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Penguins Extinguish Lightning

January 31, 2019, 8:43 AM ET [12 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Lightning came out flat after their ten-day hiatus, and trailed the Penguins 3-0 before nine minutes had elapsed in last night’s game. What transpired should touch a nerve. The Penguins smothered the Lightning with back pressure and confronted them in the neutral zone, forcing dump-ins. Those chip-and-chase attempts led to a weak forecheck by the Lightning, highlighting an ongoing concern about whether they can consistently forecheck well against formidable opponents.

Additionally, when territorial advantage was achieved, it did not produce much offense. When the Lightning were in control of the puck in the offensive zone, the Penguins took away the middle, leaving Tampa Bay scrambling on the perimeter. This is all worth underlining because transition defense, savvy puck management, crisp breakouts, and boxing out around the net were problem areas for the Lightning, and led to all four Penguins goals.

The Lightning offense can sputter and struggle, but if it is stalling, their team defense needs to be much better than it was last night to give them a chance to be competitive. And that starts with the forwards. On the first Pittsburgh goal, the sequence began off a failed forecheck by the Lightning. Cedric Paquette chipped it deep, and Adam Erne failed to apply sufficient pressure on Penguins fourth line center Teddy Blueger on the retrieval. When the Penguins completed the first pass to Kris Letang, Letang was able to execute a stretch pass up the boards that bypassed Nikita Kucherov to Riley Sheahan. It is impossible to expect perfection on the forecheck, and not every stretch pass can be disrupted. The issue is that, when the puck crossed the blue line, the Lightning transition defense collapsed.

Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Girardi kept a relatively tight gap, forcing Sheahan to pull up and chip the puck ahead. The toss had enough finesse that Girardi had time to spin around and try to whack at the floating puck. But the puck found Penguins forward Garrett Wilson because Kucherov stopped skating and Wilson was the only one in puck-reception radius. Wilson decided to try a wrap-around on Andre Vasilevskiy, and the puck tottered forward on the weak side right onto Sheahan’s stick. Paquette was there, but lost focus for a second just as the puck crossed through the crease.

It was a lazy play by Kucherov. Yet he gets latitude since he is the league’s leading scorer and also leads the Lightning forwards in time on ice. Paquette is on the fourth line, and not an offensive dynamo. How Paquette could allow Sheahan to gain inside position and convert on that rebound is atrocious.

Coming out of the first TV timeout, the Lightning ran a set play in the offensive zone. Steven Stamkos won the faceoff, feigned like he was diving to the low slot, and then retreated to the middle slot for the one-timer pass from Ondrej Palat. It was a nicely designed play. Victor Hedman slipped to the far post while Yanni Gourde was hugging the near post; if there was a rebound, the Lightning would have the numbers to try to stuff it in. But Stamkos smacked the puck over the net. More importantly, Hedman peeled off his perch on the weak side and retrieved the missed shot attempt; this led to a great chance in the low slot only seconds later where Hedman attempted to shot-pass to Gourde five feet outside the crease. Gourde failed to tip the shot in, and the puck was collected by the Penguins for the transition the other way. Still, as the puck was being ferried through the neutral zone, Gourde caught up to Bryan Rust and separated him from the puck.

Alas, the excitement from that defensive play was short-lived. The Lightning surrendered the puck in the neutral zone. Girardi picked up the loose puck and moved it to Stamkos, who tried to drop it for Gourde along the boards. The puck was intercepted by the Penguins and they mounted an odd-man rush counter-attack with Phil Kessel and Rust. Again, Girardi gave a noble effort, taking away the passing lane from Rust to Kessel, and forcing Rust to try to attempt a deke through the crease on Vasilevskiy. It didn’t work. The puck again popped out the weak side, and again the Lightning were slow to eliminate the man without the puck. Kessel shoveled it into the yawning net because Stamkos was there, but failed to tie up Kessel’s stick.

The Penguins would score again 16 seconds later, and the synopsis can be made tidy. Brayden Point retrieved the puck, feeling pressure from the F1 Jake Guentzel, who swooped in on Point’s right. When Point turned away from Guentzel toward the left, he saw Sidney Crosby lurking below the dots and ready to pounce on his pass to Ryan McDonagh. This caused Point to panic and blindly pass back toward the right side, only Domink Simon was waiting to intercept the pass and dished it to Crosby on the backdoor.

And just like that, the game was over almost as soon as it started.

But last night’s game can be prescriptive if the Lightning learn the right lessons. The Lightning need to simplify for opponents who will force them out of their comfort zone like the Penguins did in this contest. When the score was 1-0 with 14 minutes and a dozen seconds left in the first period, the Lightning achieved a successful forecheck. Anthony Cirelli chipped it deep, and Alex Killorn put pressure on the retriever. Hedman whiffed on the puck when attempting to seal the wall, but Kucherov was supporting behind him, and quickly fired a puck on net from almost 60 feet. The puck never reached the net, and instead was spat out onto the stick of Cirelli, who was inside the dots on the left circle.

Although Cirelli whistled a shot wide, this was the Lightning’s best scoring opportunity in the first six minutes. So what can be gleaned from it? Instead of trying to skate and pass into space, the Lightning got the puck off their sticks quicker and used their speed to scoop up a loose puck. The errant bounce created room for them. When the Penguins play as well as they did last night, they are not going to surrender a lot offensively, so the Lightning funneling pucks on net from all angles, and using their quickness to slap second, third, and fourth shot attempts on net past the unprepared goaltender, Matt Murray, is a much shrewder way to navigate the Penguins’ defensive bulwark. Of course, that message of simplification extends in all three zones. More straight-ahead puck movement rather than drop passes in the neutral zone is another effective strategy. On breakouts, the puck does not always have to be exited the zone via direct pass. The Lightning have the speed to be insufferable in transition defense and in their defensive coverage. They just need to provide more effort.
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