Resolution is coming. The New York Rangers could return to the Stanley Cup final for the second season in a row, or the precocious Tampa Bay Lightning could firmly establish themselves as the Eastern Conference’s best team.
The biggest achievement of this series is how the Rangers have forced a Game 7 without passer/puck-handler/creator Mats Zuccarello in the lineup. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been tremendous, but New York has excelled the most at hindering the Bolts’ efficacy on rush attempts. The Rangers have pushed Tampa Bay to the outside and conceded little separation as all five Lightning skaters trickle into the zone.
Slowing down the Bolts’ transition game is no easy feat. Tampa Bay is extremely fast, and they are adept at spreading teams out and picking them apart with three skaters wide and a fourth slipping in as the strong-side or weak-side trailer. Sometimes, the Lightning invert that attack, entering the zone bunched together, and with short-distance passing they traverse defensive coverage with puck support. In transition, the Lightning are the best team in the NHL at reading the defense and reacting to their teammates and the movement of the puck.
But the Rangers have kept their gaps tight and tried their very best to keep the puck and the man away from entering the middle. Tampa Bay’s ability to cut and work give-and-go’s has been blunted by the foot speed and defensive awareness of New York. Good scheming? Absolutely. But a good game plan means little if the players are not skilled and cannot execute it properly. The Rangers relish the individual challenge that man coverage provides; and the way they have sealed off the backdoor has been commendable.
There have been three noteworthy rush attempts this series: Ondrej Palat’s game-tying goal and Nikita Kucherov’s game-winning goal in Game 3, and Valtteri Filppula’s goal off a Steven Stamkos feed in Game 5. But three goals in six games off the rush belie its efficacy for Tampa Bay in this matchup. Most of Tampa Bay’s scoring chances have come off the counterattack, the forecheck, offensive-zone faceoffs, or the power play. Even with the Bolts able to generate the sporadic stretch pass, New York has kept a close distance to the puck-handler and off-the-puck options, and boxed out well on rebounds.
The Bolts’ versatility has been a strength all season, but the Rangers’ tight-checking defense has eliminated their attack off the rush. This means that the forecheck will be crucial for Tampa Bay to seize the series. The Bolts play very aggressively by nature, and their success with the F2 will be the key factor for whether they can win the deciding game in Madison Square Garden Friday night.
The bad news for the Bolts is that the Rangers’ defensive group is very good, and the coordination between the defenseman retrieving the puck and his outlets is stellar. The outlets do an excellent job of providing a passing target for the retriever, and the defenseman does a good job of making his reads on the first, second, and third passing option. The Rangers are comfortable going through the middle of the ice or up the boards, and most importantly, they do not panic if their first try to exit the zone fails. Composure on breakouts is essential for a Cup contender.
New York’s defensemen and Lundqvist consistently anticipate where the best avenue for an indirect or direct pass is, and once the puck is ferried to the first man, the defensemen and centers make sure that the outlet has the necessary support to transport the puck through the zone for the breakout.
The Rangers’ impressive orchestration on their breakouts means that the Bolts’ F1 provides initial pressure, but his effort does little to destabilize the zone exit without the accompanying second layer. It is quixotic to think that the F1 will always be able to procure the turnover. If all he can do is force the defenseman to accelerate his decision-making, then the Bolts’ F2 comes in with the pressure of having to anticipate and disrupt the outlet. Siphoning the puck from the Rangers’ outlet to initiate the cycle is optimal, but the F2 is also responsible for putting himself in position if the F1 disarms the defenseman but fails to gain control (then the F2 can make the pass to the F3 or a defenseman). Or, if the F1 claims the puck, then the F2 can drive to the net for a scoring chance. Hopefully, the F1 causes some mayhem, and the F2 reacts accordingly. At the very least, the F2 needs to gum up the momentum of the puck leaving the zone, because if he doesn’t, the consequences will be very bad.
The results through six games have been fascinating. Sometimes the Bolts’ F3 and strong-side defenseman have crashed hard on the forecheck, and if the F2 fails, it has led to an odd-man rush the other way. This should sound familiar because it has happened a lot. The Rangers have gotten numerous counterattack opportunities, which are the byproduct of the Rangers’ breakout being so refined.
The galling question for Lightning coach Jon Cooper is: If the Bolts’ rush is not garnering any substantial offense, and he dials down the forecheck to prevent the Rangers from getting so many counterattack chances, are they solely relying on counterattacks and the power play to stimulate their offense? Cooper knows that can’t happen, especially against Lundqvist. There are degrees to how hard the Bolts can blitz on the forecheck, which make the F2 and his potency really, really important.
This series is very close by the numbers. The Lightning have a 51.0 Corsi for percentage at 5 on 5 in all situations and in close game situations that expands to 51.5, giving them the narrow edge on the Rangers by 2-2.5 percent, per war-on-ice.com. Additionally, Tampa Bay has the edge in scoring chances. The Lightning have accrued 135 even-strength scoring chances and only conceded 112. That +23 scoring chances differential slightly rises when adjusting the settings to 5v5, close, where the Bolts have the advantage with a +25 scoring chances differential. But seven of the Lightning’s 19 goals have come on the power play, and Alex Killorn’s first goal in Game 2 came seconds after the man advantage expired. Factor in Tyler Johnson’s shorthanded goal and nearly half the Lightning’s goals came with a man up or in a situation that is difficult to replicate.
The conclusion is obvious. Tampa Bay needs to gin up more offense at even strength. Kucherov has the best scoring chances differential (+34) of the conference final and the best shot attempts/Corsi differential (+41) among any forward while Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson rank second and third, per war-on-ice.com. That is revealing. The Triplets line is the only trio who has had tempered success attacking in transition, but they have also been very effective with the F2 jostling the puck loose on the forecheck.
Still, to win Game 7 on the road against Lundqvist and a confident and experienced Rangers squad, the Lightning will need stronger play from the Stamkos line and the third and fourth lines. How well these lines interject themselves on the forecheck will dictate whether the Lightning reach their first Cup final since 2004.