Under The Microscope: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (Part I: Neutral Zone Play)

The Pittsburgh Penguins surge towards the Stanley Cup Final was impressive to watch. They were one of the best teams in the NHL during the regular season (and arguably the best since the calendar turned 2016) and they didn’t slow down once they hit the playoffs either. They made quick work of the New York Rangers in the first round and made it past the Washington Capitals in a tight, six-game series which looked like their biggest hurdle at the time. Washington was the top-seeded team in the East and a favorite to win the Cup, so the rest of the Conference looked like a favorable matchup for Pittsburgh.

In come the Tampa Bay Lightning, last year’s Eastern Conference Champs and the team that gave Pittsburgh their biggest scare of the playoffs. Pittsburgh eventually took this series in seven games but it took rallying back from a 3-2 deficit, winning two games while facing elimination. Tampa Bay was sort of the “forgotten” team in the East after how intense the Washington-Pittsburgh series was but they were going to be a tough out regardless. After all, they breezed through the first two rounds with an injury-plagued roster in a total of ten games and were getting healthier as they got deeper in the playoffs, getting defenseman Anton Stralman back this round. They were also not too far off from Pittsburgh in terms of controlling territorial play at even strength, so this was a very intriguing matchup on paper.

Things took a few turns as expected. Tampa Bay lost their starting goaltender Ben Bishop in Game 1 and Andrei Vasilevskiy had to carry them through most of the series. The young goaltender played well, stealing a couple of wins for the Bolts in Pittsburgh and nearly leading his team to another Cup Final appearance. The Penguins ended up taking it with a 2-1 win on home ice in Game 7 and you could hear the city of Pittsburgh let out a huge sigh of relief from around the world.

Out of all of the obstacles the Pens faced this post-season, Tampa Bay seemed to give them the most trouble. It was the only time all playoffs they faced elimination and the Lightning were the only team that took advantage of Pittsburgh’s high-risk playing style, scoring a few goals on the counter-attack and getting strong goaltending from Vasilevskiy. They came short of pulling it off, but this was as close as any team came to knocking off Pittsburgh.

Let’s take a closer look at how exactly this series got to seven games and how close Tampa Bay was from pulling off the upset.

5-on-5 Shot Attempts

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Before we get into the stats, you might notice that the shot categories are now different. This is because I’m teaming up with Ryan Stimson’s Passing Project and am now tracking shot attempts using his templates & methods. This means the entries shots by entry category are gone (at least for this round) and in their place are more specific shot types. The goalie movement category is also removed and they have been replaced with some more detailed passing categories which we’ll go over in tomorrow’s post. You’ll also notice that blocked shots are now grouped in the “missed” section and there’s an extra category which counts shots that came off a play with multiple passes.

Moving onto the team stats and the comparison is pretty interesting because as close as the results were this series, the underlying stats weren’t close at all. Pittsburgh hammered Tampa Bay on the shot counter at even strength and it’s even worse when you factor in special teams (mostly thanks to the Penguins spending way more time on the power play). The only categories where Tampa came close to matching Pittsburgh were ones that didn’t have many events (shots off odd-man rushes/situations, deflections & one-timers). Not that they didn’t have an impact. Tampa scored a couple of goals on the counter-attack and the Penguins were frustrated by this early in the series.

Tampa scored all three of their goals in Game 1 off breakaways or odd-man rushes (one of which was on the power play) and the two at even strength were off untimely errors/accidents by the Penguins defense. Alex Killorn flew past Olli Maatta after the Pittsburgh defenseman lost an edge on the first goal and Kris Letang slipped in the offensive zone on Jonathan Drouin’s goal which led to a 3-on-1 rush the other way. It was interesting to watch because the Penguins thrive off the transition game and burning teams off one mistake. The Lightning were the only team all post-season that gave the Pens a taste of their own medicine and it was almost enough for them to pull off an upset.

Outside of that, Pittsburgh owned Tampa in every shot category. The sheer volume of shots and chances they were creating probably should have negated the small advantage Tampa had in odd-man rushes but Vasilevskiy did everything he could to keep the score close. The Lightning also had some success with creating shots off passing plays (i.e. not many one-and-done shots) but Pittsburgh still had a huge advantage here in terms of volume.

This is what Pittsburgh has routinely been doing to teams ever since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in mid-December. They were the second best possession team in the NHL since the beginning of the year and have posted some pretty outrageous shot totals since then. Where does it stem from? Strong neutral zone play is usually a key factor for teams winning the territorial battle & creating offense. It was a big part of how Pittsburgh carved up Washington & New York’s defense in the first two rounds, so let’s see if they did the same to Tampa Bay.

Neutral Zone

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Short answer: Yes, and way worse than they carved up Washington. The Penguins not only were able to carry the puck in on most of their entries, they were also creating an enormous amount of shots when they were able to do so. The general rule of thumb with neutral zone play is that entries done with control of the puck lead to twice as many shots than dump-ins. Pittsburgh was well above that threshold and they were still creating shots at an above average rate when they were forced to dump the puck in. It’s rare to see a team be this efficient offensively and for one to do so in the Conference Finals is astounding.

What’s also interesting is that Tampa Bay also had some success in the neutral zone. In fact, going off neutral zone play alone (i.e. ignoring the shot numbers), the Lightning had the upper-hand in this regard. They entered the zone more and did it with control on over half of their entries so in theory, they should have fared much better in the possession game than they did. That obviously didn’t happen. The only thing that saved Tampa was Vasilevskiy’s play and them outscoring some of their issues. You could argue that Tampa Bay was more efficient with their shots, but the scoring chance count says otherwise. Yes, Tampa Bay might have been creating chances but they were giving up so much in their own zone too.


Penguins 5v5 Zone Entries

Pittsburgh Forwards

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Pittsburgh Defense

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If you go back to the post on the Washington series, you might remember that the Caps were pretty aggressive against Pittsburgh in the neutral zone. They challenged them at the line often and tried to force them to dump the puck in. Pittsburgh got through this pretty easily by supporting each other well in the neutral zone and providing passing options at the blue line. They have the talent & the speed to pull this off, so Washington didn’t have much of an answer for this.

Tampa Bay employed a similar strategy to slow down Pittsburgh in the neutral zone and actually had some early success with it. In Game 1, they held Pittsburgh’s first line to only seven carries on 20 entries, all of which were by left-winger Conor Sheary. The Lightning were still outshot in that game but they managed to keep Pittsburgh’s best player in check and that was a small victory for them. Their strategy was similar to Washington’s in the sense that they were aggressive at the blue line, but more different (and effective) because they had more pressure up the ice. There were often one or two forecheckers up the ice, putting pressure on Pittsburgh’s breakout and they defended well in layers to force the Pens first line into low-percentage plays.

Here’s an example of it:

crosby dump in 1

Pittsburgh is attempting to start a breakout and you can already see that defenseman Trevor Daley has a forechecker right in his face, disrupting things from the get go.

crosby dump in 2

With the added pressure, Pittsburgh can’t use the middle of the ice and the breakout gets forced to the boards where winger Bryan Rust tries to get the puck out of the zone. He has a couple of passing options in Crosby and Sheary, but Tampa Bay has five players back and an obstacle course setup in the neutral zone that Pittsburgh will have to get through.

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Even with the added pressure, Rust is able to get the puck to the far-side winger. The Penguins also have a couple of players going towards the opposing blue line to possibly setup an easier entry.

crosby dump in 4

Tampa reads the play well and has three forwards up with two defensemen back and Brian Boyle in the defenseman’s passing lane. You can see Crosby trying to make the outlet easier for him. The ideal scenario for Pittsburgh now is for Crosby to get the puck and have a one-on-one situation at the blue line when entering the zone.

crosby dump in 5

This doesn’t happen, as the Tampa defenseman steps up into the neutral zone and forces Crosby to make a quicker play with the puck, which ends up being a simple deflection into the zone. Pittsburgh tried to adjust to the pressure the Lightning were putting on them, but Tampa was doing such a good job of defending in layers that it didn’t have much of an effect. The Lightning had a good game plan for slowing down the Penguins star player and it worked well in Game 1, and teams adjust to things as they go along. Pittsburgh’s first line is obviously good enough to find a way around a strong neutral zone forecheck and going by the series numbers, they did. Only it was less of getting around Tampa’s forecheck and more of just avoiding it all together.

I mentioned earlier that Pittsburgh made a habit of burning teams in transition throughout the post-season and while Tampa Bay burned them a few times this way, the Pens returned the favor more than a few times. Pittsburgh plays a bit of a high-risk style that involves having a forward flying the zone whenever there’s an opening. Sure, things could turn into a disaster if you turn the puck over but it was a key part of the Penguins breakout this series and it worked like a charm more times than not.

crosby game 3 1

Here we see Pittsburgh, once again, attempting to break the puck out of the zone. This time they have their first line & bottom defense pairing on the ice with Chris Kunitz playing the left wing instead of Conor Sheary. Tampa Bay has their “third line” out and the two wingers (Paquette & Callahan) are going to work on the forecheck. Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz just broke up a cycle and sent the puck to the corner, in hopes of exchanging it to Kunitz and leading a breakout.

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Kunitz finds himself in an unfavorable situation here, as he is surrounded by three Lightning players. Tampa Bay has three forwards in deep with a defenseman pinching down the right wall, so they’re doing all they can to bottle up the Penguins and keep them hemmed in. The chances of Kunitz getting the puck out here are pretty low, but if he does, he has a high forward in Hornqvist ready to go the other direction and Crosby poised to make a bee-line out of the zone. There’ four Tampa players in deep and only one guy guarding the line, so all Kuntiz has to do here is get it to Hornqvist.

crosby game 3 3

The puck gets out and Hornqvist makes an easy retrieval. Tampa Bay has a defenseman back but Crosby bolted out of the zone the second Kuntiz touched the puck so the high forward, Boyle, has to hustle to catch up to him.

crosby game 3 4

Crosby outskates Boyle and Hornqvist has already gotten him the puck in position for an entry. Right now, things don’t look too bad for Tampa Bay since they have two guys back and Crosby entered the zone on a solo mission. However, you can see there’s support coming and it’s going to be at least a three-on-three situation.

crosby game 3 5

It ends up being a more favorable situation for Pittsburgh, Crosby hung onto the puck for a couple of seconds after entering the zone, which allowed Schultz to drive the center lane and draw in two Tampa Bay players with him. This opened up some space for him to get the puck to Hornqvist for a fairly dangerous chance in the high slot area. It also led to sustained pressure, as Pittsburgh worked a cycle and created two more shots off this entry. All of this came off a pretty innocent looking clear in the defensive zone, but Pittsburgh has made a habit out of killing teams off small miscues like this ever since Sullivan took over. They always had two players ready to exit the zone the second the forechecking team lost possession in the offensive zone and it wasn’t limited to their forwards. Their defense was encouraged to join the fun, as well.

Pittsburgh’s defense corps has gotten more mobile as the year as gone one and it is centered around Kris Letang, who has been a perfect fit in Sullivan’s high-risk/high-reward style of play. His passing is obviously a strong asset to this system, but his skating and puck-handling is just as important and this clip from Game 5 shows an example of what he brings and what Tampa had to deal with on a regular basis.

letang entry 8

The Penguins had just broke up a cycle play by the Lightning and you can see both Letang and the high forward preparing to receive a pass from Beau Bennett. You can also see that the Lightning’s forecheck isn’t as aggressive as it was in the previous clip. This is because the defense backed off instead of pinching into keep the play alive. Perhaps they’re a little more apprehensive to not get burned in transition this time around? The high forward is also covering the right wing so Letang has more room to work with if he gets the puck.

letang entry 9

Bennett makes the cross-ice pass to Letang and he has a lot of room to work with until he hits the blue line because the Lightning have both defensemen back. It’s Game 5, so Tampa Bay probably knew what to expect by this time and was a little more cautious with their forecheck. Letang still was able to create a couple shots off this entry, although both of them were from pretty harmless locations on the ice. Still, Pittsburgh kept going with this strategy even after Tampa Bay’s adjustments and eventually some holes opened up, particularly in Game 7 where Tampa was forced to play aggressive in the offensive zone while they were trailing.

Letang entry 1

This is during the third period of Game 7, so Tampa Bay’s playoff lives are on the line at this point, thus they have Nikita Kucherov leading an entry with three other players supporting him, including defenseman Jason Garrison. Having support & going up the ice as a group is a stable of Tampa Bay’s system, but having four guys into the zone is definitely game-state influenced. It was very tough for Pittsburgh to defend this, regardless.

letang entry 2

Kucherov had a lane to a net that was cut off by defenseman Brian Dumoulin and he is forced to make a pass to supporting forward Tyler Johnson. I still think he could have gotten a shot away, but Johnson is wide open on the backdoor and he has another forward coming in Alex Killorn, so this is a two-on-one at worst for Tampa Bay if he completes this pass.

letang entry 3

The pass goes over Johnson’s stick and the rebound goes right to a Pittsburgh player. The Penguins do what they do best, fly out of the zone as quick as they can and Letang does the honors of carrying the puck up the ice once again. This time he has Bryan Rust supporting him and only one defenseman back, so the chances of Pittsburgh getting a scoring opportunity here are very high.

letang entry 4

The situation develops into a three-on-two with Malkin trailing the play and Garrison trying desperately to get back and help out Stralman. Meanwhile, Rust has a clear lane to the net and no one in his way.

letang entry 5

Rust gets a prime scoring chance and nearly made this a 3-1 game. He ended up missing the net, but this was still a great chance for Pittsburgh and an example of how dangerous their transition game was all series. It put a huge wrench into the Lightning’s plan of pressuring them up the ice & making them go through five players in the neutral zone and eventually Tampa Bay had to back off and respect that the Pens had at least one player camped out for a breakaway or a stretch pass the second possession changed hands. In this instance, they couldn’t keep a defenseman back because they needed a goal and had to play aggressive. Pittsburgh immediately pounced on them the second they made a miscue in the offensive zone.

Tampa Bay Lightning 5v5 Zone Entries

Tampa Bay Forwards

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Tampa Bay Defense

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With all the talk about what Pittsburgh did in the neutral zone, Tampa Bay had a strong series in this regard and they outperformed Pittsburgh statistically in this regard. The difference was they didn’t translate their entries into as many shots as they should have, which is more of a product of something they were doing wrong in the offensive zone. As far as getting the puck there goes, Tampa did a very good job. Like against the Islanders, they didn’t have much of a problem getting the puck on the stick of their best players here and most of them did well with the opportunity, Drouin especially. Alex Killorn also saw more of a puck-handling role here than in previous rounds.

The counter-attack was obviously a big factor for Tampa Bay but their entry strategy in general was pretty simple. They wanted to move the puck up the ice as a group and give their players support when they tried to carry the puck into the zone. Pittsburgh’s defense is mobile, but defending their own blue line isn’t one of their strong suits and having good puck support to make them back off isn’t a bad strategy. Tampa made a point of doing this early in the series.

tb breakout entry

Here we see what is a pretty standard breakout for the Lightning, they have three players coming up the ice with Drouin leading the charge down the right wing.

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Needing to respect the puck-carrier, the Pittsburgh defenseman challenges Drouin while the two other forwards drive the center lane.

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This draws in the Pittsburgh defense to the front of the net and Drouin pulls up in the offensive zone to allow some of his teammate’s to catch up. Palat and Filppula driving the middle lane opened up some space high in the zone, so the two trailing defensemen will have plenty of room to make something happen if/when Drouin gets them the puck.

tb breakout entry 4

Drouin finds Hedman trailing the play and Tampa Bay gets a shot away with some traffic in front of the net. It didn’t end up being the most efficient play because there wasn’t a second or third chance opportunity, but this does cover their neutral zone strategy well. They’re big on supporting each other up the ice, providing passing options and moving the puck laterally if the opportunity is there. This was illustrated in the last example and they tried it a lot in the offensive zone, almost to a fault.

TB breakout entry 5

This is from Game 2, the score is currently tied and Tampa Bay is setting up a breakout while Pittsburgh after negating a rush by Pittsburgh. Their first line is on the ice against the Malkin line & the Trevor Daley/Ben Lovejoy defense pairing. We pick up this play with Tyler Johnson passing the puck to Nikita Kucherov on the right wing.

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The play develops into a two-on-two rush with Braydon Coburn joining the play while the other forwards are still in the defensive zone.

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Kucherov and Coburn make a criss-cross pattern in the neutral zone, forcing the defense to back off again and Tyler Johnson comes streaking into the play through the middle drive, creating some problems for the Penguins.

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Kucherov ends up taking a wide route and tries to hit Johnson with a pass, but Pittsburgh defends this pretty well. Daley breaks up the pass and Tom Kuhnhackl made a good back-check to fend off Coburn on the right wing. Thus, the play ended up not resulting in much of anything and the Lightning let what looked like a pretty good rush go to waste. This seemed to be a problem for Tampa Bay all series long.

They could get the puck into the zone with control, but weren’t creating as many shots as they could have. Part of that was strategy-influenced, as they were adamant about getting Pittsburgh’s goaltenders to move laterally. That led to some plays which died due to an extra pass or one that was off the mark like the one shown above. Pittsburgh also did a pretty good job of clogging the shooting lanes and forcing Tampa Bay to look for the extra pass, even when it wasn’t available.

This highlights some of the problems Tampa Bay had in the offensive zone, which we will go over in more detail in tomorrow’s post. I originally wanted them both in one post, but it’s a lot of info to take in and there was a lot to cover in just neutral zone play alone. Regardless, it was interesting to see what both teams were doing here tactics-wise. Tomorrow we’ll take a more detailed look at how they were creating offense and which players were the most efficient at it.

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3 thoughts on “Under The Microscope: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (Part I: Neutral Zone Play)

  1. Pingback: Under The Microscope: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (Part II: Offensive Zone Play) | The Energy Line

  2. Pingback: The Sports Daily – Sports news, analysis and reaction—without an agenda -

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