By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me on Twitter @LeonLifschutz
The Boston Bruins find themselves down two games to one in their second round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning following a lopsided defeat in game three. While to some extent it was just one of those nights, there are a number of tactical lessons to glean from the game. Some of these issues are trends noticed throughout the series while others reflect new wrinkles in Tampa Bay’s game plan. While these next couple of off days are meant to shine the light on issues of social justice, the Bruins coaching staff will no doubt be spending at least some of their time in the bubble figuring out how to make tactical adjustments. Doing so will go a long way in helping the Bruins tie up the series.
One of the Bruins larger challenges in this series has been getting the puck out of their own zone. They have struggled to cleanly break it out and have at times failed to make the simple play and just “manage the puck” as Head Coach Bruce Cassidy is apt to point out. Fluto Shinzawa from The Athletic details how poor puck management in overtime led to Tampa Bay’s sudden death goal in game two. We can also take a look at the following sequences to see the Bruins struggling to exit their own zone.
This video also illustrates some of the Bruins neutral zone challenges, but that is for the next section. For now, we can note how much trouble the Bruins are having advancing out of their own zone. The Lightning are playing what can be called a 2-3 press forecheck, similar to an aggressive 2-1-2 many teams play. In this set up, the first two forwards in the zone, F1 and F2, attack the opposing defensemen. Their goal is to force a hurried first pass. That allows whomever is closest, whether that be a high forward in the middle or the defenseman on the boards, to immediately press and apply pressure to the receiver of the rushed pass.
In the first part of the sequence we see the work of F1 and F2 lead to both Krejci and Debrusk needing to come really low in the zone to help with the recovery. Once the puck is moved to Kase this allows Tampa’s F3 to press him. Kase does manage the puck and gets it out, however it only gets so far. The puck ends up right back on Tampa’s sticks and they come roaring back. In the second sequence we see a hurried D to D pass from McAvoy skip through Chara and up to the winger Ritchie. Ritchie is pressured immediately again by F3 and the puck is turned over.
To defeat this aggressive forecheck, centers are going to need to come low in the zone to support their defensemen if the Lightning forwards beat them to puck. If the Bruins D-men can win the race, rather than forcing the pass up the boards, they should make little slip passes to the center swinging low through the middle of the ice. The center will then have the puck in between Tampa Bay’s two layers and can begin moving up ice. The wingers can also start to leave the zone. This will force Tampa Bay’s high forward and defenders to respect the rush and back out. If they fail to back out, it will allow for passes to streaking wingers for odd man rushes.
As we saw in the video above, and featured in our game 2 breakdown, the Lightning have been getting way too much speed through the neutral zone. This allows them to enter the zone with possession, as their top six forwards tend to do, or win races to dump ins, as their bottom six forwards tend to do. It’s not only the Lightning forwards that are taking advantage of all this space. Take a look at the massive gap between the Bruins forwards and defense on this Zach Bogosian rush in game 2.
This play starts out in the offensive zone but it quickly becomes apparent that the Lightning have the puck and will transition forward. With Coyle and Ritchie trapped behind the play, Bjork fails to realize he must retreat and just settle into the neutral zone. He is easily beat and Bogosian has a two zone gap between the Bruins forwards and defenders to get some steam. The large gap makes it challenging for Krug and Carlo to properly play 1v1 defense though this doesn’t excuse them getting so cleanly beat.
This type of gap control issue has permeated the series. Examples include a late Lightning goal in game two, also detailed in the Shinzawa piece, and a couple of the later markers against Vladar in game three. The Bruins need to ensure that their high forward, F3 and in the sequence above Bjork, take less risk. They need to back off quicker and respect Tampa’s ability to counterattack especially since the Lightning’s defense are capable of jumping up in the play. F3 becomes a defenseman whose job it is to funnel the play wide and keep the speed of Tampa’s rush to a minimum as they approach the Bruins defensive blue line.
Re-watching game three (I’m a glutton), it took nearly seven minutes before the Bruins had possession of the puck in the offensive zone for more than ten seconds in a row, and that was largely due to the wizardry of Pastrnak. The Bruins have struggled to enter or retrieve pucks and when they do it is typically a one and done sequence. This example is indicative of that challenge.
In this sequence, Pastrnak is able to enter the zone with possession but there is a wall of white jerseys in his way. In many instances, less offensive minded players would have dumped the puck in before the blue line due to the lack of space and time. Pastrnak elects to hold onto it but cannot get the shot through. Following the not so dangerous attempt the Bruins are unable to recover the puck and the Lightning quickly transition the other way.
This is largely a product of Tampa defending well. Offense is hard to coach but Cassidy will need to maximize his lineup for this to get any better. The Bruins also really need their second and third lines to get going in this regard. Kase and Debrusk are players who can use their frames to protect pucks down low and establish a presence. Coyle, Ritchie, and Bjork are players capable of playing a heavy cycle game. Both lines have struggled to do so thus far in this series. The other option is to play more conservatively and try and win the game on the counterattack and special teams.
The Lightning made a key adjustment to their powerplay in game two and three and it paid huge dividends. Stick tap to Joe Smith who detailed the changes that led to the Lightning powerplay finally rising back to life. Specifically, the Lightning moved Nikita Kucherov from his usual right hand elbow to the left. This allowed for more pitch and catch with Sergachev. and Ondrej Palat Here is exhibit A.
With Kucherov being able to wander down the wall it allows Sergachev more space to creep into the zone. When he gets the puck back, he is 20 feet closer to the goal than when he originally moved it to Kucherov. Not allowing Sergachev to shrink the zone and keeping Tampa’s other options at bay will be a key adjustment for the Bruins’ penalty killers.
While the Xs and Os are important, success in hockey still contains a healthy dose of heart, determination, and discipline. The Bruins’ lack of discipline on several unnecessary or careless penalties hurt bad and dug them a hole they did not get out of. Failing to defend for rookie Vladar was disheartening for fans to watch. Determination following a blowout loss will likely make or break this series for the Bruins.