoffs, they’re going to need everyone on their team to be able to make quick decisions with the puck, or at least skate themselves out of trouble. If not, then the mismatch will be obvious, and Tampa will be the team advancing. Their dominance at 5 on 5 should have them favorites to advance to the Finals, if it doesn’t already having them a favorite to win the Stanley Cup.