Lightning Rewarded for Good Process
The Islanders are well coached and have a structured, stingy defense. But the Lightning prevailed 1-0 in a shootout in a tight-checking game that provided a blueprint for how they can succeed in the playoffs when they can’t rely entirely on the rush and power play. Here are a few takeaways from last night’s game.
Less circles, more straight-ahead attacking
With 240 seconds elapsed in the third period, there was one electrifying minute when the Nikita Kucherov line took a different tactic in their cycle strategy. It was the most dynamic the cycle has looked as, instead of proceeding with interminable circles around the zone (which has accomplished nothing of late), the forwards were meeting the puck higher in the zone, exploding forward to create separation, and then kicking it to the shooter. The first time the Lightning did this, Hedman fed Point high in the zone, Point rocketed the puck forward creating separation from Islanders defenders, and fed McDonagh in the slot. In the same offensive-zone sequence, Johnson created separation by rushing forward, laying a pass for Kucherov.
It is important to underline the distinction in these approaches. When the Lightning interchange and orbit the zone, the assumption is that the defensive coverage will splinter, an assignment will be missed, and an opening will appear. It is a lot of rotating and all five skaters are collectively trying to maintain balance over the top while seeing if they can identify a weakness in coverage. But in the Point and Johnson one-on-one surges, the attack here is miniaturized. Less ice is used and fewer players are involved. In the Point instance, McDonagh had found some quiet ice in the slot, and in the Johnson action, Kucherov had a pick set for him and was able to walk into the drop pass.
That isn’t to say the Lightning should discontinue their revolutions around the offensive zone on the cycle. But variability is good, and when the forwards retreat high as a means to propel forward, carve out some room, and set up a shooter, that is effective.
Sergachev can be the tool for a jam play at even strength
With a minute left in the second period, Mikhail Sergachev tried his notorious crossover move, and for the second time in this contest the Islanders knew it was coming and disrupted it. But Sergachev snatched the loose puck after it was dislodged, and managed to wriggle past Josh Bailey and beneath the goal line where he would smack the puck against Thomas Greiss’s pads on a wrap-around, hoping for a follow-up conversion. Hallelujah!
Sergachev’s crossover move is the most unstoppable move any defenseman has in the NHL, and so many times it gets squandered because he hurls a puck into traffic in the slot after he has created separation. In this instance, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde were both hovering around the crease, and Gourde nearly whacked in the puck on the doorstep. Sergachev doesn’t have the facility in this stage of his career to snap a shot in stride from the off-slot, so using his space as a gateway to a rebound chance in the low-slot is as good an outcome as possible. Ninety percent of the time the crossover move seems to work, and if Sergachev uses that extra space to create a jam play for the players in front of the net, his assist total is going to increase.
The Lightning’s first two lines’ ability to forecheck is the single biggest question looming over this team
In case you haven’t noticed, the Lightning’s role players aren’t scoring a lot these days. Take the third line for example. Cirelli had zero goals in January. J.T. Miller’s January was truncated due to injury, but he scored three goals in December and January combined. After a torrid December, Alex Killorn only potted one goal in January. Therefore, since Lightning scoring is so dependent on the first two lines, it is essential that the Kucherov and Stamkos lines are able to score in different ways at even strength. And truth be told, the Kucherov line has struggled with their forecheck for quite some time and been far too reliant on the rush. That can’t happen come playoff time, because the neutral zone will get congested and teams will force the Lightning puck-carrier to dump-and-chase. The Kucherov line has to be able to forecheck well or the Tampa Bay is in trouble. Fortunately, there were moments in this game when you could sense things were going to turn, since indisputably the skill level is there for the Kucherov line.
Right before the first TV timeout in the second period, the Point line had a sequence where they made a series of good decisions. Point used Johnson as the conduit on a give-and-go through the neutral zone, and once Point carried the puck into the offensive zone, he fed Kucherov who ripped a shot on net. Point followed Kucherov’s shot attempt, and when the puck was funneled toward the left side, Tyler Johnson was there to seal the wall and block the pass into the neutral zone from New York’s Johnny Boychuk. Boychuk claimed the puck after the failed breakout attempt, but he was met with pressure from Point, and the second attempt to clear the zone was intercepted by Johnson, who swung the pass toward the right circle for a Kucherov one-timer.
The outcome didn’t result in a goal, but this line succeeded in ways that are important for them if they are going to influence games in the playoffs. Both times Kucherov touched the puck, he was in a scoring area and he didn’t waste time shooting it. Two attempts by the Islanders to exit the zone were denied. Point ferried the puck through the neutral zone, slipped it to Kucherov in the middle-to-high slot, and immediately drove through the middle, allowing Point to be by the net to attempt to retrieve the puck after it was whipped on net.
The Kucherov line did generate opportunities in transition in this game, but there was generally a catch. Point had a two-on-one early on when an Islanders’ miscue led to him toe-dragging around Ryan Pulock and nearly registering a goal in the low slot. There was also the three-on-two odd-man rush where Johnson fed Point in the low slot, forcing an outstanding pad save by Thomas Greiss. But there was context to consider. After 25 seconds in the Lightning’s defensive zone, Brock Nelson nearly deposited a goal in the low slot, but after the failed attempt, the Lightning were able to catch the Islanders three forwards deep and create a three-on-two opportunity.
Admittedly, I am conflating the rush and forecheck here. When I highlighted Point feeding Kucherov as a positive instance of the forecheck, it was a two-on-two entry where Point carried the puck in. That probably constitutes as a rush. But everything that happened after Kucherov shot the puck, from Point chasing after it to the good work by Point and Johnson along the left side, were actions that are part of a healthy forecheck. The Islanders had an opportunity to exit the zone and failed twice. This was enabled by the Lightning’s speed and puck support.
One reason it is so vital that the Point line find its mojo on the forecheck is because the Stamkos line is doing it at a very high level. Ondrej Palat was a beast last night. Stamkos was sealing the boards and was in the right spot as the shooter. Gourde was plucky and well positioned.
In last year’s conference finals, the Lightning relied far too heavily on Andre Vasilevskiy and were dominated by the Capitals in the territorial game and in shot attempts. As showcased last night, Vasilevskiy is up to the task of stealing a moment and a game. But the Lightning will continue to need to tweak, modify, and evaluate as offensive chances shrink and less space is available.