Lightning Strikes - Evaluating The Changes Made To Tampa's Powerplay

This wasn't supposed to happen. The Tampa Bay Lightning closed out the regular season with the 28th-ranked powerplay, operating at just 15.8%. In their matchup last year, the Lightning managed just two powerplay goals on 30 chances (6.67%) against the Detroit Red Wings. Then, the Lightning started off 1-14 (7.14%) on the powerplay through the first three games and everything seemed glorious. I even wrote before the series that this was the area where the Wings had a clear cut advantage and it was playing out! Well, Jon Cooper and his players decided that enough was enough. In Game 4, the Lightning looked like the Harlem Globetrotters on the powerplay, eviscerating the Red Wings penalty kill to the tune of 18 shots, 12 shots on goal, and most importantly three powerplay goals on five opportunities. What exactly did Jon Cooper change to turn this inefficient, garbage-pile of a powerplay into a high-octane machine?

Special Teams Setup

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's do a quick refresher on Tampa's powerplay setup and Detroit's penalty kill formation.

Tampa Bay runs a 1-3-1 powerplay with a strong preference for shots from the right half-boards and mid-ice. Detroit runs a wedge +1 or a "Czech Press" penalty kill that relies on its forwards to pressure the puck appropriately and take away passing/shooting lanes. Shown below is Tampa's 1st powerplay unit against Detroit's top penalty kill

The goals of the 1-3-1 are to keep the puck in the hands of either Jonathan Drouin (#27) or Nikita Kucherov (#86). Both players serve as powerplay quarterbacks and should be ready to pass or shoot the puck every time they receive it. Victor Hedman (#77) is responsible for taking one-timers as well as quickly moving the puck back to the powerplay quarterbacks to force defensive rotations. Tyler Johnson (#9) is responsible for creating confusion in the defense as he drifts in and out of the slot to create new passing lanes and one-timer options. Finally, Brian Boyle (#11) is responsible for screening the goaltender as well as serving as a low-zone passing option for the powerplay quarterbacks.

From Detroit's perspective, Luke Glendening (#41) and Justin Abdelkader (#8) are responsible for defending the point and halfboards and rotating in and out of the wedge as necessary. Whoever is in the wedge (in the picture above it's Abdelkader) is responsible for forming a defensive triangle with the two defensemen to protect the slot and front of the net. Nothing should be able to get across the slot or netfront when this triangle is set up appropriately

What Went Wrong In Games 1-3

When I previewed Tampa's powerplay prior to the series, it was obvious that they have a heavy preference for shots from the right half boards, specifically shots from Kucherov and Jason Garrison. The Wings saw a heavy dose of this in Games 1 through 3 and accounted for it by having their defensemen cheat up to take away the shooting lane while the forwards closed the passing lanes. Check out how the Wings defended this puck rotation in Game 3.

In this video, you can clearly see that Danny DeKeyser is cheating up out of the wedge and Glendening is aggressively chasing Kucherov out of shooting position. When the puck gets over to Drouin, he skates down the boards and whips a pass back to Hedman. Instead of Glendening stepping out of the wedge, he lets Abdelkader recover and rotate so as to make himself available to chase Kucherov if the pass goes back that way. Remember this forward rotation when we talk about how Game 4 went.

The other major takeaway from this video clip is how the puck is moving. Not once does a Tampa player receive the puck in a shooting position, making it very easy for the Red Wings to defend as the Tampa players had to receive the pass and then skate into a better position. You can see that at times, Drouin is almost all the way out to the point. Additionally, when the puck did rotate to Kucherov, there was no slot presence meaning he had nowhere to go with the puck except back to the point. Tampa did this to themselves over and over and over. The limited player and puck movement made it very easy for the Detroit defenders to make decisions

Changes For Game 4

Let's start off by looking at Ondrej Palat's game winning powerplay goal from Game 4.

Have you figured out exactly how Tampa opened up Detroit's penalty kill? Well just in case you didn't let's walk through it frame-by-frame.

In this first image we see that Riley Sheahan is pressuring Hedman at the point, Abdelkader is tying up Palat in the slot, and the Wings' defensemen are in good position. Hedman has the option of dishing to Kucherov on the left boards or Drouin on the right boards. With Hedman being positioned towards the left side of the ice, he makes the long cross-ice pass to Drouin in order to force a rotation by Sheahan and Abdelkader.

With that quick, accurate, and long pass to Drouin, Abdelkader now has to vacate the slot and chase Drouin while Sheahan has to hurry back to protect the slot. Look how far both players have to travel with Drouin already having the puck. This is how the Lightning created time and space for Drouin on the powerplay.

Instead of circling back up high like the Lightning had been doing in the previous three games, Drouin decides to drive down along the boards. This is where the magic happens. You can't see it in this frame, but the Lightning are actually setting up the cross-ice pass back to Drouin at this very moment. I'll explain from this frame and then we'll finish out the frame-by-frame analysis.

Drouin's going to pass that puck back to Hedman. With Abdelkader out by the right boards, Sheahan has to rotate out of the wedge to go pressure Hedman at the point. Hedman will quickly whip the puck over to Kucherov on the left boards. With Abdelkader recovering to the middle of the ice and Sheahan at the point, Kronwall has to step up to challenge Kucherov. In the slot, Palat preoccupies Abdelkader, preventing Abdelkader from influencing the pass back across the ice to Drouin. It's Sheahan's responsibility to come all the way down from the point to prevent that cross-ice pass, something he physically can't do. It's a brilliant design that involves all three players at the top of the powerplay being on the same page. Let's finish out the breakdown frame-by-frame.

Hedman has received the pass and is already starting to move the puck to Kucherov who has drifted down to the faceoff dots. This is another change as the Lightning were much more akin to hang around the perimeter. We can see that Sheahan is nowhere near applying pressure to Hedman and that Abdelkader still hasn't gotten back to the middle of the slot.

Kucherov now has the puck and look at the cross-ice passing lane that has opened up. Like I told you several frames back, the Lightning were setting up this play from the moment Drouin skated down the right boards. Sheahan is caught in no-mans land because his initial instinct is to chase Kucherov when he should be trying to skate directly towards his goal to cut off that passing lane. Palat has done a great job of getting body position on Abdelkader to prevent him from challenging the pass. This play is just executed perfectly.

As soon as that puck gets back over to Drouin, he patiently draws both Abdelkader and Smith towards him and more importantly, away from Palat. Kronwall, who is circled, is now responsible for getting back to the front of the net and covering Palat. Drouin times it perfectly and delivers a rocket pass to Palat before Kronwall can get across. I'm not kidding when I say that this is beautiful execution.

How Do The Red Wings Stop Tampa's Powerplay?

Ultimately, the Wings goal should be to apply heavy pressure to the Tampa Bay powerplay prior to setup. Recent work by Arik Parnass has demonstrated that the most important factor for a powerplay is getting setup quickly in the offensive zone. Detroit should be applying heavy pressure to Tampa's zone entries to try and force uncontrolled zone entries.

Don't give them an inch. Use speed guys like Glendening, Larkin, and Athanasiou to force Hedman to start the breakout before Tampa's forwards have properly regrouped. Have them pressure Hedman all through center ice to make it tough for him to make a clean drop pass. Have the defensemen and 2nd forward hold the blue line to force Tampa to dump the puck in. Aggressively pursue the loose puck and tie it up along the boards as long as possible to prevent Tampa from setting up. If Tampa is able to enter the zone and retrieve the puck, apply heavy pressure to the puck carrier to delay their time to offensive zone setup. The name of the game is to never let them get set up.

Proposed Forechecking Plan

If Tampa does get setup, the Wings should be looking for bobbled pucks and bad passes as their windows of opportunity to physically engage the puck carrier. Outside of those situations, it is important for the +1 player to play aggressively without overcommitting. Proper identification of the most dangerous pass is essential to effective pressure. In Tampa's case, the preferred pass from the halfboards is back to the point. From Game 5 onwards (hopefully), Detroit's +1 forward needs to seal off the return pass to the point if Tampa's powerplay quarterbacks elect to carry the puck down low. Detroit has been reluctant of late to play aggressively on the penalty kill after they were burned so frequently early in the season. Their season is on the line now, so they would be wise to leave it all on the table by dialing up the pressure.