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Lightning Flounder Against Sharks

January 6, 2019, 3:14 PM ET [15 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Lightning have been scoring so many goals over this torrid 16-game stretch that it has masked underlying issues that have needed maintenance but were momentarily tabled until they cost the team a regulation-time loss. That defeat happened yesterday as the San Jose Sharks preyed on a disjointed breakout and lazy defensive-zone coverage, subduing the Lightning 5-2.

The Bolts’ forwards are not always faultless, but last night the blame fell on the defensemen. With the score 1-0, San Jose’s Marcus Sorensen dumped the puck in and Andre Vasilevskiy went to fetch it. But the transfer from Vasilevskiy to Erik Cernak was not smooth, and Cernak ran into the man in stripes and lost control of the puck. Nevertheless, Sorensen returned the puck to Tampa Bay after he tried to pass it off the boards, and Ryan McDonagh wildly spun around and spit the puck toward where he expected Nikita Kucherov to be. Instead, he passed to Brent Burns, and the Sharks defenseman attacked the net and fed Joe Pavelski at the bottom of the left circle, who managed to get inside position on Cernak.

It was a ham-fisted effort by the Lightning defensemen. Cernak lost possession of the puck, McDonagh served up a meatball to Burns, and Cernak failed to stick-check Pavelski successfully. By dint of their scoring prowess, the Lightning permit their forwards to play higher in the defensive zone, which gives them a head start on their transition. It also reflects Coach Jon Cooper’s vote of confidence for the mobility and skill of the Lightning defensemen. But this strategy only works if the defensemen can retrieve, complete the first pass, and box out when breakouts sputter.

Fast forward to a little less than eight minutes left in the game and the score at 4-2, and Burns chucked the puck cross corner for the dump-in. Hedman went to retrieve and whacked the puck up the boards back to Burns – there was no Lightning winger there to catch the blind pass from Hedman. The Lightning would chase the rest of the sequence as San Jose would try a shot-pass, a shot, and finally Timo Meier would come off the boards and beat Hedman to the front of the net to tip another shot-pass. The puck was deflected off the post, and Lukas Radil stuffed the puck in.

The first goal the Sharks scored was different than the aforementioned two goals because, instead of trying to pass the puck out of the zone, the Lightning defensemen transported the puck to exit the defensive zone. Different method, same result. The problem was that an active stick by Radil deflected the area pass from Hedman back into the Sharks’ possession. This led to a counterattack and goal because Yanni Gourde and Mathieu Joseph went for a line change right as the Sharks were regrouping, which left the weak side uncovered.

The through line for these three Sharks goals is poor communication by the Lightning. The Tampa Bay forwards and defensemen are experiencing a disconnect in their own zone and occasionally the neutral zone, which allows talented teams like the Sharks to exploit those turnovers, and poor positioning, for goals.

It should be underlined that this flaw is mostly exposed in their own end. The Lightning scored goals with Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev precisely because the forwards and defensemen are speaking to each other in beautiful, flowing language on the rush. The forwards know exactly how to manipulate an opponent’s transition defense and ignite the weak-side pressure, and they have multiple defensemen with the skillset and acceleration to convert on the opportunity. That is a tremendous asset come playoff time. But the defensemen offering complementary scoring is only useful if the Lightning can converse better in their own end and keep the game close.
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