Game 3 Quick Hitters
Tampa's forecheck awakens, Nathan MacKinnon's frustrating game, ups and downs for Bowen Byram
As expected, the Lightning responded from Game 2’s browbeating with an impressive win to get themselves off the mat and back into the series. They put a six-spot on the board, blanked them Avs at 5v5 and looked like a team ready to play a long series. There’s been sort of a New York Rangers element to their playoff run. When they lose, it’s been in either ugly or heartbreaking fashion. They’ve managed to throw those bad games in the trash & move onto the next game as if nothing happened. The Rangers had a similar dynamic in their series against Carolina and the Lightning aren’t too different. We saw it in Game 2 against Toronto, Games 3 through 6 against the Rangers and Monday night against the Avalanche.
Like we discussed in the last newsletter, the Lightning are going to live and die by how many breaks they get in a game. There’s going to be moments where Colorado gets out of their structure & gives up a rush or has a misplay on the breakout. In Game 2, they didn’t get any of those because Colorado played as close to a perfect game as you can get. They didn’t allow a single scoring chance at 5v5 and were getting goals to boot. In a normal game, Tampa can bank on getting a few clean looks. Which is what we saw in Game 3.
Setting The Tone
Going back to how the first chance in the game sets the tone, the Lightning turned the tables on Colorado early. The Avs tried to get a rush going with their top line after forcing an offensive zone turnover but Brandon Hagel & Anthony Cirelli get back in time to stop the play & Alex Killorn takes the loose puck. He’s outnumbered at the blue line, but gets into the zone & protects the puck well enough to get it to the corner and finds Ross Colton off a line change for a decent chance & a rebound.
They don’t score, but getting a couple of chances early is a good way to set the tone after how the last two games started. Colorado had enough guys back to nullify this chance but they’re a little scrambled and kind of just cover a general area instead of taking the man. It happens to the best of teams & Tampa will usually make you pay off these miscues, which is what they did for the rest of the game. Things were a little more at Tampa’s speed, as Colorado had to dump the puck in on 55% of their zone entries, creating no scoring chances off those entries compared to 8 chances off entries where they carried the puck.
Most of it comes down to better forechecking and getting better minutes from their depth guys. You didn’t see Darren Helm, Logan O’Connor and Andrew Cogliano flying all over the ice like you did in Game 2. Tampa gets those minutes under control & they can maybe bank on Kucherov, Palat or Stamkos creating some magic when they get an opening. That’s what they got in Game 3 and Darcy Kuemper having an off-night made it look a lot worse on the scoreboard.
MacKinnon’s Frustrating Night
One of the more interesting stats from this game was the amount of offense Nathan MacKinnon created without getting much of a reward. It’s been how the series has gone for him with only two points in three games (one of which coming in garbage time). His performance in Game 3 shows that he could be close to a breakout but there’s another level he can get to.
MacKinnon’s Game 3 stats at 5v5:
9 shot attempts, 1 scoring chance, 6 setups, 2 primary setups, 1 scoring chance assist, 2 zone entries, 1 controlled entry
Some of this is pretty ordinary for MacKinnon. He’s always been more of a high volume/low percentage shooter and will look to get anything on net even if it’s just creating a rebound or a loose play in the crease. Only one scoring chance on nine shots is a little concerning, though (so is only having 3 chance contributions through 3 games). Same for not having much involvement in the neutral zone, seeing how he’s usually one of the best players in the league in that regard and Colorado probably wants him leading more than two rushes.
So basically, his line has the puck in the offensive zone a lot but could be doing a better job of creating chances. Are the Lightning forcing the issue or is it just an execution thing? As always, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
MacKinnon is special because he can create space for himself with a few strides, especially on cycles. He just needs to make one guy miss and he’s near the faceoff circles. If that isn’t open, he will usually drift high & take the one-timer from the deep slot. It’s not often he scores from there, but it’s a shot with a lot of traffic and meant to open up something else.
In Game 3, he was stuck on the perimeter. The Lightning were playing them very tight at the points with Cirelli patrolling the middle so that the shot was the only play for MacKinnon. Sure, he could have been more patient & try a give-and-go with Byram down the left wing, but it’s a quick read for the young defenseman and he wasn’t going downhill with much momentum.
This is why the Cirelli line has been so tough to play against for other teams. They can win their assignments in a lot of ways. Against the Rangers, they dominated the shot & scoring chance battle in a display of pure territorial domination. Against Colorado, it’s a little different because their job is to not get scored on by MacKinnon’s line and they are doing that here. Keeping him out of the slot and making him defer to someone else in the neutral zone is the key. As good as his linemates & that Colorado defense is, you’d rather risk one of them coming at you on the rush (aside from Makar) than MacKinnon at full speed. The Lightning only need an extra second to negate a play, as the Rangers found out in their series. Colorado seemed content with having their defense facilitate most of their rushes anyway, so that point is probably not a game-breaker to them. Still, MacKinnon’s only rush came off a break where a Lightning player fell down to start a mini 3-on-1 and the game was already 6-2 at that point.
It only takes one play to change this and Colorado is still getting pucks to the net with MacKinnon on the ice. The Lightning defensemen just did a better job of winning the box-outs in front of the net & clearing the rebounds, which isn’t an easy task when Nichushkin & Landeskog are the ones causing the traffic. Rantanen was put back on that line in the third period, who isn’t the forechecker Nichushkin is, but brings a little more skill when it comes to netfront battles & getting deflections, so I would look for that change as a possible adjustment. Anything to take advantage of the territorial advantage Colorado’s top line is still getting but not capitalizing on.
Ups & Downs for Bowen Byram
Another player I thought had an interesting game was the Avs young defenseman, Bowen Byram. He had some of the same problems as MacKinnon (although he was one of the only Avs players to not get tagged for a goal against) where he helped create a lot of offense, most of which were not scoring chances. He also had what I call a “feast-or-famine” type of game where most of his contributions came from offense and he had a rough night when it came to zone exits, turning the puck over seven times compared to having only five of his retrievals turn into exits for Colorado.
You saw a little of what Byram can do in the MacKinnon highlight package and this shows it even more. He’s a mobile defenseman who makes a lot of quick, instinctive plays to get the puck to where it needs to go (back to MacKinnon, Makar, etc.). It also highlights why Colorado is such a fertile ground for mobile defensemen. More times than not, the puck is going north or downhill, so you only have to worry about what’s going on in front of you. This is especially the case when you’re playing behind the MacKinnon line.
It gets tougher when you have to beat a forecheck and the young defenseman had some issues here. Some of them were beyond his control. The forwards let him down on a couple breakouts and Tampa’s forecheck made his life very tough on a few of these & he actually did a nice job of at least getting the puck to a spot where it could be cleared. I have a theory that most defensemen’s results are dependent on what the guys in front of them do with the puck or the situation they’re in & Byram kind of fell victim to that here. Most of the Avs defense did, though.