Lightning's Special Teams Spur Victory
A pass is an act of transference. And in the best moments of yesterday afternoon’s game against the New Jersey Devils, the Tampa Bay Lightning used this device to obtain separation. They used it on special teams and even strength, and it was both the conduit for jumping out to a 5-1 lead and the reason the game got closer in the final period.
The Lightning were the big winner on special teams. They scored two power-play goals, and the penalty kill allowed zero goals against. And it was the passing that stood out. A threatening power play desires a fluid entry, and Tampa Bay is fortunate to have Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov as capable puck-handlers to help gain the zone, with three forwards lined up along the blue line who can receive the pass and carry the puck over the blue line.
On Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy’s delay of game at the beginning of the second period, the Lightning needed entry on the Alex Killorn deflection goal, which was made possible by the fluidity of the entry. On the entry, Victor Hedman ran a give-and-go with Kucherov, and Kucherov tailed Hedman in case Hedman wanted to drop-pass it back to Kucherov on the delayed entry.
Instead, Hedman whipped it at Killorn on his right, and Killorn gained the zone. Hedman had several options on this, which is what made it so difficult for New Jersey’s penalty kill to defend. He could keep the puck, drop it to Kucherov, or pass it to one of his forwards along the blue line. This luxury of options is what makes the delayed entry the preferred choice among NHL teams.
Once the Lightning settled into their 1-3-1, Kucherov and Miller passed it back and forth, which eventually led to the Lightning challenging the Devils from the left side off a Steven Stamkos one-timer. But the shot missed the net, and the Law of Kucherov went into effect.
Be ready and don’t lose focus because Kucherov is always poised to put the puck on your stick.
Kucherov’s magnificent pass to Killorn in the middle slot off the errant Stamkos shot gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead.
On the second Killorn power-play goal, Hedman retrieved the puck as it was cleared out of the zone, and then ran a give-and-go with Killorn on the right blue line before Hedman gained the zone through the middle. The sequence would end with Killorn shoveling the puck into the net, but this triumph was enabled by Kucherov.
This is because Kucherov ran an interchange with Miller, and then Kucherov stretched the Devils forwards when he tossed the puck to Hedman at the point. This created space for Kucherov to unleash a one-timer on goaltender Keith Kinkaid when Hedman returned the puck. Kucherov directed the rebound toward Killorn in traffic, and, among the clutter of bodies, Killorn found pay dirt.
The Lightning’s penalty killers did a nice job winning races to the puck off of shot attempts and chucked the puck out of the zone when the opportunity was obtained. But at 5-2, when the ice started to tilt in the third period and Killorn went to the box for hooking, the Lightning killed 20 seconds off the power play thanks to a Cedric Paquette faceoff win. Once the Lightning won the draw, there was a nice bunny pass from Ryan McDonagh to Anton Stralman, who swung behind the net and cleared the puck from the zone before a Devils forward could converge on him. Part of the problem for the Lightning during the regular season had been over-passing in their own zone in a tight space, but the faceoff presents a golden opportunity to win the draw, execute a designed zone exit, and kill off one-sixth of the man advantage.
The Devils spent the most amount of time in the Lightning zone in the third period, and partially that was because Tampa Bay’s passes were either not connecting or were indirect. The Lightning had lapsed into prevent defense, content to chip the puck out of their zone and chase, and New Jersey’s forecheck was able to seize on the forfeiting of aggression.
But in the second period, and for much of the first, the Lightning moved the puck with pace. The first goal of the game, scored by Brayden Point, exploited the clunky decision-making by Devils defenseman Damon Severson as his defensive partner John Moore went to change and Andy Greene jumped on.
The scrambled defense caused a lacuna between New Jersey’s forward and defense; Tyler Hall and Nico Hischier were so aggressive in their pursuit in the neutral zone that it became almost 2-1-2 on the counter attack for Tampa Bay. Tyler Johnson recovered the puck in the neutral zone, and engaged a counterattack that let Point sail past any hope of resistance thanks to the Devils’ defensemen failure to cover the right side of the ice. Three Lightning skaters touched the puck before it got to Point, but it was distributed quickly to take advantage of Devils skaters who were gasping for air.
There were also parallels between Kucherov’s play that set up the second Killorn goal and the McDonagh shot-pass that triggered the Johnson deflection. The objective is to move the puck closer to the net, put it in an area, and have the final player who touches the puck drive it at net in a way that makes it as challenging as possible for the goaltender. If the Lightning continue to be faster at carrying the puck, chasing after the puck, and passing the puck, this series could be a sweep.