Lightning Offense, Where Art Thou?
When Andre Vasilevskiy reached out and flopped his arms in a last-ditch effort to stymie Brayden Schenn in the first period, it evoked memories of the great Dominik Hasek. But as magnificent as the save was, the preceding 55 seconds were horrifying. Tyler Johnson, Ryan McDonagh, and Brayden Point all had possession to clear the zone. But they tried to chip or direct pass it to teammates, which led to the St Louis Blues forcing a turnover and gaining more offensive zone time for their Ryan O’Relly line.
Tampa Bay’s offense has stalled to such a dramatic extent that I received a post-game text from my father asking what happened to the Lightning’s offense? In four games in February, Tampa Bay has been shutout twice in regulation and overtime, mustering only five goals combined against Vegas and New York. What follows are three reasons for the offensive drought.
Last night against the Blues, the Lightning’s biggest advantage was their speed. Tampa Bay has so much depth at forward that even their fourth line can push a defense back with its acceleration. But early in the first period, Adam Erne tore through the neutral zone and missed on a backhand pass in the offensive zone. What ensued shows the danger of overpassing, especially in transition. The Blues caught all three forwards deep, and St. Louis’s off-the-puck forward was able to beat Mikhail Sergachev (who had jumped into the rush) to the deep slot, thereby accruing a grade-A scoring chance.
There were also instances of overpassing that were just foolish. The Kucherov line had multiple odd-man rushes where instead of shooting from the fringes of the slot or the circles, the puck-carrier U-turned and tried to find the trailer. Strip away the context, and the act of passing in this situation seems ridiculous. The best offensive Lightning forwards are bypassing a shot from close so they can pass to defensemen who are further away and who are mostly deficient in terms of long-range shooting and attacking off the puck.
Additionally, those trailing defensemen often have back pressure they need to account for, and when they control possession and strike the puck, the opposition is able to step up and block their shots. The Kucherov line is at its best offensively when it has time and space. It is at its weakest when cycling on the perimeter and letting the opponent in its defensive posture protect the middle. More succinctly, the Lightning have opportunities when the opposition is out of position, and by overpassing allow the opponent to recover into a defensive shell.
Finally, overpassing last night also afflicted the power play, which has been a savior for the Lightning in times of even-strength scoring woes.
The Breakout is suffering
Credit to the Blues for managing the puck well between the neutral zone and when they crossed the blue line into the offensive zone. They moved the puck well on direct and area passes, which caused fits for the Lightning defensemen and centers, who struggled to defend the Blues with the puck and without. It is well known that the Lightning want their wingers with one foot in the neutral zone, and would prefer not to have them sink deep. But when the Tampa Bay defensemen and center are losing too many races and puck battles below the goal line and just above it, the wingers sag lower. Opponents understand that the best way to slow the Lightning down is to make them defend, and that mandates a dogged cycle.
One antidote for an ailing breakout is for the Lightning to get the puck off their stick quicker. This necessitates them winning the race and battle for puck retrieval, but where the Tampa Bay defense gets into trouble is when they are indecisive. When a defenseman is about to take possession, he needs to have an idea of where he wants to put the puck and then read the play. In the last handful of games, the Lightning defensemen are too slow to react and make their progressions, and their vacillating allows the forechecker to disrupt the first pass.
The only line that forechecked with any consistency is the Stamkos line
Vasilevskiy’s spectacular saves surely awarded the Lightning a point they may not have deserved, but there is an alternate scenario where Tampa Bay comes away with a 1-0 or 2-0 win and that is off of Yanni Gourde’s stick. Gourde was a dynamo on the penalty kill and deserves plaudits for that, and his line was once again very effective creating turnovers in the Blues’ end and getting the puck to the net. If Gourde was finishing around the net like he did last year, he could have potted one or two goals last night. The Stamkos line was really the sole bright spot aside from Vasilevskiy. It manufactured 10 Scoring Chances at 5v5 while only conceding 1, per naturalstattrick.com.
Once again, the Kucherov line was one-dimensional. They were able to threaten when they had the puck on the rush—before they passed themselves out of position or out of possession—but on the forecheck they were slow to pressure, badly positioned, and unable to force turnovers and generate offense out of it. Considering the speed of the forwards, it is a curious thing, and possibly a symptom of ennui and/or conservation of energy. Playing in the corners is bruising and hard work, and the season can be a slog. But if this line can be stifled by opponents’ forwards’ back pressure and their defensemen stepping up and forcing the chip-and-chase at the blue line, the Lightning are in trouble.
Anthony Cirelli led the Lightning in 5v5 Scoring Chances and shot attempts, yet one still came away perturbed by his line. If the Kucherov line is too rush-centric, the Cirelli line is the opposite; they seem to possess virtually no ability to attack off the rush whatsoever. Therefore, they better be dominant on the forecheck to establish value, and in this area, they are wanting. After all, as a line they only generated 11 shot attempts, which was far worse than the Stamkos and Kucherov lines. They also had a worse Corsi plus-minus than the first two lines.
I think coach Jon Cooper needs to blow up the lines. Put Kucherov with Stamkos. Take a hammer to the third line. Make Point the fulcrum of his own line with two speedy, feisty wingers. In fact, the defensive corps might need to be scrambled too because the Sergachev and Braydon Coburn pairing was dreadful against St. Louis. It is the dog days of the season so the Lightning might as well experiment with line combinations and see if they can find chemistry.