PITTSBURGH – The first round playoff matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning that kicks off tonight at 7pm is set to be an intriguing one.
In no other series this year can you say both teams have a legitimate chance of sweeping the other. The storylines on the ice are well-documented. Behind the bench, two new-era coaches will faceoff with X’s and O’s.
Tampa’s Guy Boucher is not your average bench boss. The owner of a master’s degree in sports psychology has not been afraid to challenge tradition in his first season. He and new GM Steve Yzerman have transformed the Lightning and taken the franchise back to the playoffs after a chaotic three-year hiatus.
Dan Bylsma of Pittsburgh brings an upbeat, yet relentless approach to the game that was chronicled in detail during the the HBO 24/7 series.
Like every sport, hockey coaches attempt to provide as much structure as they can to a team’s gameplan without suffocating creativity. In January we took a look at one example of Bylsma’s forechecking system and how a simple breakdown resulted in two losses to Boston.
Most teams also have set plays in place for turnover situations and the Penguins’ ability to transition from defense to the offensive attack is as quick as anyone in the league this year.
A big key to their success is personnel. On defense, Kris Letang can skate like the wind. Paul Martin has the rare ability to slow the game down to his pace and remain calm under pressure. Ben Lovejoy and Matt Niskanen have quick feet and the ability to make an accurate first pass to start the attack. Calling Zbynek Michalek‘s first pass ‘accurate’ would be an understatement. He can fire a laser-guided puck 100 feet across the ice right onto the tape of a teammate speeding up the ice, a skill that goes largely unappreciated for the shutdown defenseman.
On the offensive end, the Penguins also have a number of speedy forwards that aid in quick transition. A rash of injuries throughout the season slowly transformed the Penguins forwards into a small but fiery group. The ‘sandpaper’ style of play that accompanied players like Arron Asham was replaced by Chris Conner and other youngsters who were simply starving to get into the lineup.
But it’s not just the players. The Penguins under coach Dan Bylsma have quietly used a tweak in the rules to their advantage as well.
The purpose of the icing rule in hockey is to prohibit teams from blindly firing the puck down the ice whenever they’re in trouble or need a line change (You can read about icing here).
Under Section 10 Rule 81.5, standard icing can be waved off…
If, in the opinion of the Linesman, any player (other than the goalkeeper) of the opposing team is able to play the puck before it passes his goal line, but has not done so, play shall continue and the icing violation shall not be called.
A few seasons ago, in an effort to limit stoppages and maintain the flow of the game, the rule was expanded to include a referee judgment call from the offensive perspective as well:
The Linesman shall have discretion to wave off apparent icing infractions on attempted passes if those passes are deemed receivable (attainable). In order for the Linesman to wash out the icing for this reason, the receiving player’s stick must be on the attacking side of the center red line and he must be eligible to receive the pass (e.g. he cannot be in an off-side position and cannot be involved in a player change that would result in a too many men on the ice penalty if he were to play the puck).
The result of the tweak has been a net positive for the game. Referees have the ability to keep the action going as long as good intentions are displayed by the attacking team.
The Penguins have utilized this rule change in their transition game to create a lightning quick attack on opposing teams. Because the puck moves so quickly from one end of the ice to the other, Pittsburgh’s ‘regroup’ play usually can’t be seen on even the widest of HDTV’s. The diagram to the right is a simplified version of the common situation following a turnover.
As the puck moves from D1 to D2, the center (C) in the middle of the ice curls with the direction of the play and picks up speed. Meanwhile, the left winger (W1) positions himself to receive a pass from D2. Everything up to this point is standard protocol from youth hockey to the NHL.
Where the Penguins plan differs is instead of a normal crisp pass, D2 fires the puck at W1 along the ice.
W1 reads the pressure he’s getting from the opposing defenseman (XD1). If he has time to receive the pass, he catches it and begins to skate on the attack like normal.
But if XD1 attempts to limit his space and ability to receive the pass, W1 can conveniently let the puck fly right by his stick and into the offensive zone. The shot/pass is ‘deemed receivable’ by the referees and play goes on. At this point, the center is going full speed and is the first one to the puck almost every time.
Of course a Tampa-Pittsburgh matchup is a chess game between two Grandmasters, and Guy Boucher had the perfect counter-scheme: the 1-3-1.
Even though Tampa’s defensemen move fairly well for their stature, Boucher knew they couldn’t handle a puck moving from D1 to the far corner of the ice in a matter of seconds.
The Lightning countered the Penguins with a 1-3-1 system (see diagram) and kept a defenseman (XD2) sitting in front of their own net waiting for the puck to get shot down the ice. Unconventional, but makes sense in theory, right? The Lightning won fairly convincingly in the first matchup of the season 5-3.
Bylsma’s turn. Once the Penguins coach had a few periods of film to break down the 1-3-1, he had W1 start to deflect the puck off the boards past XD1 but not all the way down the ice as usual.
The Pittsburgh centers flew in and picked up the puck at full speed and created an unbelievable amount of 2-on-1 chances against the Lightning. The scoreboard reflected as much.
In November, the Penguins won 5-1. Two months later they won 8-1. Both teams used a fairly vanilla gameplan on March 31 when Tampa prevailed with a 2-1 win, but tonight we’ll finally get to see the next chapter in this playbook duel.
Boucher needs to find a way to counter the transition game of the Penguins if Tampa is going to prevail in the series. Few teams have been able to accomplish that task this season. With Pittsburgh’s speed up front and their ability to effectively send the puck 160 feet down the ice untouched on a regular basis, it won’t be easy for the Lightning either.
They’ll survive for a couple games but eventually run out of gas. After the lumbering Pavel Kubina has to turn and chase down Chris Conner two dozen times over the course of a series, he’s going to start cheating. At that point the Lightning are in trouble. It’s one of the biggest reasons why the Penguins are so difficult to play against and amazingly finished with the second most wins in the NHL.
If there’s one problem with this attack style by the Penguins, it’s that they rarely create scoring chances off the rush. The puck ends up in the corner or behind the net where the Pittsburgh forwards go to work. With Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the lineup, the offensive chances typically came when one of them decided to use their creativity. When the Penguins have gone into prolonged scoring droughts this season, it’s usually a result of forwards not taking charge.
If the likes of James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy commit to going to the net when the puck is on their stick, the Penguins will win the battle of attrition – and the series.
~ Boucher has also used an unorthodox system in the defensive zone this year. Instead of players being assigned to certain areas on the ice, Boucher oftens asks the closest man to the puck to attack – regardless of position.
This eliminates a lot of decisions and grey areas that exist in the traditional defensive zone system, but if the Penguins can move the puck quickly the Lightning will suffer breakdowns. Here’s an example from the game in November:
~ James Neal (wrist) will be in the lineup tonight. Bylsma said he kept Neal out of the lineup Sunday as a precaution and knew he would be back and ready to go.
~ Pittsburgh’s playoff experience can’t be discounted. Boucher is still learning the ropes as an NHL head coach and has made a number of expected mistakes along the way. During a grueling stretch of games in February, instead of giving players more off-days to rest and recover, Boucher kicked up the practice intensity a few notches. His team ran out of gas and went into a slide down the standings.
The Penguins have been through it all with this current group. When Tampa inevitably faces adversity in this series, Boucher will need to push all the right buttons. Is he up to the task?
~ The ball will be in Dan Bylsma’s court to start the series as the Penguins have the ability to match Tampa’s personnel at home. Bylsma said he will continue to match the defensive pair of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin against the top line of Tampa. There’s only one problem. When Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Simon Gagne, and Ryan Malone are all so dangerous, how can one line be considered a ‘top line’?