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What Can Be Learned from Last Night's Loss to Minnesota

January 17, 2020, 12:25 PM ET [1 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
One explanation for last night’s 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild is that the Lightning have won 11 of their last 12 games and were due for an underwhelming performance. But the Wild deserve credit. They forced turnovers on the Lightning’s breakout. They hemmed Tampa Bay in their own end and forced penalties, one of which led to a power play goal. The Lightning controlled the puck last night, finishing with the higher expected goals rate, but Minnesota kept tight gaps, and denied their adversary shooting and passing lanes in the scoring areas.

The stats reflected a commendable defensive effort by the Wild. Since December 1st, the Lightning have collected lower than 40 shot attempts only five other times. The Bolts posted seven high-danger chances, which ranks as the Bolts' 12th worst game in accrued high-danger chances. In my last article, where I discussed the Lightning’s victory over the Kings, I expressed concern about opponents preying on a Bolts defensive group that only has two mobile defensemen (Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev). The game against Minnesota unspooled different problems, like coverage away from the puck. Identifying the root causes of weaknesses is an important step toward overcoming them before postseason time. The Lightning never had the necessary moment of clarity about their forecheck last year and that cost them dearly in the playoffs.

Sloppy coverage away from the puck
If the Lightning defensemen are stepping up in the neutral zone or pinching in the offensive zone, their fellow forwards need to shield them over the top. Strong, vigorous back pressure from the forwards emboldens and empowers the Lightning defensemen. That didn’t happen last night. With under 16 minutes left in the second period, Jason Zucker was sprung for a breakaway because Hedman was caught deep in the slot and Kevin Shattenkirk was spread out along the left boards. This left the right side of the ice completely uncovered, as Cedric Paquette and Nikita Kucherov never rolled up high to cover the spot vacated by Hedman.

Still, as far as culpability, those two deserve less blame than Alex Killorn, who jumped on the ice to replace Ondrej Palat and instead of identifying that a wide swath of ice would be uncovered if he chased the puck, decided to swarm the puck. Zucker flew the zone and there was no Lightning forward in position to challenge him or even rush his shot delivery.

Two minutes later, with just 14 minutes left in the second frame, Mikko Koivu got an opportunity in the slot because Tyler Johnson, Anthony Cirelli, and Steven Stamkos were gliding around the top of the neutral zone during a Wild regroup. But when the puck got behind them, suddenly there was a three-on-two for the Wild. The player who seems to have lost his direction is Stamkos, who was hovering around Jared Spurgeon along the right-side boards – even though McDonagh was tracking him – while Koviu traipsed through the middle unchecked. Stamkos’s failure to recognize where the threat was coming from nearly cost the Lightning a goal.

On the Joel Eriksson Ek goal, yes, Palat made a bad turnover along the boards, and he was the one the NBC Sports analysts focused on as the scapegoat during intermission. But frankly, turnovers on the breakout are an inevitable part of hockey. It was a dumb play, but it was the response to the giveaway that was troubling. Once Palat coughed up the puck, Jan Rutta stepped up and tied up Luke Kunin—but neither Brayden Point nor Kucherov picked up Eriksson Ek, who coasted into the slot and was able to receive a pass that he could whack past Curtis McElhinney. Both Point and Kucherov were puck-watching instead of taking away the most dangerous threat, which is the man cutting to a scoring area without the puck.

The Eriksson Ek goal was not the only time the Lightning’s spacing and defensive coverage were victimized. After Ryan Suter made it 3-1 with under five minutes left in the second period, McDonagh committed a turnover on the Tampa Bay breakout. This led to Zach Parise controlling the puck below the goal line and the Bolts becoming disoriented. As Parise lugged the puck toward Mats Zuccarello, four Bolts skaters converged on the puck. This left Eric Staal wide open, and he was able to walk out from below the goal line and nearly deposit the puck past McElhinney.

The Lightning recently finished a 10-game win streak and, unless something truly devastating happens, a playoff berth seems assured. But little gaffes and miscues like those last night are significant because they underscore where things could go wrong in the playoffs. The Lightning can forecheck now, and that is paramount for them to win the Cup. But unless they tidy up things in their own end, they will still be left with an unpleasant end to their season.
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