Why are the Tampa Bay Lightning such an outstanding hockey team?
Talent and structure are the two main ingredients, but the binding agent for both is their Tao: a way of playing which produces excellence.
Without the puck Tampa respects three principles that drive results. Learn them, master them and teach them.
Success will find you.
Penalty kill: Attack to defend
On March 7, 2020 the Lightning play in Boston. The Bruins are the only team ahead of them in the standings by points percentage. Tampa reluctantly accepts the underdog role and Boston controls the start of the game.
Both teams play on the edge.
Five minutes into the opening period, Barclay Goodrow elbows Ondrej Kase and puts Tampa down a man. The Bruins’ terrifying power play converts at a 25% clip. Its first unit consists of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Charlie Coyle and Torey Krug. They are the best five-man unit in the world at creating movement in the offensive zone, crossing up a PK scheme and converting on high-danger chance.
In three years working in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, I witnessed how Boston’s finely tuned power play can turn a playoff series around. Most of the NHL doesn’t stand a chance unless they are able to neutralize this aspect of the Bruins’ game.
But Tampa does more than just neutralize.
Bergeron rakes the puck back on the offensive zone faceoff but Anthony Cirelli anticipates the play and sprints outs toward Pastrnak, the intended receiver. On his first touch Cirelli doesn’t merely clear the puck to safety, as most PKers would. He fakes right then crosses over to his left. He’s built so much speed in his first three steps that this simple move throws Pastrnak for a loop. In a blink he is past the Bruins’ winger and into open ice, with only a retreating Krug in his way.
Now comes a critical moment. A Cirelli-Krug duel down-ice still leaves the Bruins PP with a fair chance to counter-attack 4v3 if the Lightning winger turns the puck over. But this will not be a 1v1 play. Cedric Paquette recognizes the opportunity and sprints past Bergeron to join the rush. Bergeron is the mind and heart of the Bruins, the piece through which their power play runs. But at 34 years old he is slowing down, and here Paquette out-runs him.
- See also:
Krug is a tremendous offensive contributor, the best point-man on the Bruins’ bench. But on a team which also counts on Charlie McAvoy, Zdeno Chara, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk he is not a top option for shutting down the opposition. Against the shorthanded menace he plays it safe and gives up his blue line.
Paquette makes for the far post and holds Krug for an instant as Cirelli loads up for a wrist shot. At the last moment Krug lunges toward the Tampa winger but the puck eludes an underprepared Tuukka Rask low short-side. The Lightning turn the tables on Boston just five seconds into the power play. 1-0 TBL.
Tampa wins the ensuing centre-ice faceoff cleanly. Its players run a possession PK play, stringing three passes together to keep the Bruins five-man unit guessing before dumping the puck deep into the Boston end.
Is it not Krug but McAvoy who skates back to retrieve the puck. Bruce Cassidy has stapled his first unit to the bench in favour of a second quintet with two defencemen (McAvoy and Grzelcyk). This is a crucial early-game win for Tampa. Their opportunism has forced the opposing team to sheathe its best offensive weapon. Boston’s skaters briefly attack the net, but they aren’t able to find a kill shot. On the next faceoff Cassidy redeploys his first unit.
Boston runs a trick play on the neutral-zone draw. Bergeron sweeps the puck to Pastrnak, the last man back. The winger immediately snaps a cross-ice pass to Krug alone on the far side for an easy entry. At least it would have been an easy entry had Yanni Gourde not foreseen the play. The industrious Tampa winger stick-checks Krug and knocks the puck loose for Paquette’s counterattack. For the next 10 seconds Gourde and Paquette outwork Bergeron, Pastrnak and Krug along the wall in Tampa’s zone. Marchand and Coyle are dangerous with the puck but now they stand idle, disengaged from the play.
Krug almost breaks free but Paquette runs him down from behind and hooks the puck to Gourde, who carries down to the right corner. He hypnotizes three Bruins. Paquette is going off for a well-deserved breather but defenceman Mikhail Sergachev has joined the play. Gourde slips the puck through the three puck-watchers. The offensive-minded Russian blueliner makes a clean catch-and-shoot in the high slot.
The puck goes in short-side once again. 2-0 Tampa.
There is one minute left in the penalty and 53 minutes left in the game. Tampa has only scored six shorthanded goals in the 2019-20 season, but at a critical moment against a juggernaut team, it exploits weakness and creates a decisive edge against a potential playoff rival.
Neutral zone: Play three back
Most NHL teams employ a classic 1-2-2 NZ forecheck, which I described in a bonus chapter of Hockey Tactics 2020:
Player One cuts the ice in half.
Player Two cuts the remaining ice in half again.
Player Three steps up and stops the puck carrier.
Player One supports the play and is available to kick-start the counter-attack while Player Two skates into open ice.
Players Four and Five patrol the middle and help offensively or defensively as need be.
So easy that six-year-olds can do it. All they need to know is who is One through Five in any given sequence – that’s hockey sense, or basic math.
P1 and P2 herd the carrier outside the dot lane. P3 adjusts his gap. P4 and P5 squeeze the middle.