The speed, the scoring, the big names, and the staggering stats. The Lightning are viewed as an offensive juggernaut whose talent is so overwhelming it has led them to 61 wins. But without Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay is a different team. Last night, the Lightning defensive group took a minimalist approach against the Maple Leafs and it worked brilliantly to the effect of a 3-1 win.
So, in practice, what does a minimalist approach mean? It means there was a clearer line of demarcation between the Lightning forwards and defensemen. Mikhail Sergachev was not functioning in the role of playmaker and attempting to slice through the middle of the neutral zone. Ryan McDonagh was not leading entries or positioning himself below the goal line. There was far less roving from the more offensively inclined Lightning defensemen. Instead, Tampa Bay’s defensive group focused on collaborating with the forwards on breakouts, keeping tight gaps, stepping up in the neutral zone when they had forward support, sliding up the boards for pinches, and pounding shots on net from the point.
Tampa Bay reminded me of the Pittsburgh 2016-17 Penguins’ Cup team that thrived without Kris Letang. They relied on their forward group to act as a python, squeezing the life out of opponents with their offensive zone pressure; if the defensemen could check a few boxes (like the aforementioned pinching and shooting from the point) it put the onus back on the forwards to win the game. In essence, the Lightning defensive group succeeded at not losing the game. For the first two periods, the Lightning generated more Scoring Chances at 5v5, and that was in large part because of their extensive offensive-zone time.
The likes of Braydon Coburn, Sergachev, and Jan Rutta were playing against Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares and did not bristle. Surely, their confidence is elevated when the Lightning have a vigorous transition defense and empower their defensemen to step up and be aggressive. Predatory behavior in the neutral zone helps the Lightning bottle up the Toronto rush and force turnovers. And, lo and behold, the game-winner resulted from just such a tactic.
With less than six minutes left in the third period, Toronto’s Frederik Gauthier carried the puck out of the defensive zone and hurled it in the direction of Tyler Ennis. But it was a poor pass, thanks to suffocating back pressure from Mathieu Joseph, and Sergachev who stepped up to intercept the pass. He quickly dished it to Alex Killorn, who worked a pretty give-and-go with Steven Stamkos, which Killorn slapped into the net.
The Tampa Bay defensive group wasn’t perfect. There was the McDonagh turnover that led to the Marner goal. At first, this seemed like a soft goal by Andre Vasilevskiy, but ultimately it could be chalked up to Marner getting a free whack from the low slot. McDonagh was indecisive about where to move the puck at the blue line, and the error proved costly due to who was on the ice. All decision-making must take context into account. If it was the Maple Leafs’ third or fourth line on the ice, I think attempting that D-to-D pass is forgivable. But against Marner, it is unacceptable. Challenging the most dangerous Maple Leafs forward forced Erik Cernak into a retrieval situation against Marner, which propelled Marner to win the puck battle and lead the Maple Leafs to a counterattack.
One area where the Lightning were vulnerable was the rush. In the opening shift of the second period, Cernak charged up the ice with the puck and attempted to chuck it deep. Instead, he was caught in a collision in the neutral zone with Patrick Marleau that left Cernak sprawling on the ice. The puck did not go deep, and the Maple Leafs regrouped in the neutral with a pass to Matthews. Matthews powered the puck toward the right side (from the Lightning’s vantage point), which Cernak usually occupies, but deputizing for him was Steven Stamkos. Matthews easily waltzed to the inside slot and whipped a shot over the crossbar. (This mirrored when Matthews walked around Point when he was filling in on defense in the March 11th contest.)
It was interesting that, even though Sergachev did commit one penalty on Marner, it was a tripping penalty. In his own zone, Sergachev was able to ramp up his physicality and not be punished for it. The game drew only a few penalties, and the Lightning, who have a propensity to put their opponent on the power play, were able to maul the Maple Leafs’ puck-carriers without consequences. (Similarly, Toronto definitely took liberties with the Lightning puck-carriers.) This might signal the altered standard of officiating in the NHL playoffs, or it may be an aberrant evening, some late season noise. Of course, if the standards are changing, that cuts both ways for the Lightning. They have the best power play in the NHL, so less man-advantage opportunities, especially when Hedman is back, will hurt them.
The two best forwards for the Lightning last night were Brayden Point and Stamkos. They not only were influential at creating scoring chances and transporting the puck, but also were sinking low in support and helping the defensemen muffle the Maple Leafs’ offensive attack. The Lightning are recalibrating for playoff hockey, and while the lineup is not clear, the style of play has been showcased.