Perhaps the biggest sign that a team has entered its own class in the NHL is that it can play any way it has to, or wants to, to win. Whatever you ask of them, they have an answer. Some pretenders like the Hurricanes, once you take away their preferred style — in the case of the Canes it’s dump it in, win on the forecheck through speed, get the puck to the point and shoot — they have no Plan B. This was the Capitals problem for years, once you didn’t give them every runway to your own net they couldn’t create much.
The Lightning are showing in their Eastern Conference Final that they can have a Plan B or Plan C when they need it. This is still one of the more skilled teams in the league, with weapons on three lines when fully healthy (which they aren’t now). In previous runs to the Cup, they’ve had to negotiate teams like the Islanders, Stars and Canadiens, who knew they couldn’t match the Bolts in shootouts and tried to gum things up, trying to keep it to a one-goal game and hopefully getting a bounce or a power play to hinge the whole game on.
In the first two games against the Rangers in New York, the Lightning looked… well, slow. Which was a jarring sight for sure, and the Rangers have a lot of flaws. But what they can do is play in straight lines very quickly when teams overcommit in the offensive zone. The Rangers had been springing out of their zone and launching stretch passes through the neutral zone left and right, and entering the Tampa zone in 3-on-2s and 4-on-3s all the time. The Lightning couldn’t really get close. And the Rangers are the first team in this Lightning run to pick up that outside of Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, the Lightning defenders are slow. And Sergachev can get lost defensively pretty easily. Constantly being behind the Rangers also led to the Lightning having to take too many penalties, and we know that the Rangers power play has become self-aware.
You don’t win two Cups in a row though without the ability to shift gears and recognize what’s in front of you. The Rangers struggle when not given space, as they don’t have that many players who can create their own shot. So the Lightning have called in Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!”
In both Games 3 and 4, in the first two periods of each, the Lightning have committed to cutting off the space the Rangers were galavanting through in the series’ first two games. One forechecker, four guys at least in the neutral zone, which has gone from a runway for the Rangers to the line for a Jiffy Lube on a Saturday afternoon. Some examples from last night in the first two periods:
Even generally asleep Mark Messier in the ESPN intermission studios couldn’t miss it, perhaps illustrating it best:
The numbers bear that out. Sure, the Rangers outshot the Lightning through the first two periods last night, 22-15. But very few if any of those 22 shots mattered. The Rangers only put up 1.12 expected goals through 40 minutes, less than the Lightning had created at 5-on-5 with their 15 shots. It was something of the same story in Game 3, where the Rangers could only manage barely over 1.00 xG through the first two periods, though the Lightning were more aggressive and not as set in their trap as they were on Tuesday night.
And the Rangers don’t have trap-busters, or as many as you might think. Adam Fox is great on the power play or when already set up in the offensive zone at even-strength, but he’s not the type to weave through three defenders in the neutral zone. Cale Makar he is not. Fox’s 36 percent share in expected goals in Game 4 shows that. Only K’Andre Miller seemed intent on trying to break the trap, and that didn’t work too well either as he only put up a 30 percent mark in xG%.
The other bonus of the Lightning throttling back and going all Jacques Lemaire is they’re not chasing nearly as much, which means they’re not in a spot to take penalties nearly as much, which means the Rangers can’t get on the power play that the Lightning haven’t been able to corral. The Rangers didn’t get to the man-advantage until deep in the third last night.
But the brilliance of the Lightning is that right when you’d expect them to sit even further back, with a lead in the 3rd period, they actually hit the gas. They had to in Game 3 because they trailed, but that went pretty well for them, scoring twice. So they liked it so much they went for it again in last night’s last 20, piling up 16 shots, more than they had in the first two periods combined. They had 19 attempts at 5-on-5, and 0.94 xG, more than either of the first two periods. And that’s with a two-goal lead. The Rangers couldn’t get out of their own zone. To wit, here’s what the Rangers saw a lot of in the 3rd:
Three forecheckers, no time to breathe, turnover incoming. When you adjust for score, the Lightning had over 75 percent of both the attempts and expected goals in the 3rd. Result: A 4-1 Tampa win
It’s not much of a secret that the Rangers aren’t a great even-strength team. The Lightning have gotten in trouble when taking too many penalties and going hammer and tongs to leave too much space. But when space has tightened, the Rangers have few answers. Filip Chytil’s injury certainly didn’t help, as his line with the Rangers two other kids Lafreniere and Kakko, has been the only one that can grind out some openings with their speed. As deadly a finisher around the net as Chris Kreider has become, he doesn’t get his own shot much more. Mika Zibanejad hasn’t created too many passing lanes to find Kreider, and Artemi Panarin has been too busy looking for five minutes of time and space to try and make the artistic play. It’s amazing how quickly Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp turn back into Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp when not given a national park’s worth of space through the neutral zone.
Sometimes being a champion means not being too proud to adapt what teams have tried against you to use against others. There have been coaches who couldn’t bring themselves to admit they have to concentrate on taking away space instead of creating it, deeming it beneath them. Jon Cooper doesn’t care about any of that shit. He’s got a third Cup to win, after all.