The "A" Word
The adjustments Tampa made en route to their third straight Final
The Lightning are heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the third year in a row. It’s not a huge shocker but things were looking a little shaky 10 days ago, as they were trailing 2-0 in their series to the Rangers and didn’t look great in either game. While ebbs & flows are all part of a playoff series, it was a little surprising to see Tampa’s stingy defense get burned by the Rangers counters. New York outchanced the Lightning 33-24 at five-on-five and created 14 “high danger passes,” 9 of those coming off cross-seam plays where they could move the puck laterally across the slot in the offensive zone.
The Rangers are a team comfortable with getting outshot because their best players are good enough to create chances off counter-attacks and Igor Shesterkin will usually stop any shot that he can see. Trading chances is something they can live with if they are more efficient & they were in the first two games.
Games 1 & 2
I usually hate it when the word “adjustments” gets thrown around because it’s usually a empty term you use to blame or credit the coaches when what really happened is the players just executed better or a few bounces went their team’s way (it’s hockey after all). With the Bolts, I’m a little more open to it. Jon Cooper’s seven wins away from a three-peat and they took a huge thumping in the first two games in this series. How did they respond? Dominating the next two games & having that set the tone for the rest of the series.
Tampa won the 5v5 scoring chance battle 28-13 while only allowing three cross-seam passes to the Rangers when the series shifted to Amalie Arena. Also limiting them to only 11 scoring chances on 103 zone entries while generating 23 entries off their own zone entries. Turnover battle also heavily shifted to the Bolts favor.
So whatever adjustments they made clearly worked. Sometimes looking at what you did well in games you lost can be useful. Tampa might have noticed that they’re entering the zone with possession at a high rate and wanted to emphasize that they have the puck a lot & needed to be more efficient. While noticing how many high danger passes they were giving up and just needed to nail that down to make the Rangers offense pretty frail. The scoring will eventually take care of itself as long as you’re not giving up a 2-on-1 every other shift.
This is what Tampa’s approach was in the next two games. Take a look at the difference between this video:
Games 1 & 2
and this video
Games 3 & 4
At home, the Rangers are getting breaks when Tampa gets caught with one man back (usually a missed pinch or a missed check) and when they have to sit back in a shell, or zone defense. Tampa seems like the type of team that would do better with a more conservative approach, as their defensemen are a little slower but can make simple plays well enough. You’d rather have numbers in posture than have defensemen looking for huge hits instead of the puck & you know the Rangers are going to let you have the puck for most of the game anyway. Just don’t get burned off the rush & the offense will come to you.
That’s basically what Tampa did in Games 3 & 4. Notice how there’s a player back more often than not & even if there’s a pinch, the defensemen are doing a better job sorting things out. Jan Rutta getting caught & making a switch with Hedman on the Andrew Copp entry about 20 seconds in is a good example. Playing above the puck more were giving the Rangers one shot for Vasilevskiy to read.
Even if they gave up a cross-seam pass, players were back to make it at just enough of an angle for Vasilevskiy to square up on the shot. The chance to Kreider about 23 seconds in was the “worst case” scenario for Tampa with how tight their coverage was. Rangers got into the zone cleanly & created a cross-seam look, but McDonagh also stopped the play at the line, staying close to Vatrano but forcing him to make a play. He finds Chris Kreider at the left faceoff circle, who is picked up by Erik Cernak, making that play the only option and Vasilevskiy ends up making the stop. Granted, it’s a scoring chance to a 50+ goal-scorer you just gave up, but would you rather him have that chance or on a two-on-one? Sometimes you can only limit damage instead of completely negating it.
Tampa could have their cake & eat it too because this defensive approach didn’t affect in their offense. It might have even helped them, as they were carrying the puck more & had enough energy to get transition chances, both off counters & regroups. One of them even led to Kucherov’s 2-0 goal in Game 4, courtesy of a quick up from the defenseman staying back while the Rangers were breaking the puck out. Easier to play the way you want when you have the lead. Do the numbers bear this out?
Games 3 & 4
I would say so. When you beat a team up on the scoreboard & the underlyings, it’s a good day. What I want to really get into is Game 5, which is always the biggest turning point in the series. Rangers are back on home ice, Gallant can get one line away from Anthony Cirelli, maybe they can find ways to create some more offense. More ice time for someone like Filip Chytil with Ryan Strome on the mend.
Here’s what we got instead.
While Cooper’s adjustment was related to defense, Gallant went in a similar direction with a different approach. Conservative offense, very passive blue line defense and keeping this game as low-event as possible. Matching Tampa’s pace when they aren’t giving up freebies wasn’t working, so slowing the game down and turning it into a coinflip with no scoring chances makes sense. The funny thing is it almost worked for the Rangers. They allowed only five scoring chances and the game was tied up until Ondrej Palat had a puck go of him & past Shesterkin to give Tampa a 3-2 series lead.
That’s the thing about coinflips, though. 50/50 and sometimes you guess tails. Playing a forecheck battle against Tampa makes those odds seem even worse.
In the words of Good Ol JR, this was “bowling shoe ugly.” Also where you get into trouble when the game comes down to a few chances, most of them coming off broken plays. You have to convert on those and if you’re not getting odd-man rushes or any shot volume. Tampa struggled to create in this game, but their defense kept things under control and made New York go through an extra layer even if they could get a decent scoring chance. The Adam Fox chance at about 2:17 is a great example. Fox gets a good chance in tight, but it’s a one-shot chance after he had to create his own space (TB came back with numbers & Cernak gave Vasilevskiy an extra second to get over. You limit a dangerous team’s options just enough & it can be the difference in a series.
The Rangers played well enough to win this game but also left it up to chance after getting spooked in Games 3 & 4. The same can’t be said in Game 6, where Tampa made sure chance wouldn’t play a role.
The Lightning had no issues defending & quickly getting the puck out of the zone, so the deciding factor was going to be how often could they beat Shesterkin cleanly. Not every team is going to win this battle, but when you have a chance to deliver the knockout shot, I’d rather take my chances with that instead of sitting back. The Rangers couldn’t get much of anything going, which was a little surprising given how much they slowed down Game 5.
It’s hard to dictate the pace of the game when you’re starting shifts on your heels. The third period beginning on a very similar note to the rest of the game.
Rangers are trying to get a forecheck going down a goal, Ryan McDonagh pins the puck along the boards before any Ranger can get a stick on it. Cirelli is running some legal interference on Frank Vatrano to give his defenseman more space to make a play. They eventually work it over to the left boards & they get an ugly aerial pass to Alex Killorn on the right wing. Three guys are in the left corner for Tampa, but Cirelli is already ready to accept Killorn’s pass and the Lightning get a rush going. Off goes McDonagh, on comes Victor Hedman who gets a cross-seam pass to the hustling Brandon Hagel at the side of the net. The pass isn’t handled cleanly, so it’s not a great chance but NYR is also trying to come back & Tampa gets the first rush off a very benign looking play at the beginning.
It’s tough to beat a team when they’re getting support on the breakout & the rush. Tampa didn’t have to change much about their game to get better results, just a few minor adjustments & their talent advantage took care of itself.