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How The Lightning’s Neutral Zone Defense Has Stymied The Bruins Attack

Too many forced dump ins and not enough puck possession have doomed the Bruins’ offense.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Tampa Bay Lightning at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Under former coach Guy Boucher, the Tampa Bay Lightning implemented a ferocious 1-3-1 neutral zone defense that could unhinge even the most explosive offensive teams. Now, head coach Jon Cooper’s squad utilizes a 1-2-2 wide forecheck which suffocates opponents through the neutral zone.

Throughout the first three games of the series, the Bruins have struggled mightily to generate offensive opportunities. Masked by the first lines’ dynamite performance in game one, the Bruins scoring depth has been stymied. Through three games, shots on goal favor the Lighting 104-75. Tampa Bay allows controls a dominant 57.14% of shots attempted, leading the Bruins by a margin of 156-117 (This highlights another issue: the Bruins aren’t hitting the net, but that’s for another time).

The Bruins, owners of the league’s second-best Corsi For % during the regular season, have been worn down and bemused by the Lightning’s neutral zone defense. Let’s break it down, shall we?

As mentioned previously, the Tampa Bay run a ‘wide’ 1-2-2 forecheck. The first forward applies pressure to the puck carrier, taking his time and space away and trying to force him to turn the puck over. The other two forwards linger in the neutral zone, occupying passing lanes and patrolling the Bruins’ forwards who streak through the neutral zone looking for a pass. The two forwards make sure to stay apart from each other and cover the width of the ice, hence ‘wide’. The defensemen also take away forwards’ time and space, as they linger close enough to intercept passes or close in at their own blueline.

The following clip illustrates the defense’s ability to close quickly and disrupt the play for Tampa Bay.

Matt Grzelcyk attempts to find David Pastrnak, who is curling through the middle of the ice to enter the zone. Victor Hedman, anticipating the pass, steps up and forces Pastrnak to chip the puck into the zone and relinquish possession. Hedman had the ability to challenge Pastrnak because Dan Girardi was covering the winger changing and Alex Killorn dropped into coverage wide, shadowing Patrice Bergeron.

The Bruins have kept the weak-side wing wide in the neutral zone in an attempt to stretch out the defense. However, the abrupt pressure applied by the Lightning isolates the puck carrier and creates turnovers or one-on-three zone entries. The center curls and retrieves the pass from the Boston defense, yet the Bruins wingers don’t accumulate the same speed, incapable of amassing a threat to challenge Tampa Bay’s defense when flat-footed.

However, there are a few ways for the Bruins to beat the Lightning’s smothering neutral zone defense. When a defenseman pinches, a wing could drop a pass back to the center tearing through the middle of the ice, creating an odd man two-on-one situation. The more this play occurs, the Lightning defense will grow increasingly passive, placing more stress on the two Lightning forwards to contain the Bruins speed through the neutral zone and open up passing lanes.

Another solution would be getting the defense more involved in attacking the forecheck. Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk are fleet-footed defensemen who possess the vision, speed and playmaking ability to get by the first Lightning forechecker and carry the puck into the offensive zone under control.

In the following clip from game three, Charlie McAvoy takes advantage of open ice and speeds through the 1-2-2 formation, before dishing the puck off to Danton Heinen for a shot from the right circle.

Just a minute later, Grzelcyk positioned himself behind the first forechecker when receiving the pass. The Boston University caught the Lighting flat-footed and was able to locate a wide open Riley Nash for a controlled zone entry and shot on goal.

The Lighting’s forecheck is so successful due to the speed on its roster. The forwards can fly, zipping by opponents like the defenders have lead in their skates. The speed of the first forechecker reduces the time and space of the defender, forcing a quick and often misplaced pass. The remaining forwards and defense possess the quickness to converge and disrupt plays quickly. In order to evade the Lightning’s stout defense and quick pressure, the Bruins routinely resort to dumping the puck into the zone.

Dump-ins create a puck possession problem. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been active at retrieving pucks and distributing them to an open blue-and-white jersey. The Lightning defense have a step on the Bruins’ attackers, which gives the Lightning a chance to corral the puck and regain possession. The Bruins have not been able to set up their offensive game plan in the zone because the team has struggled to carry the puck into the zone and establish any sort of dangerous scoring chances. In terms of high danger scoring chances, the Bruins trail the Floridian counterparts 25-13 throughout the series. How could the team possibly be expected to put pucks past a Vezina candidate when it cannot adequately challenge the goaltender? In order to generate offense and kick start the struggling forward group, the Bruins need to be able to control the puck when entering the offensive zone.