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Lessons the Bolts Can Learn from Canes

May 5, 2019, 11:00 AM ET [6 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
To win in the playoffs, a mixture of talent and technique is needed. When the Blue Jackets throttled the Lightning in round one, they fused talent and technique nicely, while in hindsight it is obvious that the Lightning thought they could coast to the Cup final on talent alone. But that is not how the NHL playoffs work, as the Carolina Hurricanes are proving.

Carolina just advanced to the conference finals by toppling the defending champion Capitals, before hastily dismissing the New York Islanders. They accomplished this feat mostly with technique, relying on skill in opportune moments. For the Lightning organization, watching them should be mandatory viewing. Here are a few lessons from the Hurricanes’ success that have applicability to the Lightning.

Patience is a virtue
The Lightning don’t want to ape all of the Hurricanes’ tendencies, but one aspect that is worthy of adopting is their patience. Due to the Lightning’s reliance on the rush, they would try to execute their breakout at a breakneck pace. The result was turnovers by the Lightning defenseman who was retrieving and missed passes to the outlets. Even if the initial attempt failed, Tampa Bay was determined to direct pass it out of the zone. The eagerness of the Lightning forwards to exit the zone saw them creeping toward the area above the circles, and they allowed the forechecking opponent to get several men between them and their fellow defensemen.

There is no line of demarcation with the Hurricanes. The breakout is a collective effort as multiple forwards sink low in the defensive zone to help the defensemen. There is no trepidation about punting the puck out of the zone indirectly. If the Hurricanes direct pass it out of the zone, the breakout can look sluggish, and generally leads to their chucking it deep for a dump-and-chase opportunity. But their patience, and commitment to keeping the area around their net tidy before voyaging onward, has served the Hurricanes well.

For four games, the Lightning could not solve the Blue Jackets’ forecheck. The Tampa Bay defensemen were struggling on their retrievals and first passes, which eventually led to the Lightning forwards sinking lower for support. But Columbus still managed to shatter any cohesiveness on their breakouts. The Lightning never seemed comfortable with the idea of indirect passing the puck out of the zone, and the reason for this is because their offense was non-existent without the rush.

The role of the defenseman as an aggressor
In countless articles, I lauded the Lightning for their aggression. They would have a defenseman creep low in the offensive zone giving them four skaters deep. In the offensive zone and neutral zone, Tampa Bay’s defensemen could step up and be confrontational, stemming the opponent’s transition. But what is so fascinating about watching the Hurricanes is how differently they manage their defensemen.

Yes, the Hurricanes use their defensemen as playmakers; they even act as the fulcrum of the offense at moments. But they don’t pinch recklessly in the offensive zone unless they are positive they have support underneath. They won’t step up in the neutral zone unless there are forwards sprinting back through the middle. If the Hurricanes surrender an odd-man rush, it is generally because of a wonky pass, not because of a poor judgment made without the puck.

For as many times as Mikhail Sergachev or Ryan McDonagh got caught stepping up with no transition defense to speak of from the Lightning forwards, watching the Hurricanes is a tutorial in hockey discipline. The Lightning didn’t need to score four or five goals a game in the postseason. But they did need to expend energy providing support to their defenseman as they tried to maintain territorial advantage with a pinch or curb a rush through the neutral zone. Puck management is fallible, but positional awareness can be improved.

The off-slot is your friend and shoot early
The Hurricanes were darlings of the analytics community this season and it is easy to see why. They pepper the net with shots and are happy to take shots from the off-slot as a way to initiate the forecheck. Against the Capitals, the Hurricanes finished with a +118 Corsi Plus-Minus at 5v5 after the seven-game series. Washington had the talent advantage, but Carolina never turned down a shooting opportunity. To wit, it was Brock McGinn’s deflection in double overtime off Justin Williams’s turnaround shot at the net from nearly the goal line that ended the series. The Hurricanes understand the many benefits of getting pucks to the net. Sometimes there is a deflection. Maybe the shot is blocked or there is a rebound, and a much closer attempt is unlocked.

The Lightning were the opposite. They could eke by with their special teams and heroic goaltending in the regular season, but the idealism imbued with passing up shooting opportunities and passing the puck laterally in transition doomed them in the postseason. How many times did Brayden Point enter the offensive zone with speed, but then, instead of whipping the puck on the net, he would button-hook and look to pass it back to the defenseman? On entries, instead of shooting the puck from above the circles, the Lightning would try to move it east-west. The playoffs calls for simplifying. Shoot quickly, retrieve the puck, wear the opponent out. Hopefully, the Lightning are watching Carolina.
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