Three Objectives in a Bolts-Islanders Matchup
The Lightning reportedly don’t like it, but the NHL seems poised to implement the conference-based “play-in” proposal. The format has a whiff of the NCAA tournament bracket combined with the gloss of the NFL playoffs. Like the National Football League, there is the pretext of rewarding the best teams with byes, but like the NCAA tourney, the underlying possibility of chaos is baked into expanding the field. That is to say, it is an atypically creative idea for a league that can be exasperatingly myopic. Under this proposal, 24 teams would enter the playoffs, and Tampa Bay would play the winner of the New York Islanders-Florida Panthers matchup.
In four games against the Panthers, the Lightning won three, including a 6-1 trouncing in their last meeting on December 23rd. While the Cats are arguably more talented than the Islanders, the Panthers oddly are always less than the sum of their parts. Even the hiring of coach Joel Quenneville has not imposed the type of order and consistency one would expect when watching the skill that pervades the roster. The Islanders on the other hand would present a formidable challenge. Disciplined and physical, if the Isles emerge from the play-in matchup, the Bolts will have a formidable first-round opponent. And so, here are a few things to consider if New York advances.
The Islanders are excellent at staying in front of the puck, so the Lightning need to get behind them.
After losing their first two games against the Islanders, the Lightning triumphed 3-1 on February 8th. As always, New York managed to install layers of bodies in the shooting lanes, creating a host of blocked shots. But the Lightning recognized a crack in the Islanders’ bulwark; at opportune times they could get forwards behind the New York defensemen.
In the second period, Steven Stamkos had a two-on-one with Patrick Maroon because a New York forward didn’t cover over the top when his near-side defenseman pinched. On the Brayden Point goal, a Ryan Pulock slap shot that went wide of the far post allowed for Point to fly the zone, and Nikita Kucherov’s passed helped exploit that gap in coverage.
There were other examples of Tampa Bay trying to test the mobility of the New York defensemen. Coming out of the first TV timeout in the second period, the Islanders launched a soft shot from the point. This caused Tyler Johnson to sprint out of the zone where Kevin Shattenkirk, having just blocked the shot, tried to connect with him on a stretch pass to open up the breakaway.
Keep it simple
One defenseman who struggled in the Bolts’ last meeting against the Islanders was Mikhail Sergachev. Tampa Bay was playing without Ryan McDonagh, and logically Sergachev would go on to log 20 minutes in the game to help eat up minutes in No. 27’s absence. But the Islanders had success disrupting Sergachev on retrievals in his own end.
The Islanders have active sticks and close well on the forecheck, so, in future meetings, Sergachev should try to simplify on breakouts. As soon as he makes his read, he should try to make the pass, rather than carry the puck and evaluate his options. Against the Islanders, puck management and controlling the territorial game will be consequential. Sergachev has the speed to arrive at the puck first, and he has greatly improved his decision-making. In the offensive zone, with the Lightning forwards alert to provide vigorous back pressure, Sergachev may have the latitude to improvise with the puck and try to create room from the point. But on zone exits, a frictionless breakout where he retrieves and quickly finds the outlets will assure that Tampa Bay asserts consistent pressure.
Offensively, that same KISS (keep it simple stupid) mindset can be applied to shot attempts. Erik Cernak led the Lightning with nine shot attempts in that February matchup and his biggest contribution was recognizing that the puck needed to leave his stick quickly. Lightning defensemen who held the puck and tried to open up a shooting lane found themselves trapped in New York’s shot-blocking prowess and the Barry Trotz vise. Not all of Cernak’s shots had much power or accuracy, but this point is irrelevant. By prioritizing a shot with a zippy release over one with power and efficiency, Cernak proved to be a vector for offense from the back end.
One final important Cernak tidbit is that the young Lightning rearguard had perhaps the best scoring chance of any Tampa Bay defenseman at the end of the second frame when Anthony Beauvillier dropped his stick. Cernak exposed a saggy New York transition defense, as Steven Stamkos pulled up during the rush and found Cernak on the weak side, virtually uncovered in the second wave. The Islanders are tight-checking when they are defending on the cycle and on most entries, but by pushing the pace, the Lightning can force them off-kilter.
The final incarnation of this childish motto is evident in the Carter Verhaeghe goal.
Attacking off the goal line, the depth forward buried a shot from the fringes of the crease. The Islanders are schooled to block everything that comes from the slot and the edges of the off slot, which is why the Lightning need to pounce from sharp angles where there is less protection. There were other examples besides Verhaeghe, by Anthony Cirelli and Point, for example, where both forwards emerged from behind the goal line and turned around to whip a shot on net.
The Lightning want to test Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov from all angles. Since the Islanders are without defenseman Adam Pelech, the Lightning have an opportunity to expose a vulnerable defensive group in one-on-ones around the net should Varlamov allow a rebound. Most importantly, off-slot shots prevent a shot block that leads to an Islanders’ transition and keep the Bolts on the offensive.
Lean into the Lightning’s new identity
When the Lightning lost to the Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019-20 postseason, two prominent factors accelerated their demise. The first was that they couldn’t forecheck to save their hide. The second was that the Tampa Bay forwards completely abdicated all defensive responsibility until it was too late.
What is striking about revisiting the Lightning’s last meeting with New York is the volte-face from the Bolts. Tampa Bay allowed four high-danger chances at 5v5. They finished with 26 shots to the Isles’ 14. The Lightning finished with a 58.8 expected goals percentage. And that is largely because they were consistent in their forecheck, demonstrating constant pressure on the Islanders’ defensemen and forwards and able to continually obtain possession and establish the cycle. And when they lost the puck, Tampa Bay’s forwards raced back, disrupting the Islanders’ passes and choking off chances on their entries. The pinnacle of defensive effort by the Bolts’ forwards was Cirelli’s outstanding backcheck to quash Mathew Barzal’s breakaway. Tampa Bay played Luke Schenn and Braydon Coburn and the forward transition defense was so good that those two liabilities didn’t matter.
If this format comes to fruition and the Lightning play the Islanders in the second leg of the first round, it will be a highly competitive series, albeit with low scoring. New York doesn’t concede much, so accountability and seizing on sporadic chances are going to be what decides the series. With the newfangled playoffs looming, we can only hope we get to see this materialize.