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Lightning Offense Erupts in 5-4 Victory over Pens

February 10, 2019, 1:25 PM ET [4 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Last night, the Lightning struck five times, allowing them to defeat the pesky Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4. Most importantly, they performed well in areas where they have been flagging.

Remember the full-throated complaining aired in this space about overpassing and holding onto the puck too long? The Erik Cernak goal was a terrific display of the virtues of shooting early and often, as his long-distance one-timer deflected off Patric Hornqvist’s skate en route to the net. Every single period, the Lightning collected more shot attempts than the Penguins.

There has definitely been whining by this scribe about the inconsistent forecheck and lack of impactful cycle outside of the Yanni Gourde-Steven Stamkos-Ondrej Palat line. Yet last night, the Lightning pressured well with the F1, and the F2 and F3 were well positioned to make a play to deny the opponent’s first pass or cut to space. The game-winning goal by J.T. Miller came off some terrific work on the cycle.

When Brayden Point was with Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson, that line’s success on the forecheck and cycle was inconsistent at best. But to start the game, Point and Johnson started with Gourde. Together, these three forwards accrued 9 Scoring Chances while only surrendering 5. Kucherov is such a force of nature, that Point and Johnson are more servile to him than is always in their best interests as far as maximizing their efficacy. When the rush is working, things can look great. But everything runs through Kucherov, and at his pace. When it is Point, Johnson, and Gourde, the power structure is more level. The distribution of responsibilities is more egalitarian. The credo: Move the puck and move yourself.

The third line of Miller, Anthony Cirelli, and Alex Killorn also exceled on the forecheck and cycle, which helped them finish with a +4 in Scoring Chances plus-minus. Palat’s line did not fare well in influencing possession, but individually he was very good. He was terrific in puck pursuit and creating turnovers, and he had a delightful pass to Johnson for the Lightning’s fourth goal.

What was also significant was how the Penguins shadowed Kucherov. Smart teams will devise ways to take away the influence of the NHL’s leading scorer, which is why the Lightning’s secondary scoring in this contest offered so much hope. The Lightning potted five goals, none of which came on the power play. One goal was contributed by a defenseman and one was while shorthanded. Johnson snapped his long goalless spell. One area where the Lightning have been very subtly dangerous is on their neutral-zone regroups, and Ryan McDonagh has been prominent in this dimension with his shifty button-hook to shed his pursuer and then head-man the puck. But make no mistake, it is not just McDonagh who is flourishing in this situation. The Lightning defensemen are communicating very well with the forwards when they are trying to regroup and march back into the offensive zone.

But last night was not all candy canes and bonbons. The goals tallied by the Penguins highlighted areas where the Lightning continue to struggle. Tampa Bay is comfortable exiting the zone through the middle or up the boards, and like most teams wants to move the puck out of the defensive zone through direct passes. The issue isn’t so much the turnovers, which are an inevitable outcome in a long hockey game, but rather how the Lightning players react to the players without the puck. Before the first TV time-out of the first period, Sidney Crosby created a turnover below the goal line and found Marcus Pettersson who slipped the puck into the slot to Bryan Rust. Fortunately, Andre Vasilevskiy is an awesome goaltender and stopped the Rust shot, but it was a prime scoring chance surrendered and could have been avoided. Cirelli was slow to close out on Pettersson at the point, and Killorn moved late to try to eliminate space for Rust.

When Rust scored on the four-on-four in the second period, Jake Guentzel was able to scoot around below the goal line and feed the puck through the crease to Rust. Even though Victor Hedman was beside Rust, the former Norris Trophy winner failed to tie up his stick.

But not every breakout miscue is the result of slackened defensive coverage off the puck. On the Tanner Pearson snipe, Girardi had Crosby strip him, and, well, that is just a Girardi blunder. The rapid-fire strip-and-dish from Crosby to Pearson made it unreasonable to think the Lightning skaters off the puck were slow to react.

A balance needs to be struck. The Lightning forwards want to create room for themselves as passing targets, but if their defenseman retrieving the puck is in danger, they need to react faster and move closer to hugging his Pittsburgh counterpart. Mitigating the danger of losing a Penguins skater cutting off the puck might lead to a slower Lightning breakout, and it might take multiple attempts to exit the zone, but that does not immediately doom the Lightning’s potency in transition. After all, the Johnson goal came off a breakout that failed and sputtered and was transported very slowly into the neutral zone. The Lightning were able to pass the puck through Penguins coverage because they had three forwards moving at the same speed and a defenseman driving the middle to help open the seam.

The Lightning want to embrace contradictory styles of play. They want to have finesse, but also be able to drive you into the ice. They want to play fast, but also be able to score when things slow down. They want to be able to outscore their opponent and win a game 1-0. They want their identity to be fluid. And they are right. Adaption is the skeleton key to postseason success.
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