Revamping the Bolts' Power Play
The Sharks are now angling to play the Bruins in the Cup finals in large part because both teams have been buoyed at key times by their power plays. Any arrogance the Lightning had has hopefully been punctured after getting waxed by the Blue Jackets. No area of their game is beneath tinkering. Everything can be improved—even their power play. The Lightning clearly see themselves advancing farther next season, and how their power-play units perform will be crucial.
The Lightning power play was so dominant during the regular season that for a stretch of time it hovered around 30 percent. And then the playoffs happened. The Columbus Blue Jackets limited the Lightning to six man-advantage opportunities in the series, and the Bolts only strike came in Game 4.
It would be an exaggeration to say the Lightning’s power play was stymied. In Game 1, Tampa Bay had bad puck luck on the power play, and Sergei Bobrovsky also made a fantastic save on Nikita Kucherov that proved to be an inflection point in the series. If that shot from Kucherov went in the Lightning would have scored at a 33 percent clip. Rather, it was the lack of power-play opportunities that was revealing and an obvious byproduct of Tampa Bay chasing the puck most of the series. When you never have possession, it is hard to draw penalties. Here are a few suggestions for next season.
The net-front presence
Ondrej Palat should never play first unit power play again. He can’t score. He isn’t a good playmaker. He isn’t a skilled retriever. Whatever offensive skill he used to have has evaporated. The other net-front forward the Lightning liked to use was J.T. Miller. Miller is a decent passer who can handle the puck and retrieve. But he didn’t present any scoring threats last year in terms of deflections or attacking off the goal line. The obvious player to assume this role is Anthony Cirelli.
The Lightning power play relies on the passing of Victor Hedman, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, as well as the velocity of Kucherov and Stamkos’s shots to unlock an abundance of goals. But if the shooter’s shot is stopped after the initial blast, Cirelli, perched on the goal line, can stuff it in. He can also screen for shots down the middle from Hedman and Brayden Point.
But Cirelli’s most useful skill in terms of enhancing the power play is his masterful retrieving ability. He is the best player on the Lightning at winning possession on 50-50 pucks. This is extremely useful for shots that miss the net and need to be obtained in order for the Lightning to keep possession. If Tampa Bay has to chip and chase because they are stalled at the blue line on the entry, Cirelli has the gumption to hunt down the puck and collect it.
Finally, Cirelli shines under duress. He deflects shots well, which would be welcome because Palat and Miller were rarely able to affect shots on their path to the net. Cirellli can also be a passer in that tight space in the low slot. One play that could work is having Cirelli flash out a few feet above the crease and then have him back-pass to a crashing Stamkos on the backdoor, or have Point dive in from the bumper. Last year, Miller could facilitate, but the action was stilted and too many players were idle. There was certainly no quickly designed action.
Use more motion
The mastery of the Lightning’s power play was always the precise placement of shots coupled with a quick release from Kucherov, Point, and Stamkos. The passing was also brilliant. But what the Lightning should definitely think about incorporating next season is moving their chess pieces around, so they have a different look. Mutability matters, especially if the Lightning can make a deep postseason run next year.
One action I would love to see is having Cirelli as the net-front presence attacking off the goal line, trying to jam it off the goaltender’s far pad. Seconds before the jam play, Stamkos and Hedman can run an interchange; that way, Hedman can slug the puck in on his forehand as he comes swooping down, instead of Stamkos getting potentially handcuffed on the backdoor.
Or what about a Point and Cirelli switch so that Point is the screener and Cirelli is whacking a turnaround shot as the bumper? Maybe Cirelli jumps up to the bumper and then kicks it back out to Kucherov or Stamkos? Why not move the puck below the goal line and have Point or Cirelli pass it back and forth with Kucherov or Stamkos ready for the one-timer pass? There is a lot of creative action that can be run, and Tampa Bay would be wise to utilize it.
Steal from your peers
Watching Boston dismantle Carolina on the power play demonstrates the influence special teams can have in the postseason. Personally, it makes me wonder how the Lightning would look if they adopted similar tactics: Why is Point not barreling down the right side and shot-passing it to Kucherov off the rush?
The Lightning rarely have their shooters on the power play aiming for a deflection, and unlike the second power-play goal notched by Patrice Bergeron in last night’s series-winning game, any disruption to the player leading the entry leads to an easy punt of the puck from the zone. (The Bruins had David Pastrnak attack off the rush, and Bergeron was well placed to scoop up the poke-check and keep the puck in Boston’s possession, leading to his goal from the slot.)
Maybe the Lightning prefer to use their entries as a means to establish territorial advantage and are reluctant to engage in the chaotic nature of attacking off the rush with the man advantage. The Bolts would still be wise to use their second unit as a laboratory for ideas they want to incorporate and need to see played out in a game setting.
The truth is the Lightning’s first power-play unit was so brilliant it masked the mediocrity of the second unit. But again, if Miller, Yanni Gourde, Mikhail Sergachev, and Tyler Johnson are locks to play on it, the problem lies more in the design then the players. There is a lot of talent in that foursome. Have Sergachev slide down the wall and shot-pass to Gourde or Miller as the bumper. Put Mathieu Joseph as the puck-handler on the entry in the Pastrnak role and let him attack, and maybe have Miller in Bergeron’s role, ready to pounce if the puck is dislodged.
And if it seems foolish to have the Bruins’ first unit as a template, the Lightning can crib from the Bruins’ second unit too. When the Hurricanes, in the third period of Game 1, committed consecutive undisciplined penalties, the Bruins used their power plays as the catalyst to steal the game,
On the Marcus Johansson goal, the Bruins’ overloaded on the left side, only to have Brad Marchand whack the puck through an unobstructed shooting lane from the weak side. Marchand’s shot was hammered, but most importantly it was on net, so Johansson and Charlie Coyle, who were plopped into the low slot, were in position to make a play on it.
In hockey, nothing is ever as good as it seems. You can always nitpick. Improvements can always be found. The Lightning have the pieces to have a world-class power play again. But more originality and motion will prevent them from faltering at the wrong time.