Creating Your Breaks
Windows of opportunity when you're getting outplayed
The first game in Colorado is always hell for the road team. The Avalanche have outshot teams 295-184 during five-on-five play in series openers this year and have scored four or more goals in all but one game. Whether it’s the altitude or adjusting to the speed that Colorado plays with, teams are usually fighting an uphill battle when they step inside Ball Arena. The Lightning had to deal with this in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Avs needed overtime to get the win but the game was played at their pace, they had the puck most of the night with Tampa having to defend for most of the night. Colorado doubled them up in scoring chances (14-7) and Expected Goals (2.66-1.22 according to Natural Stat Trick). What’s interesting is that Tampa still tied the game and turned the game into a coinflip despite that. Having the advantage in goaltending can go a long way. It’s probably not how Tampa wants to win their games, but if they believe they can score on 20% of their breaks compared to Colorado only scoring on 10-15%, they might be willing to accept that risk if they can’t keep up.
Of course, Colorado’s plan is to limit Tampa to as few of those breaks as possible, which is what you saw in Game 1. It was a one-zone game with not much end-to-end play and if there were rush opportunities, Colorado was creating them off regroups and counters. I go back to the first shift of the game as the tone-setter.
There’s some attempt by the Lightning to match Colorado’s pace out of the gate. They try to get a breakout with the defenseman joining in. Brayden Point, their best player at entering the zone when healthy, doesn’t handle the pass cleanly, which allows the Avs defenseman, Bowen Byram, to blow up the rush and start one the other way. Tampa’s not in a bad position, even with the defenseman caught but Mikko Rantanen gets a decent look on his backhand the other way. Granted, Tampa backchecked well enough to make it a one-shot chance but you’d rather not give up these opportunities less than three minutes into the game.
Still, Tampa was willing to match the Avs pace & they have the horses to do it. This arguably favors them even if they’re getting outchanced if they get into a track meet. The rest of the game wasn’t a track meet. No, it was more like mountain climbing during a rock slide with Colorado’s forecheck as the boulders.
Tampa had a devil of a time getting out of their own zone & a surprising culprit was their star defenseman Victor Hedman. The former Norris Trophy winner retrieved the puck 18 times & only four of them led to successful clean zone exits for Tampa Bay. In addition to that, Hedman had seven instances where he failed to retrieve the puck or exit the zone all together. It’s rare for a defenseman of this caliber to struggle like this, especially Hedman who is one of the best in the league at evading pressure & making a good first pass to start breakouts.
Sometimes the other team forces the issue and that was the case for Hedman (and all of Tampa’s defensemen) in Game 1.
There isn’t much time or space for Hedman to do anything. Whether it was Val Nichushkin, Gabriel Landeskog or Darren Helm, there was an Av forward on him the second he touched the puck and he had maybe one second to make a decision. Even if Tampa could shut off the Avs at the blue line, their forwards took good routes to get in the way of their breakouts. Even if they don’t create any offense, they’re wasting shifts from their top defense pair, which adds up over time.
The breakout around the one minute mark is a good example. Tampa usually likes to break the puck out with a couple quick passes to evade pressure. Colorado’s forecheck blew those up before they could get started, which meant the Lightning had to resort to flipping the puck out of the zone or trying some longer passes to stretch the Avs defense out. This can work, but it’s not always the most efficient for producing offense. You’re hoping to survive the shift rather than forcing the issue yourselves, which is the game you get stuck in sometimes, especially with how the Avs were playing.
That said, this is still hockey. It’s a game of breaks and there’s always going to be an opening even when you’re getting outplayed. Tampa is a good enough team at mitigating damage in their own zone that they can survive some of these shifts where it takes a few tries to get the puck out of the zone, so then the game turns into a battle of capitalizing on limited scoring chances.
Tampa’s breakout was a mess, but the Palat goal is one where it was irrelevant because it’s a firewagon style counter where they get a fortunate bounce with Nichuhskin’s chance going off McDonagh’s skate. Palat is making a bee-line out of the zone once he sees this & Kucherov already flew the zone. They get a 2v2 rush and Kucherov & Palat make a play that only a few players can to cut Colorado’s lead in half. This was one of three entries Tampa Bay had that led to a scoring chance & it resulted in a goal. Which is both encouraging & terrifying for Colorado.
The next goal is a little more methodical & somewhat flukey. Tampa finally gets a breakout with support from the Cirelli line, which leads to a couple quick looks on Kuemper with a good forecheck to force a clear. Bogosian recovers the puck & creates a footrace that Brandon Hagel wins and the Lightning finally get a cycle shift going to get the Avs out of their structure. They’re not doing anything special, but this is the one line that can challenge the Avs speed with how quick Cirelli & Hagel are at retrieving pucks & it can cause some confusion. Sergachev eventually beats Kuemper with a long-range wrister to tie the game, which was a low-percentage shot but it was also one of the few times Tampa created any pressure & it paid off for them.
The better team won in the end, but it will be interesting to see how the Lightning respond after coming close in Game 1. Colorado’s a different animal than any team they’ve faced so far (even Florida despite their impressive regular season) and is tough to handle with how diverse their forward corps is.
Takeaways for Game 2
How can Tampa get out of their own zone quicker to create more breaks? The Blues were able to do this in the second round and Tampa can probably match that style
With Kadri out, the Avs opted to put some of their stronger forecheckers on one line (O’Connor, Helm & Lehkonen). Combine that with Nichushkin & Landeskog on their top line & it’s tough for any team to handle. Not that the Lightning don’t have great forecheckers, because they do, it’s just tougher to deal with when the follow-up shift is MacKinnon coming into the zone or Rantanen & Burakovsky.
Still tough for me to say if the Avs will create enough chances to make the goaltending a non-factor. They were successful in Game 1, but we’ve seen this movie before with the Lightning.