An infamously frustrating strategy smothered the Lightning on Friday night
With less than ten seconds remaining in the first period, it looked for a moment as though the Tampa Bay Lightning had somehow found a way to tie the game at a goal apiece. Nikita Kucherov got in behind the defense, and put the puck in the net on Braden Holtby. The Striped Ones waved it off. There was no goal. Play had been stopped due to the Lightning having too many men on the ice. Instead of tying the game, the Lightning found themselves on the penalty kill against a strong Washington power play.
It took three seconds for Alex Ovechkin to score.
Giving a recap of the game beyond that seems unnecessary. The Capitals thrived off of the Lightning’s mistakes, playing the kind of well-researched and well-prepared playoff hockey Lightning fans were just starting to associate with their own team.
What made the Capitals so effective on Friday night was their ability to dominate the neutral zone. Washington wasn’t aggressive defensively, but they worked hard to control the middle of the ice, and in doing so they became a hurdle the Lightning simply couldn’t clear.
The Capitals were also extremely well-prepared for the Lightning. All night, they seemed to be anticipating the long passes that have been a staple of the Lightning’s offense all season. They disrupted Tampa Bay’s puck movement throughout the game.
If this combination sounds familiar to hockey fans, that’s because the Capitals ran a version of the neutral zone Trap. Disrupt a team’s passing and make the neutral zone into difficult territory, and an offensive-minded team like the Lightning might have to slow down a bit.
The Trap is the enemy of all things that are fun and enjoyable. It is the thing that eroded much of the progress the NHL made in America during the career of Wayne Gretzky; this slow, plodding style of play that defined an entire era of the game.
None of this is new or novel. We’ve all bemoaned the trap before, be it in reference to the Scott Stevens-era New Jersey Devils or any other team that employed it to great success. Belaboring the point would be nothing short of repetitive.
The question isn’t whether the trap is fun to watch, because it just isn’t. The important question is, after hockey fans have hated this strategy for close to thirty years now, how does it still work?
Usually ideas come and go in sports. One coach draws up a clever strategy, his team wins because of it, and after a while enough teams have emulated it that everybody knows how to beat it. Every football defense with a name has suffered this fate, as has every offense. In baseball, it spilled into team-building, where concepts like analytics and Moneyball went from being an advantage to a requirement in a short period of time. Yet here is hockey, and the Trap still exists and it still works.
When Tampa Bay did escape the trap, they found their shooting lanes occupied by members of the Washington Capitals. Shot attempts were blocked or deflected frequently, which kept the Lightning’s shot total low. The Bolts had two shots on goal in the first period.
A series like this one will be about adjustments. What the Capitals did to the Lightning on Friday night was similar to what the Lightning have done against New Jersey and Boston. Washington prepared incredibly well for the team they were about to face, and used a sound strategy to force Tampa Bay to slow down. The Capitals came in knowing where the Lightning had advantages over them, and planned well to make the game about anything else.
Because the Lightning have done that very thing so effectively to this point in the playoffs, expect adjustments. Tampa Bay knows the neutral zone Trap, in fact an earlier iteration of the Lightning used it themselves rather effectively. Now that the Caps have shown their hand in game 1, coach Jon Cooper has to plan out something to counter it.
What can the Lightning do to counter the Trap? One solution tends to be long passing, but the Capitals were well-prepared for the Lightning’s puck movement on Friday night. Speed and puckhandling can also break the Trap, and that might be Tampa Bay’s best bet.
In the third period, where the Lightning managed to narrow the gap a bit and briefly make the game interesting again, Tampa Bay found that carrying the puck through the neutral zone helped get them scoring opportunities against Washington. This could be, to some degree, a matter of the Capitals being less aggressive with a large lead and allowing the Lightning into the offensive zone, but the Bolts know they have a speed advantage over Washington. Get time in the offensive zone, and opportunities will open up. No amount of lead-protection can account for getting the puck past Holtby twice, an important sign for a Tampa Bay team that needed something to build on after being bottled up for two periods.
This is a considerably different situation than the Eastern Conference Semifinal, though the headlines are much the same. Lightning outplayed, down 1-0, home ice advantage wiped out. In the series with Boston, this happened because the Bolts had an anomaly of a game 1 in which they couldn’t handle the puck or finish opportunities.
Washington won game 1 decisively, and there is no angle through which Lightning fans could say a few bounces would have changed the game. The Capitals thoroughly outplayed Tampa Bay. Whereas game 2 of the previous round was about keeping calm and playing a game that they knew would be effective against the Bruins, game 2 this time around is going to be about adjusting to a sound Washington strategy and evening the series that way.
In utilizing the neutral zone attack, the Washington Capitals are hoping to make this a series about playmakers. Led by Alex Ovechkin but not limited to him, the Caps are a team that very much requires sharp play from their most skilled guys. They were able to set Ovechkin up offensively, leading to a goal and an assist from the star.
Defensively, their strategy is going to force individuals on the Lightning to make plays that can pull the Bolts back. Whereas the Bruins did their best to take Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov away from the Lightning, Washington is trying to take away everything else but the top players. The gamble is that Ovechkin and company will win a back-and-forth battle of stars against stars, and on Friday night it paid off in a big way.
This brings matters back to the too many men on the ice penalty, and the goal it negated. The way Nikita Kucherov didn’t score on that play, crashing the net and making the defense resort to penalties to try and stop him, is exactly what the Lightning need to break the trap. They need their skaters to simply get through. The Capitals are daring them to use brute force to break their Trap.
This all makes for a game two that is likely to be wildly different. It is not a matter of whether Tampa Bay will adjust to this Washington strategy, it’s a matter of how. This is where this series could shape up to be a memorable one. The way Washington played on Friday night demonstrated that they are a well-prepared, well-coached team. The Lightning have demonstrated the same thing in their first two rounds. These are versatile teams capable of playing—and winning—with many different styles.