Wanna blog? Start your own hockey blog with My HockeyBuzz. Register for free today!

Blues' Support Worth Emulating

June 15, 2019, 5:20 PM ET [11 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Bruins will be haunted by Jordan Binnington for the next three and a half months. The St. Louis goaltender was spectacular in Game 7, making a few remarkable saves that ensured the Blues would never trail. St. Louis played a strong road game, and despite losing the shot attempts’ battle badly, they ended up with more High-Danger Scoring Chances and Scoring Chances than the Bruins. But it is the subtle stuff—the help on the weak side, the aptitude for a player putting the puck in an area where he or his teammate can get it, the strength below the circles—that really stood out.

The unifying characteristic that braids all of the above virtues together is support. The forwards supported the defensemen. The forwards supported their linemates. The defensive pair had a symbiosis. And everyone supported the goaltender. For the Lightning to win the Cup, they will need to support as well as the Blues did.

It was Patrick Maroon’s positioning that extended possession in the Bruins’ defensive zone on the Ryan O’Reilly goal. This all-important marker gave the Blues a lead they would never relinquish. Pietrangelo would chuck it deep and it was Maroon who was in position to receive the carom. While Maroon’s attempt to get the puck deep was denied, the Bruins failed to clear the puck from the zone. Instead Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester collected the puck and tossed it wide of Tuukka Rask into the corner for a one-on-one battle between O’Reilly and Torey Krug.

Maroon’s support off the weak side precipitated the forecheck, but it was the doggedness of O’Reilly and Sammy Blais that wore down the Bruins. The closest the Bruins got to thrusting the puck toward the space above the circles was when Blais hit Noel Acciari. Brandon Carlo had poked the puck toward the boards and off the goal line, but Blais demolished Acciari, failing to let the puck leave the lower half of the offensive zone. After the hit, Blais and O’Reilly worked a give-and-go below the goal line and moved the puck to Pietrangelo. O’Reilly glided toward the slot and dug in against the exhausted Carlo and got a piece of Bouwmeester’s shot.

The next two goals demonstrated the Blues’ ability to put the puck in an area where only the puck-carrier or his linemates could get it. With the Bruins hemming the Blues in their own end and less than a minute left in the first period, the Blues were finally able to exit the zone. Jaden Schwartz snatched the puck and dashed toward forward Brad Marchand, not defenseman Charlie McAvoy. But Marchand stepped up on Schwartz, missed him, and trudged toward the bench. Schwartz was able to sidestep Marchand by tossing a pass for himself off the boards, and as he went to retrieve it he faced pressure from McAvoy. But once Schwartz got there he saw he had support from Pietrangelo as the trailer, and Pietrangelo took the puck from his forehand to his backhand and shoveled it past Rask.

The Blues’ forecheck succeeded for four rounds because they thrived at indirect passes. Their puck placement dictated that even though they might not always reach the puck first, they would make it difficult for the opponent retrieving, and they would have support coming off the strong side and weak side. In this Game 7 sequence, the intense whiplash viewers experienced from thinking the game was going to be 1-1 at the first intermission to instead witnessing the lead balloon to 2-0 was startling. It was a two-goal swing, made off a zone exit after a long stretch of intense pressure by the opponent.

This sequence is indicative of how the Blues compensated for being the less talented team. They found advantages on the edges and in unlikely places. Instead of trying to survive against the Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak line, the Blues exploited sloppy transition defense. Instead of shying away from putting the puck deep against Krug, who is one of the shiftiest and most mobile defensemen in the NHL, the Blues trusted their forecheckers and support. Parting with the puck, whether by area pass or a well-placed dump-and-chase, was an animating force for St. Louis. The Blues exceled in the area below the circles, where there is often the most congestion. They weren’t running away from their opponents. They were running at them.

The same instinct to zag where others would zig was true on the third goal, the strike that sealed the game. After another siege by the Bergeron line, Schwartz carried the puck out of his zone and tossed it into a corner for Vladimir Tarasenko to retrieve. The transition defense for the Bruins was baggy, and Brayden Schenn found room between McAvoy and Pastrnak.

Again, the Blues didn’t have the numbers advantage. In fact, the Bruins outnumber them four to two below the circles in this sequence. And when Schwartz lobs the puck for an area pass, Tarasenko and McAvoy are at the same starting point. Tarasenko simply wins the race, there is a sloppy switch by McAvoy and Zdeno Chara, and so it goes.

The Lightning are more talented than the Blues. But in the postseason, for whatever reason, their F1 was often too slow to press the retriever, or didn’t have the necessary support if he did obtain possession. During the regular season the third line was the only line that could reliably forecheck, and when that faltered in the playoffs, the result was ugly. The Lightning were poor with puck placement when they were forced to chip it deep.

But it wasn’t just the F1. The F2 and F3 were sluggish in moving to their spot and failed to thwart the breakout. For as much continuity as they could show on the rush, their forecheck was balkanized, with the F3 sometimes coasting back, apathetic. And the Lightning were always too eager to get the puck to the point. Which was odd, because other than Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, none of their defensemen have much to offer offensively. The Lightning proved weak below the circles, and the Blue Jackets exposed that. The Lightning don’t need to become the Blues. But they do need to be able to execute like St. Louis. And as the Blues would attest, execution is spurred on by coaching.
Join the Discussion: » 11 Comments » Post New Comment
More from Sam Hitchcock
» Can the Bolts Beat the Sharks and Avoid Crisis?
» Lightning's Speed and Passing Return
» What I Liked and Disliked from the Bolts-Blues Game
» Lightning Defense Excels in Victory over Sabres
» Special Teams Propel Lightning Past Ducks