There is a blueprint for beating the Lightning. What the Edmonton Oilers executed last night, when they lost to the Lightning 5-2, certainly wasn’t it. To be fair, Edmonton was playing on the second night of a back-to-back, but the defensive coverage in their own zone was unacceptable. The Oilers were too bumbling (Kris Russell) and slow to react when the puck was in front of them (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins). Tampa Bay was able to coast to victory despite a handful of errors that Andrei Vasilevskiy neutralized in the first half to prevent a close contest. It goes to show what a significant margin of error the Lightning have. Tampa Bay is a juggernaut, but if it examines its vulnerabilities, it can understand what areas need improvement.
First, savvy opponents will want to hamper the Lightning’s speed advantage. Easier said than done you might say, but there are a couple of ways they could pursue this goal. An opponent would step up on the Lightning’s entries and force the puck-carrier to chip and chase and create offense off the forecheck. The gaps last night were so cavernous you could hear an echo, and Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos exploited that deficiency.
But the mission of stalling the Lightning’s speed should happen even before the entry. The opponent would need to have one or two forwards at the far blue on regroups, whose objective is to deny the curl and handoff to Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Kucherov, and J.T. Miller. When those forwards have the opportunity to explode through the middle carrying the puck and with speed, the opposition inevitably struggles to contain them. Why any opponent would allow the Lightning to run curls to those dynamos is preposterous to me, even when acting to prevent it would mean having fewer men near the opposing goal line. Therefore, the Lightning need to get comfortable having that avenue thwarted, because a smart team will deny them that lever of power.
When the Lightning’s supreme puck-handlers are denied access to the puck, this inevitably allows time and space for Yanni Gourde and Steven Stamkos, or for the defenseman to walk the puck toward the blue line for an entry of his own—but these are better options as far as stifling the Lightning’s transition. This seems obvious. The objective is to minimize the threat, and Ryan McDonagh plodding forward is certainly less daunting than Point and Kucherov accelerating into the offensive zone.
More pragmatic opponents will understand that, if the direct pass isn’t there, the puck should be chucked out. They might try to have one forward flying the zone at all times and attempt to heave the puck out of the zone into a race for an area pass. It’s an ugly way to exit the zone, but the alternative is frightening. The Lightning’s F1s are excellent at disrupting the retrieving defenseman and scooping up the puck. And if the retriever makes the first pass, the Lightning F2 seals the boards well to force a takeaway.
If the Lightning obtain possession, it can be extremely difficult for an opponent to recover due to the Lightning’s speed to the perimeter. Common sense dictates that, if there is no forechecking pressure, the zone exit should be executed accordingly in hopes of a smooth rush. This is more to forestall a well-placed dump-in that could lead to a minute or more of defending in the opponent’s end.
Another vulnerability the Lightning have to safeguard against is the opposing team submitting an area pass that its forward can chase after in the offensive zone. The Lightning defensemen, especially without Victor Hedman, struggle when they are skating, passing, or carrying the puck toward their end. Mikhail Sergachev is probably the most turnover-prone in this respect, but others can make sloppy decisions when they are retreating with the puck. The opposition will want to force them to play with their backs facing them as much as possible, because too often those own-zone passes or trips backward in an attempt to reset go awry.
The opposition’s best chance is to grind out a cycle against the Lightning, force the forwards and defensemen to be accountable for switches in their own zones, and shoot as much as possible. With Vasilevskiy playing so well, an opponent winning a high-scoring contest that is not buoyed by the power play seems unrealistic. So instead of trading chances, the opponent will aim to kill any flow and turn the game into a slog. Their strategies might include heavy support of the puck and wearing down the Lightning through territorial advantage. Force the Lightning to defend the high cycle and their forwards to sink low in support. The opposition will get transition opportunities organically as the Lightning will attack with three forwards and a defenseman, and opponents will see an odd-man chance if they can short-circuit that aggression.
A final way that opponents might close the gap would be by not losing the special teams battle by a large margin. The Lightning power play is deadly, and other than not giving them the man advantage, opponents will strive to take away the seam pass from circle to circle. Conversely, the Lighting do surrender power play chances, and teams can improve their chances of converting on them by making sure their entries are tidy.
Beating Tampa Bay is a tall order. The Oilers don’t have the stamina, depth, or speed to compete against the Lightning. But a better-coached squad that has more talent will implement the aforementioned ways to try to undermine the Bolts.