The stage is set for the 2016 playoffs and the Detroit Red Wings are going to meet a familiar foe, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Unlike last season's team, this year's version of the Lightning is bruised, battered, and ripe for the taking. Will the Red Wings be able to take advantage of a team missing Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman along with an injured Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman? I took a look at how the Red Wings systems matchup against the Lightning's systems. This is part two of a four-part series preview that will go as follows:
Detroit's Offense vs. Tampa's Defense: April 10th
Tampa's Offense vs. Detroit's Defense: April 11th
Detroit's Powerplay vs. Tampa's Penalty Kill: April 12th
Tampa's Powerplay vs. Red Wings Penalty Kill: April 13th
Tampa Bay's Breakout vs. Detroit's Forecheck
Tampa Bay's Breakout
When examining Tampa Bay's breakouts, it's shocking to see just how similar they are to the ones executed by Detroit. No wonder the games between these two teams are always tight-checking games. Tampa's controlled breakouts employ the exact same play as Detroit, the strong-side slant. However, Tampa has a slight variation to their base structure as they have the center swing behind the net instead of regrouping in the corner. An animation of this is shown below:
By having the center sweep behind the net, Tampa creates a few problems for the defense. First, the center picks up a head of steam and can be very difficult to defend in the neutral zone. Second, Tampa has the option to run the breakout on either side of the net depending on how the forecheck is set up. The center can pick up the puck behind the net and start the breakout or the center can act as a decoy and the defenseman can move the puck to his partner. Tampa executes these wrinkles beautifully which allows them to keep the defense off balance.
In this example, the center acts as a decoy and swings around the net with speed. Against a less disciplined forecheck, the top forechecker (Hemsky in this play) may follow the center around the net, opening up space for the defenseman to work with. Ultimately, the play Tampa wants is the cross ice pass to the center, but Dallas defends it well here.
In this example, Tampa has the center pick up the puck as Detroit's forecheck is not set. Both Detroit forecheckers make a play on the puck carrier, creating an opening in the middle of the ice for a pass. This results in a 2-on-2, with Tampa's forwards coming in with speed against Detroit's immobile defensemen. Examples like this demonstrate how versatile Tampa's breakout can be and why it can be so difficult for a team to consistently defend against it.
At this point, we still haven't discussed Tampa's secret weapon for breakouts - goaltender Ben Bishop. Whether it's stopping dump-ins behind the net, calling out breakout plays to his defensemen, or physically moving the puck himself, Bishop is one of the best in the NHL at directing a breakout. Watch Bishop make a great read here under pressure to get Tampa a controlled zone exit.
The frustrating part for a defense is that even if you think you've covered everybody, Tampa will find another look. In addition to being incredibly mobile, Tampa's defensemen are also extremely smart and excellent passers. Victor Hedman is an absolute stud and can create a breakout chance from almost nothing. Watch this play here where he finds Erik Condra streaking down the boards for an easy goal.
As for regroups, Tampa primarily employs a lane regroup to try and catch the defense napping. A lane regroup is a situation where every forward stays in their same area of the ice and regroups back on offense. There is no criss-crossing of wingers and no players cutting behind one another. It's basically a play to quickly get back on offense. Here is an animation of a lane regroup:
The Lightning want to get back on offense and attack as quickly as possible and so as soon as the puck comes out of the zone, they are looking to re-enter. Here is an example, albeit not the best one of the Lightning quickly regrouping and trying to attack as soon as the puck comes out of the zone.
Put all of this together, and the Lightning have a multi-faceted breakout that can cause a lot of problems for a defense.
Similar to Tampa Bay, the Red Wings employ a wide 1-2-2 forecheck with aggressive defenseman play in the neutral zone. An example of Detroit's forecheck from an early season game is shown below:
This particular video shows how aggressive Detroit's forecheck can be and how successful it can be when played correctly. Henrik Zetterberg takes away the strong side of the breakout, Justin Abdelkader quickly applies pressure to the receiving defenseman, and Alexey Marchenko aggressively steps up in the neutral zone to intercept the pass.
The Wings are at their best when their forecheckers are able to aggressively pursue the puck and take away time from the opposition. Here is another example where Detroit's forecheckers are perfectly positioned to take away all passing options
The only problem Detroit runs into is when their initial forecheckers misread the attack and cover the same player. Revisiting the Lightning clip from above, two Red Wings players keyed in on the Lightning center as he came around the net. With both players pinching down, this opens up the neutral zone. One completed pass and Tampa was off to the races. Tampa is a team that can give Detroit a lot of problems because they have so many different options off of a single base structure. The ability to play creatively within that structure makes the Tampa attack fearsome and unpredictable.
In this clip, Darren Helm aggressively pursues behind the net, but when the Tampa defenseman steps in front of the net, he also draws the attention of Pavel Datsyuk. This frees up the pass to Hedman who is able to skate the puck out and make a brilliant stretch pass which leads to a goal. From this one game alone, you can see how strong and versatile Tampa's breakout can be.
Detroit must stay disciplined and not overpursue the puck. The Wings want to aggressively forecheck, but Tampa's defensemen are so good at moving the puck that one mistake can result in a goal against. The Wings need to stay in their lines, challenge when appropriate, and pay close attention to who is on the ice.