What’s The Difference-Maker for Penguins Against Lightning?

The Penguins and Lightning series has looked like a potential track meet. Two of the fastest skating teams in the NHL matched up against one another promised some exciting hockey and it hasn’t disappointed. It also hasn’t delivered the freewheeling action some expected. Both teams have utilized their speed, but the results vary in the method in which it has been applied.

There has been a great focus on zone entries and their link to offensive success in the analytics community. It’s intuitive in its concept. When we take into account the importance of the slot line on scoring and the nature of most zone entries, a team with speed should be able to exploit these opportunities. Odd man rushes should be taken advantage of and expose poor gap control.

The Lightning punished the Islanders and Thomas Greiss in the second round with exactly this type of attack and have been able to create high-quality opportunities against the Penguins by using this method.

Tampa Bay is at their best when it attacks the blue line with speed. Tyler Johnson is particularly dangerous if you allow him entry to the zone. This speed opens up the ice for pre-shot movement and denies goaltenders the proper information to prepare. Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat exposed Matt Murray in Game 1 with this type of attack.

This aspect of the Lightning’s game hasn’t dissipated against the Penguins. I checked their zone entry numbers using data provided by Sportlogiq vs. the Penguins and both teams have had similar success.

Through the first three games of the series, the Penguins have 133 to the Lightning’s 127. Pittsburgh has relied slightly more on dump-ins than the Lightning (113 to 101). The difference in the series, and where the Penguins have absolutely dominated the Lightning, is in offensive zone loose puck recoveries. Sidney Crosby has shown why he is still the best player in the NHL and has been dogged in his loose puck recoveries.

When the Penguins gain the offensive zone, the Lightning have had no answer for their speed and determination in winning the puck. Whether the Lightning matched power-for-power with Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn against Crosby or moved that trio against the Phil Kessel line when they returned to Tampa, they have not been able to repel the Penguins relentless offensive zone assault. It is the main reason for the Penguins dominant performance. A performance that has seen the Penguins maintain a 11.1 to 5.9 expected goal differential (.651 overall) and 21:40 of offensive zone time versus Tampa’s 13:26.

When Victor Hedman is not on the ice, the Lightning defense struggles with containment and zone exits. Like the Lightning, the Penguins are great off the rush with Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin causing chaos. But their speed is not only effective off the rush. Where the Lightning have continually been one and done on offense, the Penguins are using their speed to cause havoc when in the offensive zone and gain high-percentage slot line feeds.

The Penguins continually have multiple players pressuring the puck and arriving with speed. This pressure forces turnovers.

As we can see above, Chris Kunitz and Crosby pressure Anton Stralman, forcing Brian Boyle to clear the puck out of desperation. It doesn’t get to Hedman and is picked up along the boards easily by Ian Cole as Hedman and Cedric Paquette are offering slot support. Tampa overloads four on Cole and he finds Kunitz in a soft spot for a high-percentage opportunity. Kunitz waits too long to unload his release, giving Vasilevsky enough time to gather information. Vasilevsky then does a great job with his box control as he has time to gain depth as well as vertical coverage.

This offensive zone pressure and consistent ability to recover loose pucks has tilted the ice and with it has come a ton of high-percentage scoring plays — nine slot line crossing plays, four deflected pucks and nine rebound shots. 81% of the Penguins shots have been clear-sighted. The Lightning has been league average. Their problem is that their opportunities through three games have been limited to one and done scenarios, where they gain the zone, get their shot and are back to defending the neutral zone.

If it wasn’t for Vasilevsky, this series wouldn’t seem to be as close as the scoreboard indicates. While rush opportunities are responsible for the highest chances on the top end, they also provide a ton of easy saves. They also don’t take much out of the goaltender as he sets for the shot, finishes, and resets. Consistent zone play takes a ton out of a goaltender as they are forced into stressful situations for extended periods of time. It forces up-and-down movement as well as constantly adjusting to the puck location.

If the Lightning continue to be dominated by the Pittsburgh’s speed in the defensive zone, it will be extremely tough for Vasilevsky or Ben Bishop to extend this series for long.