The Tampa Bay Lightning have high-end offense. Everyone knows that.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have a stout defense. Everyone knows that too.
It’s the unstoppable force (Lightning offense) against the immovable object (Blue Jackets defense.) Who would win such an epic battle?
So far after four intense games, it’s actually the Lightning’s defense that is coming out on top. Who saw this coming before the series began?
That was one of the big questions for the Lightning coming in. After getting swept by the Blue Jackets last season and getting a chance at a rematch, could the Lightning win games in a grind-it-out style? The answer at least for now is a resounding yes.
If I were to have told you before the series that after four games, the Lightning will have scored just nine goals and still hold a 3-1 lead, you’d think I’m crazy. It’s true though.
The Lightning hold a 9-8 edge in goals in the four games. While most of the attention has focused on the lack of offense on the Blue Jackets’ side, not enough attention is being given to the job the Lightning are doing on the defensive side.
Here’s the thing we need to consider: What are the Lightning doing to lock down the Blue Jackets? In reviewing the tape and the numbers, there are several things taking place individually that are contributing to this outcome. Let’s start with Game 4 and then review the different elements in play.
Gourde, Goodrow & Coleman
This line was by far the difference in Game 4. They were everywhere causing headaches and havoc to the Blue Jackets. When they were on the ice, they held an overwhelming advantage in possession. All numbers shared here and throughout this article are courtesy of Nat Stat Trick.
At 5-on-5, Gourde was +17/-5, Goodrow was +17/-6 and Coleman was +16/-5 in Corsi. If you look real close, this line had more 5-on-5 ice time (just barely) than both Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov.
Perhaps what was most impressive on tape about this line was their ability to flip the ice in their favor no matter what was going on in the game or where they started their shift from. Each player had just two offense zone starts. So they did most of their work in their own end or in the neutral zone and still put up those possession numbers.
Not only that, they factored in on both goals the Lightning scored. Goodrow and Gourde scored 3:53 apart at the beginning of the second period. Gourde’s goal was the game winner. The goal happens because of a smart play by Gourde and a not-so-smart play by Boone Jenner.
Coleman received a pass from Victor Hedman and came down the right side. He was able to get around Jones and put a shot on net. Gourde was in a scrum of players in front. Joonas Korpisalo made a save but the Lightning got the puck back.
While all that was going on, Gourde positioned himself in front of Korpisalo. He was all by himself. Why? That’s because Jenner for some reason skated away from Gourde and behind the net. Before he could get back in front, the puck was tipped by Gourde past Korpisalo for the game winner.
It’s a heads up play by Gourde to put himself in a scoring position. He took advantage of a rare breakdown in the Blue Jackets’ defense. As you can see from the above, Jenner had Gourde covered. But then he went behind the net and left him alone. It cost them the game ultimately.
When that line wasn’t scoring, they were stifling on defense too. They flipped the game in the Lightning’s favor. Meanwhile let’s talk about their defensemen as a whole.
Lightning Defense is Legit
We know what Hedman brings to the table. He’s a perennial Norris candidate. But it’s what the other defensemen are doing that is allowing the Lightning to shut down the Blue Jackets offense.
Again per Nat Stat trick, here are their six defensemen and what they are doing from a possession standpoint in the four games. (These are at 5-on-5 Corsi.)
- Hedman: +136/-69
- Zach Bogosian: +119/-61
- Ryan McDonough: +113/-78
- Mikhail Sergachev: +99/-64
- Erik Cernak: +96/-71
- Kevin Shattenkirk: +95/-63
No matter who’s been out for the Lightning, they are winning possession. This explains partially why the series is 3-1 Lightning despite the goals being just 9-8 overall. The Lightning have had the puck much more than the Blue Jackets.
So although the Blue Jackets are doing an outstanding job of limiting this high-powered offense, the Lightning are limiting the Blue Jackets offense even more to balance that out.
Players like Sergachev and Cernak might not be household names for you. But on tape, they are each very effective at what they do. Cernak has been the perfect complement for McDonough given his ability to hit and block shots while Sergachev and Shattenkirk give the Lightning another pair that can bring offense. Collectively this is a dangerous unit.
While Kucherov, Point and the forwards get a lot of attention, this defense is showing they can limit their opposition. That’s why they are up 3-1 in the series. They’ve scored just 2.25 goals per game. But they’ve allowed just 2.00 goals per game. This bodes well for them in the future should they advance. They’re showing a playoff mentality where they can win if their offense is slowed. Of course it never hurts to have a perennial Vezina contender guarding your net as well.
You can’t ignore having this guy in net. Vasilevskiy was under some pressure coming into these playoffs to show that he was more than just a regular season goalie. So far he’s answered the call.
While Korpisalo has stood on his head in this series, Vasilevskiy has matched him. But it is fair to say that he has benefited from being behind a much stouter defense. Still, Vasilevskiy is performing slightly above expectations according to Nat Stat Trick in this series (8 GA on 8.8 xGA.)
You are seeing the pattern though. An improved defense with a Vezina-goalie generally means success. But there’s one more player that deserves some attention on the defensive side.
It’s no wonder many around the NHL look at Cirelli as a future Selke winner. He is excellent defensively. Need some evidence of this? Just look at his zone starts.
Cirelli is by far the leader in defensive zone starts for the Lightning in this series. He has 23 defensive zone starts. For reference, Point has just five, Gourde has seven and Tyler Johnson has 16. Need a big draw won? They turn to Cirelli. In the five overtime game, he won 67% of draws and 63% of them in the defensive zone. He’s also a huge part of their penalty kill. His speed allows him to pressure the puck carrier and force them into mistakes.
Cirelli’s line allows their big guns to focus on offense. His presence gives the Lightning perhaps their deepest team in recent memory.
While it is easy to pile on the Blue Jackets for not getting their offense going, the Lightning have a lot to do with that. Their forwards constantly have the puck which means the Blue Jackets have to chase the game. Their defense is legit top-to-bottom no matter who’s on the ice. Their goaltender is one of the best in the world. And they also have some key contributors in other areas making life difficult on the Blue Jackets.
When you add it all up, it shows the Lightning are in fact giving the Blue Jackets a dose of their own defensive medicine.
The Lightning have matched the Blue Jackets defensively as evidenced by a 9-8 margin in goals. If someone was going to defeat the Blue Jackets, it was going to have to be with this method. As we embark on Game 5, the reason the Lightning are on the verge of the second round is because of their defense.
It seems they’ve learned their lesson well from last season.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.