Yesterday, we looked at the neutral zone play in the Eastern Conference Finals and one thing that stood out was that both teams did pretty well in this regard from an offensive standpoint. Both the Lightning and the Penguins were able to carry the puck into the zone frequently but the Pens were creating a lot more shots off their entries. Since both teams play in the neutral zone was so similar, we’re going to have to take a more in-depth look at what was happening in the offensive zone to see how each team was generating & preventing shots.
I usually include passing & shot generation stats in the series recap but I’ve recently teamed up with Ryan Stimson, founder of the Passing Project and will now be tracking stats using his method. My original tracking method was based on his, so the final results were pretty similar. We both tracked every shot attempt that occurred during a game and noted the last three players who made a pass which led to the eventual shot. The main thing we did differently I how we tracked where the passes came from and the direction they were going. I did this by splitting the offensive zone into 14 sections and each area was represented by a different number in my spreadsheet. With Ryan’s method, we mark down the zone of the ice the pass originated from (offensive, neutral or defensive) and if he came from the left, center or right side of the ice. Certain plays in the offensive zone are also notated. For instance, passes that started behind the net have their own category, as to passes that went back to the point. Passes that crossed the home plate area between the two faceoff circles (aka the “Royal Road”) are also notated. Stretch passes from the neutral and defensive zone are also tracked.
It’s a lot to take in and took some adjusting on my part, but it’s worth it in the end. Having specific plays put in their own category makes an analyst’s job so much easier because certain player/team tendencies are captured this way. Ryan discussed a couple of these plays such as the Behind The Net attack and the Low-to-High play and their significance in this post and we’re going to see if we can apply them to the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh playoff series.
This is a good series to do this type of analysis because according to Corsica.Hockey, the goal total was even despite Tampa Bay getting pummeled in terms of shots. I chalked most of this up to Andrei Vasilevskiy standing on his head, but is there more to it? Was Tampa attacking the offensive zone more efficiently than Pittsburgh or was it just goaltending and variance? It’s also worth looking into why Tampa Bay had such a hard time generating shots while everything looked so easy for Pittsburgh.
Before we get started, let’s revisit the shot attempts for this series.
5v5 Shot Attempts
Like I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Pittsburgh owned every shot category except for ones generated off odd-man rushes. This had an impact because Tampa Bay scored four of their even strength goals off these instances and they had 16 all series, so that’s 25% of their goal output right there. It was a pretty small percentage, though and Pittsburgh only converted on one of the 14 odd-man shots they had, so there’s definitely some variance involved there. The counter-attack was big for Tampa Bay, but it was a pretty small part of their overall offense and the rest of the factors should have evened out in theory.
However, something else worth noting in the chart is the percentage of shots both teams were generating off passing plays. Pittsburgh still outperformed Tampa Bay in this regard, but the percentage of shots off passing plays for both teams is pretty similar. Is there anything to this? Hard to say based on this alone because even a shot that came off multiple passes could be of low quality. For instance, if a team is settling for shots from the point after working the play around in the offensive zone because nothing else is open, then they’re probably not going to be creating a lot of chances. Was either team guilty of doing that? Because there are a couple things you can hypothesize from this. On one hand, Pittsburgh had a lot of shots off passes & shots in general, but how many were low-percentage plays. The same thing can be argued for Tampa Bay and how they were badly outchanced despite creating a similar ratio of their shots off passing plays.
This is where the more detailed passing information can help us. With Ryan’s method, we can look at where each team was creating their passes that led to shots and look at the certain types of plays in the offensive zone they were creating.
Pass/Shot Assist Types
This chart shows primary shot assists that occurred in all three zones. It gives us a better idea of how exactly each team was creating their offense. Unsurprisingly, Pittsburgh leads most of the categories here but what is interesting is that the distribution of shots by lane is pretty fair across the board. Neither team had a particular area that they exploited from this angle. It’s a little different than I expected because it sure looked like the Pens were picking on Jason Garrison quite a bit, so I expected them to have a high percentage of passes from the right lane. The stretch pass category being fairly even is also a little surprising because that’s a big part of the Penguins game, but the Lightning had their share of chances on the counter-attack as well.
We start to see some trends when we dive into the specific play/pass types. Both teams used the low-to-high play more often and if you go back to Ryan’s post that I linked to at the beginning of the article, you’ll pick up that these are generally more low percentage plays. It makes sense because the shots are coming from the point and it usually takes a deflection or a screen for a shot to even get through from that distance. This accounted for a decent chunk of the Lightning’s offense. Pittsburgh also had their fair share of these plays, but a much smaller percentage than Tampa Bay’s. They were more likely to attack the middle of the ice, which obviously leads to more high quality chances. They also had more success than Tampa Bay at attacking from behind the net, something the Lightning didn’t do much of and they doubled them up in creating shots off faceoff plays.
The home plate area category is interesting because Tampa Bay wasn’t too far off from Pittsburgh in terms of the number of passing plays they were creating there. The Pens still had a pretty decent advantage, but getting the puck to that area of the ice seemed to be a key point of emphasis for the Lightning. I touched on this a little in yesterday’s post, but the Lightning were adamant about moving the puck east-to-west when going up the ice and this strategy carried over into the offensive zone. Sometimes it led to wasted opportunities due to over-passing or good coverage by the Penguins defense, but sometimes it paid off. Combine it with their neutral zone strategy of going up the ice as a group and Tampa Bay can be a very hard team to contain at times. Take this goal from Game 4 for example:
Tampa Bay is entering the zone on a counter attack (shocker!) with Alex Killorn leading the rush on the left wing. They have Vladislav Namestnikov driving the middle lane, another key part of their attack, and Nikita Kucherov trailing the play. The Penguins are scrambling a bit with Trevor Daley trying to keep up with Namestnikov, Ben Lovejoy (far defenseman) trying to keep Killorn stapled to the outside and a forward back to help out. Tampa Bay already has the advantage here because Lovejoy gave Killorn plenty of respect here and there’s only going to be more room to work with since they have two guys coming in support.
Kucherov follows the play and takes an exchange from Killorn. He was able to do this uncontested because the Pittsburgh forward trailing the play went to the middle of the ice to block a potential cross-ice pass. Namestnikov continued to drive the middle lane and draw the defensemen closer to the net (and eventually out of the play), so the Lightning have a pretty favorable situation here as it is. Also creeping into the play is defenseman Andrej Sustr, who will play an important role in just a second.
Kucherov now has the puck and Tampa Bay has essentially 3-on-2 situation and Sustr is left uncovered on the back-door thanks to Namestnikov taking Daley out of the play and the Pittsburgh forward putting all of his attention on either Kucherov or Killorn. With how much emphasis put on blocking Kucherov’s pass, they better hope it works.
It doesn’t, and Sustr scores what was probably one of the easiest goals of his life. It was a great play design by the Lightning and the execution was flawless. However, this is the “perfect day” scenario because the Lightning weren’t doing this every game all series. If they were then this series probably wouldn’t have gone to seven games and Tampa Bay would have been playing the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final.
While they did have some fun exposing Pittsburgh’s defense on the rush, their other attacks were a little more deliberate, especially after Pittsburgh caught onto what they were trying to do.
Tampa Bay Offensive Zone Strategy
There’s a couple of things to take away from the previous chart. First, the Lightning were running a pretty finesse system and had a focus on creating passing plays in the slot area, particularly from the walls instead of behind the net. Secondly, they used low-to-high passing plays often, meaning had a lot of point shots. Reviewing some of the video from the series showed that the two might have been connected in some ways.
The Lightning’s preferred method was to enter the zone cleanly (as we noted last post) and look for passing options. Sometimes they pulled up immediately after they entered the zone and other times they waited until they got past the faceoff dots before trying to make a play. Basically doing anything they could to avoid “one-and-done” chances after entering the zone. With how much emphasis they put on puck support and driving the opposing defense back, this wasn’t a bad strategy and I already showed you one example where it worked for them.
When it doesn’t work, however, things can get a bit frustrating. Pittsburgh knew what they were trying to do most of the time and did their best to take away the Lightning’s passing options in the slot area. When that doesn’t happen, the play either died or went back to the point, which is where a chunk of the Lightning’s shots came from. When it doubt, look for the next easiest option. For Tampa Bay, that was getting the puck back to the point and the Penguins forced them into doing this more times than they would have liked. Tampa did try to make the most of it, though.
This clip from Game 5 has a little of everything that I’m talking about.
The Lightning have a controlled breakout going with Andrej Sustr doing the honors. Pittsburgh has only one forechecker because they are in the middle of a line change and Tampa Bay has a couple of forwards camped out in the neutral zone looking to take advantage of it.
Sustr hits Ryan Callahan with the breakout pass and he is able to easily get by Pittsburgh’s defense, catching them flatfooted while they were coming off the bench.
Creating a mini-breakaway for himself, Callahan goes to the net himself to create a scoring chance. The Pittsburgh defender (Dumoulin) does his best to take his space away, forcing Callahan to his backhand but the Tampa Bay forward still forces the goaltender to make a save.
The rebound goes to the corner and Beau Bennett gets to it first. He sends it along the boards in hopes of getting it out of the zone. Valtteri Filppula was in his face the entire time, so it ended up being a pretty low-percentage play on his part. Shoutout to NBC for the useless camera angle.
Bennett makes Tampa Bay’s job a little easier, as his failed clear results in a point shot by Jason Garrison. Not the best angle in the world to take the shot from but the worst case scenario here is for the shot to get blocked and Tampa Bay kept attempting this in hopes of opening up other plays.
Garrison’s shot misses the net and the play goes around to the other side of the rink and Callahan attempts another shot, this time with some traffic in front of the net. Or at least that’s what it looks like.
Instead of attempting a shot, Callahan sent the puck around the net to the other side again, so Tampa Bay can setup another cycle. There’s two forwards there in support and Pittsburgh’s defense is starting to break down a little bit, you’ll notice Dumoulin was playing without a stick in the last couple of clips so they are vulnerable right now.
Callahan comes down to help the cycle, receiving an exchange behind the net from JT Brown, who made a nice read to make the pass before he was checked. Meanwhile, Filppula is starting to make a break towards the net while the slot area is still open. The forward covering it, Bennett, gave his stick to Dumoulin and the other two forwards are giving some respect to the point-men.
Callahan & Filppula try to take advantage of this brief opening by trying a quick play in front of the net but they miss and guess where the puck ends up going back to?
The missed pass ends up being a make-shift “low-to-high” play because Garrison read it well and things are a little tougher for the Pittsburgh goaltender now because he has to fight through a screen of his own players to even see the shot. The Pens have a high forward also in the shooting lane so things could be a lot worse, but they are starting to run around a bit in the defensive zone. It’s expected with sustained possession like Tampa Bay has done here. Unfortunately, Garrison’s shot got blocked and Tampa had to start over again.
This did capture a little of everything in Tampa Bay’s system, though. They created a breakaway chance off the rush and taking shots from the point, making Pittsburgh’s forwards respect that part of their game and hopefully opening up some plays in the slot area. The only thing that was missing was them deliberately working the play back to the point. It was a key part of their attack, but the two times it happened here were by coincidence. This next example, however, shows one of their top lines doing it a bit more strategically.
Tampa Bay currently has the Palat-Johnson-Drouin line on the ice and the two wingers are currently entering the zone, with a give-and-go play to get around Pittsburgh’s defense. They have two Penguins forwards on their tail, so space is going to be hard to come by from the looks of things.
Palat makes the pass to Drouin but the Lightning aren’t exactly in a favorable situation. There’s three forwards in the zone but the Pittsburgh defender stepped up on Palat and they have five players back.
Despite that, Drouin continues to work the play around while fending off a Pittsburgh defender in the process. He sends the puck around the net in hopes of getting some support on the other side. There’s not much else he can do here because the Penguins have it covered so well and there’s no way he can get the puck to the net.
This ends up being a smart play by Drouin because Johnson read the situation well and made a retrieval. Tampa Bay now looks to start a cycle and potentially create a chance. Unfortunately, the slot is covered because Pittsburgh has all three forwards down low with Fehr covering the middle of the ice. Lovejoy also has a close eye on Palat, so if he tries to make a play to the net, he’s probably going to turn the puck over.
Johnson & Palat do a quick exchange of the puck and try to open up some space by working a cycle. Lovejoy starts to chase Palat but Fehr is staying put in the slot for now. Tom Kuhnhackl (34) and Matt Cullen (concealed) are also there covering Johnson, so Pittsburgh has this covered well unless the two low forwards don’t move. The near-side defenseman (Maatta) is also there to help out.
Johnson can’t find any room to get open, so Palat does what he’s likely instructed to do, get the puck back to the point. Seeing how all five Penguins are in the pictured, the point is likely wide open and there’s a decent shooting opportunity there.
Palat gets the puck to Matt Carle at the point and he wastes no time to get a shot off. The left winger did his best to get in the lane, but the shot ended up getting through and Tampa has a slightly favorable situation with Johnson providing a distraction in front of the goal.
Thing start to escalate as Johnson’s able to get a stick on this puck, but his deflection ends up going wide by just a few inches and the Lightning have to start over.
With everyone going for the puck, Palat doesn’t have any friends to pass to in the slot (which is inhabited by three Penguins), so he tries to start the process again by getting the puck back to Carle.
Unfortunately for him, the play ends here as the puck hops over Carle’s stick and Tampa Bay has to tag up here. There’s a lot that went on in this sequence, but the general idea was the same. Look for a play in the slot and if it’s not there, work it back to the point and hope something opens up there. Tampa Bay’s insistence on looking for opportunities in the slot area seemed to cost them some opportunities, though, as they kept trying to make something happen here even when Pittsburgh had it covered. It’s not out of the question to think that this hurt them on the shot counter just a little.
That being said, they did frustrate Pittsburgh at times whenever they could find an opening in their defense. Probably wasn’t as often as they would have liked, though.
Tampa Bay Lightning Individual Shots & Passes
To me, what stands out here is Nikita Kucherov’s position on the graph. He was a dual threat throughout the playoffs, until this series where he was primarily used as a passer. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he did well in this role. No other regular forward (Marchessault only played in two games) came close to matching his production in terms of setting up his teammates and he was by far their most effective player at setting up chances in the slot area. The new linemates likely influenced this, as he spent most of his time with Alex Killorn and a couple different centers. He’s typically a shoot-first player and creates a lot of opportunities on his own, but his role was reversed here, creating more opportunities for his linemates. Killorn saw the most benefit from it, as he had a very good series and did well as the main shooter on this line. It was an interesting time to put Kucherov in a new role like this, but this series did show his versatility as a player and that he can succeed with different linemates. How much better he was at setting up shots from plays in the neutral zone says a lot, too.
Outside of him, Tampa Bay’s shot contributions from forwards is a little underwhelming and it’s kind of surprising given how much of an emphasis they put on passing. Kucherov seemed to be the only one who did it effectively on a consistent basis. Johnson, Drouin & Palat all find themselves in the middle of the graph here and it’s a little surprising given how effective Johnson & Drouin were at starting plays & rushes in the neutral zone. Drouin definitely looked like he was setting up a lot of plays, but the final results are a bit lower than I expected.
Callahan was surprisingly one of their better players here, generating shots at high rate and setting up plays from dangerous areas on the ice, like behind the net. Callahan’s best days as an offensive player are behind him, but he was effective in this series. Brian Boyle finding himself as one of the most frequent shooters on the team is also something I did not see coming.
When it came to turning defense into offense, no one on Tampa Bay did it better than Victor Hedman, as the towering defenseman led all Lightning players in primary assists off stretch passes and assists from the defensive zone. He wasn’t their most effective play-maker from the blue line, though. That, shockingly, was Andrej Sustr. You saw him jump into the play to score the goal in the clip earlier and he him being active in the offense wasn’t too out of the ordinary this series. With Anton Stralman coming off a serious leg injury, the Lightning needed someone from their blue line to help pitch into the offense, especially on the right side, and Sustr stepped into that role. Playing alongside a shoot-first player like Garrison probably didn’t hurt matters. Youngster Slater Koekkoek also showed some flashes here.
Pittsburgh Penguins Offensive Zone Strategy
Going back to the pass distribution chart, you’ll recall that Pittsburgh outperformed Tampa Bay in basically every category and there wasn’t really a particular area they exposed. They outshot Tampa Bay on passing plays from behind the net, in the home plate area and off faceoff wins, so just about everything came easy for them in this regard. That’s the scary thing about this Penguins team, they are three lines deep with top-end talent so they’re probably going to get their shots one way or another and they’re well coached enough to make adjustments when a team finds a way to slow them down.
I talked about this a little in the post on zone entries, but how does it apply in terms of their offensive zone play? It’s hard to pinpoint one area in particular because they were all over the Lightning in the offensive zone, beating them to rebounds, forcing turnovers and adding something new to their attack to keep Tampa Bay’s defense on their heels.
How they created plays from behind the net was one thing that stood out to me, as it was one category they drastically outperformed Tampa Bay in. With passers like Crosby & Malkin, you would expect Pittsburgh to excel in this area on pure talent alone and while this was the case to an extent, Pittsburgh added some wrinkles to their system to catch the Bolts off-guard. You could see it progress the first couple of games this series.
This is from Game 1. Pittsburgh is trying to setup a play from behind the net, but Tampa Bay has a defenseman stapled to Conor Sheary, so the chances of him making a play happen are slim to none. There’s also no real support in the slot and the defensemen are back at the blue line, so the only real option he has is to go back to the point.
As you probably guessed, this play dies quickly and Tampa Bay clears the puck. They’ve probably gone to school on Pittsburgh and do not want their top line to beat them with quick plays behind the net. Putting lots of pressure on the puck carrier like Tampa did here is one way to get around this and having the two defensemen contain the net front area doesn’t hurt either. How did Pittsburgh get around this?
Well, they would need better puck support than they did on the last play, so having an extra forward below the goal line might be necessary. That leaves the slot empty, which is a problem. Or is it? With all of the pressure Tampa Bay was putting below the goal line, there is bound to be open ice somewhere. Maybe even in the slot area?
There’s your adjustment. Tampa had five players low in the defensive zone on this play, so Pittsburgh responded by having three forwards pitch into win a puck battle. The puck eventually got to Crosby and he found some open space behind the net, setting up Brian Dumoulin for a pretty good chance in the high slot. You might have noticed that both defensemen pinched, which might make some coaches shiver, especially in a 1-0 game, but Sullivan is a little more lenient with his players making high-risk plays like this. Plus, Tampa Bay has five guys all in full out defensive mode here, so it’s not like this was a big risk. Either way, it nice little adjustment by Pittsburgh to counter the Lightning’s aggressive defensive zone play.
This whole thing was pretty fun to watch because the adjustments continued throughout the game.
This was only a little over three minutes later. You can see Pittsburgh has, once again, worked the puck to behind the net and Tampa Bay is playing a little more passive this time around. Instead of pressuring the guy with the puck, they’re taking away all of his passing options. Crosby can’t go to Kunitz or Sheary in front of the net because they’re covered and both Garrison & Drouin have the right lane covered. There’s nowhere for Crosby to go.
…except to the defensemen who just jumped into the play and completely changed the landscape here. Daley ended up not scoring here, but it was a crafty play design by the Penguins and a great pass by Crosby. There are not a lot of teams who can make adjustments this well (or a lot of players who can make the pass Crosby did here), so the Lightning had their hands full in a lot of ways.
The defense continued to join the fun later in the game, only in much different ways.
We pick things back up in the third period of Game 2 and we’ve got a yard sale behind the net, as the Lightning are going with more aggressive coverage in the defensive zone again. Pittsburgh only has two players behind the net (Kunitz & Crosby) and Hornqvist in front of the net, but they need to do some work before they can setup a play.
Crosby eventually wins the puck (partially thanks to the TB defender falling down) and he goes along the wall to defenseman Ian Cole, as all the passing options are covered. This as a slightly more conservative playing style by the Penguins compared to the last example. You can see the other defenseman (Schultz) is hanging out on the near blue line and they have a forward going back to cover the point while Cole is pinching. A little interesting because Tampa Bay has five guys down low again, but it’s the third period so I can understand them being more cautious.
Possibly expecting another play behind the net, Tampa Bay gets puck-focused and has two players go to cover Cole, most likely because Crosby is also nearby. They also have the lane behind the net blocked off, so Pittsburgh won’t be able to setup a play there. There’s just one problem, Pittsburgh has a guy wide open in the slot and Cole has a clear passing lane to hit him with, so all he has to do is hit Kunitz with the pass and the Penguins have a great scoring chance.
Cole made the pass and Kunitz got a great scoring chance which he ended up missing the net on. Consider that a bullet dodged for Tampa Bay because it’s hard to give up a better chance than this. It just goes to show that Pittsburgh usually has another surprise or two waiting in the wings even when you think you have their gameplan all figured out. Tampa Bay learned this the hard way more than a few times, as you can see here.
Pittsburgh Individual Shots & Passes
The shooters & passers are easy to define here, mostly because Crosby & Malkin are on another planet compared to the rest of the team. Both players were a key reason why Pittsburgh was so effective at creating passing plays from dangerous locations (like behind the net), as the two of them alone accounted for nearly half of their shot assists that came from this area. Both players did their share of work as shooters, too. Mostly creating opportunities for themselves, but it’s hard to find two players in the league who are better at this.
It’s also interesting to see who the beneficiaries were of their passes based on this graph. Malkin had some obvious chemistry with Bryan Rust this round and the two made a pretty effective duo, despite being put together by circumstance. Kunitz, on the other hand, spent time with both Crosby & Malkin and it is pretty clear to see why he was promoted to that line over Conor Sheary, who came back to Earth after a strong series against the Caps. Patric Hornqvist’s numbers are also somewhat lower than I expecting, seeing how him and Crosby are attached at the hip.
Nick Bonino isn’t quite in Crosby/Malkin land, but he was very effective at setting up Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh’s top shot producer. An interesting quirk is that Bonino also had 10 primary shot assists that came off faceoff plays, which were another big part of Pittsburgh’s offense, so that only helped his value this series. Carl Hagelin didn’t have as many passes as some of his teammates, but he did have some moderate success of setting up Kessel, particularly from behind the net. If Kessel really “needs someone to get him the puck” to succeed, Bonino & Hagelin seemed to do that job to say the very least.
Like Hedman was for the Lightning, Letang kick-started most of Pittsburgh’s rushes, recording more primary assists off stretch passes than the rest of the defense combined. Pittsburgh was more likely to skate the puck through the neutral zone or use an “alley-oop” play to get the puck out and have a forward retrieve it, so stretch passes weren’t that big of a factor this series. Letang was the go-to player for these kinds of plays, though and he was just as effective at setting up lays in the offensive zone.
As a whole, Pittsburgh’s defense was more likely to shoot than pass, and this obviously includes Letang. It’s not too different from most team’s defense corps, but the rate at which most of their blue line was generating shots is pretty impressive, especially since they weren’t afraid to pinch & shoot from areas besides the points. You can also see how big of a loss Trevor Daley was for the Pens here and that Justin Schultz did a solid job stepping into a full-time role, mostly playing his role and making things happen in the offensive zone.
Pretty interesting series to watch and the fact that Pittsburgh was on the brink of elimination is even more shocking when looking at things in detail. The Lightning got the benefit of some goals off odd-man rushes and gave the Penguins a scare, but Pittsburgh was just too much for them to handle, especially in the final two games. Getting into a possession duel with Pittsburgh is probably losing a battle, so the Lightning tried their best to make the most of their opportunities. Early on, it worked but Pittsburgh adjusted and the sheer volume of chances Tampa Bay was giving up eventually caught up to them.
It’s one thing to lose the territorial battle in a seven-game series. Sometimes that happens and you can still win through strong goaltending in defense. The problem was that Tampa Bay was losing the territorial battle in lopsided fashion AND frequently giving up dangerous chances. Pittsburgh eventually got their reward and took the series in seven games.
Special shoutout to Ryan Stimson for sharing his pass tracking template with me, as it made writing this post a lot easier.