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How the Lightning Can Manipulate Space

September 11, 2019, 8:24 AM ET [5 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Playoff hockey is a battle for separation on the ice. With teams’ best players receiving more minutes and giving maximum effort, along with coaches scheming to the umpteenth degree, the ice becomes crowded. This is why being able to manipulate space is so important. The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup Final last year because they were proficient in bending plays to their desire. Conversely, the Bolts dramatically failed to influence events and found themselves ensnared in the maw of their enemy. I have been re-watching games from both squads, and two sequences stick out.

The Maple Leafs were winning 1-0 against Boston and had an offensive zone faceoff with 16:45 left in the second period. It was Game 3 of the first round with the series tied at one a piece. The Bruins’ Bergeron line had just left the ice after Mitch Marner neatly sliced through them and delivered a pretty pass to John Tavares at the bottom of the right circle. But Tavares failed to connect on the feed, leading to an offensive zone faceoff for the Leafs. With the David Krejci line on the ice against the Auston Matthews line, Krejci proceeded to win the faceoff clean to Torey Krug. But one reason Krejci easily won the draw was because Matthews got thrown out of the faceoff circle, so Andreas Johnsson took the faceoff instead. When Krejci won the draw and knocked the puck back to Krug, Matthews, who had lined up on the left hash mark, charged at Krug, but defenseman Brandon Carlo, who was on the right hash mark, ran a pick for Krug that opened up the lane on the left-side boards. By eliminating Matthews’s pressure, the pick allowed Krug to scurry up the ice along the left side and toss a nice outlet pass to Karson Kuhlman. In this embedded clip, the video starts with Krug completing the stretch pass to Kuhlman.

Kuhlman tries to carry the puck through Toronto defenseman Ron Hainsey and fails. But the momentum from the ambitious deke allows him to careen from Hainsey to Hainsey’s defensive partner Morgan Rielly as Kuhlman tries to retrieve his chip. Most importantly, he has carried the puck into the offensive zone and pinned it deep. Kuhlman’s dump-in proves successful. Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk reaches the puck first, attacks off the goal line, and Krejci is there to swat in the goal for the rebound.

In fifteen seconds, the Bruins managed to go from a defensive zone faceoff against the Matthews line to scoring a goal. The pick by Carlo to free Krug left the Maple Leafs forwards marooned in their own zone, and it gave the Bruins forwards a chance to win a two-on-two in the offensive zone. The Bruins forwards successfully exploit space by overloading on Rielly below the goal line. Kuhlman deserves bonus points for managing to bowl over both Hainsey and Rielly, opening up DeBrusk’s lane to the net off the goal line.

This is not to suggest that the Lightning never run picks. They do. But this sequence is noteworthy for its execution. Kuhlman puts himself in an area where he can catch the pass and attack. Krug receives the puck from the won faceoff, surges up the boards and smacks it through the middle. The pass handcuffs Kuhlman, but the Bruins forward adjusts his stick position and continues on his way.

Compare this sequence with one of the Lightning’s. In Game 4 against Columbus, trailing 1-0 in the game and 3-0 in the series, the Blue Jackets had a faceoff in the offensive zone on the right side. Like in the Bruins sequence against the Leafs, it led to a clean faceoff win by Cedric Paquette, but the Lightning had their defensemen on opposite hash marks. So instead of rushing to pick Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was standing opposite Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak retreated to the space behind the net for the pass. The puck went back to the boards, but veered right toward McDonagh’s side. McDonagh fought off the pressure from Bjorkstrand and chopped a pass to Cernak behind the net. But Cernak missed the pass. This led to the Blue Jackets gaining possession, and Pierre-Luc Dubiois getting behind McDonagh on the opportunity off the missed shot. The embedded video fails to show the faceoff mayhem, but it captures the unforgettable switch with Cernak and Mathieu Joseph that gave Dubois his opportunity off the carom.

One the most disturbing and indelible aspects of this play is that, after the faceoff is won by Tampa Bay, McDonagh is unable to skate away from Bjorkstrand. Instead of skating after the puck and trying to turn the corner around the net, he tries to shield Bjorkstrand from getting to the puck, thus delaying his own arrival. The Bruins’ best defensive group has several defensemen with the speed to turn the corner and create separation on breakouts, but McDonagh, who is paid like a high-end No. 2 defender, cannot skate way from the pressure, which affects his pass to Cernak. If that is Charlie McAvoy or Torey Krug, they are snatching that puck and turning the corner and either carrying the puck out of the zone or firing an outlet pass to their forwards. Victor Hedman’s prowess in this respect is not in dispute, but having other Lightning defensemen who can carry the puck away from pressure and exit the zone on their own accord is going to be an important subplot to follow this season.

Instead of manipulating space against Columbus, the Lightning found themselves consistently trapped in undesirable spots on the ice, where they proceeded to lose the one-on-one battles. Vis-à-vis matchups are easier to win for those who set the terms of engagement.

The Bruins don’t just expand space, they also shrink space for their opponents. Bruins’ defensemen will keep as tight a gap as their forward support will allow. For the Lightning, gaps were loose partly because Hedman was injured, but mostly because the transition defense was nonexistent. McDonagh and Cernak are at their best when they have license to be aggressive, but against Columbus they were consistently backpedaling and being forced to turn and retrieve the puck in their end. If the Lightning’s transition defense is not there, their defensemen are more circumspect with stepping up in the neutral zone and wary of confronting the puck-carrier on entries. Having support underneath understandably emboldens.

Hockey provides a canvas that gives life to an abstract concept like manipulating space. Even in the regular season, there is less urgency attached to the idea. The real achievement lies in being able to control your surroundings despite the repetition of playing the same opponent at least four times in a row come the playoffs. Starting next April, if the Lightning can carve out privacy with the puck and create favorable matchups, while jamming their opposition’s wishes to find room, the Bolts can accomplish what last season’s Bruins could not.
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