Perhaps the biggest sign of a team entering their own category in the NHL is that they can play any way they want or want to win. Whatever you ask of them, they have an answer. Some protesters are like Hurricanes, once you clear their preferred technique — in the case of sticks, unloaded, winning a lead check by speed, getting the disc in point and shooting — they have no plan B. Capitals problem for years, once you don’t give them every runway for your own network, they can’t create much.
Lightning shows in their Eastern Conference final that they can have a Plan B or a Plan C when they need it. This is still one of the most skilled teams in the league, with weapons in three lines when you’re healthy (which it isn’t now). In the previous rounds to the cup, they had to negotiate with teams like the Islanders, Stars and Canadiens, who knew they couldn’t match the bolts in the penalty shootout and tried to turn things around, trying to keep them in a one-goal game. And hopefully, you’ll get a bounce or a power game to stop the whole game.
In the first two games against the Rangers in New York, the lightning sounded…well, slow. Which was definitely a disturbing sight, and the guards have a lot of flaws. But what they can do is play in straight lines very quickly when teams overcommit in the attack zone. The Rangers would zip off their zone and shoot lanes running through the neutral zone left and right, entering the Tampa zone in 3-on-2s and 4-on-3s throughout. The lightning couldn’t really get close. And the Rangers are the first team in this Lightning race to capture that outside of Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, Lightning defenders sluggish. Defensively, Sergeachev could get lost quite easily. Being consistently behind the Rangers also resulted in Lightning having to take many penalties, and we know that the powerful Rangers have become very self-aware.
You can’t win two trophies in a row without the ability to change pace and know what’s in front of you. Rangers struggle when they are not given space, as they don’t have that many players who can create their own shot. So the lightning called out to Admiral Akbar: “It’s a trap!”
In both Games 3 and 4, in the first two of each, Lightning committed to cutting off the space that Rangers were filling in the first two games of the series. One of the checkers, at least four men in the neutral, went from a runway for the Rangers to the Jiffy Lube line on Saturday afternoon. Some examples from last night in the first two periods:
Even Marc Messier, who is generally sleepy in ESPN’s studio breaks, couldn’t miss it, and perhaps he explains it best:
The numbers indicate that. Sure enough, the Rangers outperformed the Lightning during the first two periods last night, 22-15. But very few, if any, of those 22 shots mattered. Rangers put in a predicted 1.12 goal in just 40 minutes, less than Lightning made at 5-on-5 with his 15 shots. It was something of the same story in Game 3, with the Rangers barely managing more than 1.00 xG during the first two laps, although Lightning was more aggressive and not caught up in their trap like it was on Tuesday night.
And the Rangers don’t have decoy busters, or as many of them as you’d think. Adam Fox is great in a power game or when he’s already in the attack zone with equal strength, but he’s not the type to weave through three defenders in the neutral zone. Cal Makar is not. Fox’s share of 36 percent of projected goals in Game Four shows just that. K’Andre Miller was the only one who seemed intent on trying to break the trap, which didn’t work out well either as he only put the 30% mark in the xG%.
The other bonus of choking Lightning back and going to everything Jack Lemaire is that they don’t chase nearly as much, which means they’re not in a place to take penalty kicks nearly as often, which means Rangers can’t get the power to play that lightning couldn’t smash . Rangers only got the man advantage in the third minute of last night.
But the brilliance of the lightning is that when you expect them to sit farther back, going into the third period, they actually hit the gas. They had to do it in Game 3 because they were late, but it went well for them, scoring two goals. So they liked it so much that they went to it again in the last 20 last night, putting together 16 snaps, more than they had in the first two periods combined. They had 19 attempts in 5-on-5, and 0.94 xG, more than either of the first two periods. That’s by two goals. The Rangers couldn’t get out of their area. To get smart, here’s what the Rangers saw a lot on day three:
Three checkers, no time to breathe, incoming rotation. When adjusted for the score, Lightning had over 75 percent of both attempts and expected goals in the third. Result: Tampa won 4-1
It’s no secret that Rangers are not a team of equal strength. Lightning had a problem when executing too many punches, hammer, and tweezers to leave too much room. But when space gets tight, Rangers have few answers. Philip Chettle’s injury certainly didn’t help, as his streak with two other Rangers kids, Lavrinière and Kaku, was the only one who could make some slots at their speed. As a killer scorer around the net as Chris Kreider, he doesn’t get his own shot much more than that. Mika Zibanijad didn’t create a lot of lanes to find Kreider, and Artemi Panarin was too busy looking for five minutes of time and space to try and make a play. It’s amazing how quickly Frank Vatrano and Andrew Cope got back to Frank Vatrano and Andrew Cope when they weren’t given space for the national park across the Neutral Zone.
Sometimes being a champion means not being too proud of adapting what teams have tried against you to use against others. There were coaches who could not convince themselves that they should focus on taking the space instead of creating it, considering it to be beneath them. John Cooper doesn’t care about any of that shit. He got a trophy for the third time after all.