Red Wings vs. Lightning - Detroit's Breakouts vs. Tampa Bay's Forecheck

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 one of a four-part series preview that will go as follows:

Detroit's Offense vs. Tampa's Defense: Today

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

Detroit's Breakout vs. Tampa Bay's Defense

Detroit's Offense

When examining Detroit's breakout, we have to think about their controlled breakouts and their regroups. With controlled breakouts, the Red Wings preferred play is known as the "strong-side slant". Below is an animation showing how the strong-side slant sets up.

When the Wings have the time to set up the play, it looks a lot like this particular sequence from the 04/09 game against the New York Rangers.

The wrinkle that the Red Wings have added to this breakout is that they have the left winger cut across the ice instead of just starting at center ice on the left boards. This wrinkle allows for the defenseman to hit this winger as he cuts across the ice, a play that Justin Abdelkader took full advantage of last season en route to his many breakaway goals. What the Wings most frequently do with this play is use the stretch pass to hit the left winger at center ice. In the early part of the season, the Wings were just having the left winger chip the puck in while the right winger and center went into puck retrieval mode.

As the season has progressed, the Wings have moved away from continually trying to chip the puck in and have added another element to the breakout play to maintain possession. Instead of having the left winger deflect the puck in, he actually executes a drop pass to the right winger coming down the middle of the ice with speed.

This particular play helps the Red Wings counter when a team has their defensemen aggressively press the left winger in the neutral zone. This can lead to 2-on-1's for the Red Wings. However, the Wings have not utilized this play as much as I think they should, given how aggressively teams have been pressing the Wings in the neutral zone.

Controlled breakouts represent only a small part of the game as they really only happen when the defensive team is going for a line change and the forechecking pressure is lessened. A majority of the game is spent performing regroup breakouts. There are two major categories of regroup breakouts - lane regroups and motion regroups. For more information on the difference between the two, I will direct you to the wonderful work by Jen Lute Costella.

As for the Red Wings, they most commonly execute a motion regroup, where the center and left winger swap positions at the defensive blue line to try and create confusion for the defense. An animation of this is shown below:

As you can see here, the center and left winger switch lanes while the right winger actually swings all the way around the ice to create confusion for the defense. This type of regroup can be executed with many different wrinkles, but the Red Wings primarily execute it as shown above. A live game example is shown below from the March 24th game against the Canadiens.

As you can see, this regroup creates a lot of confusion, especially for a 1-2-2 forecheck as the 2nd high forechecker has to initially take the RW but then has to recover to pick up the center in the middle of the ice. This makes for a very challenging defensive assignment if executed correctly and often leads to a controlled zone entry.

Speaking of zone entries, shown below is the Red Wings zone entry data, meticulously tracked by J.D. Burke of Canucks Army and visualized by Sean Tierney of Hockey Graphs and Today's Slapshot.

From this we can see that Dylan Larkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Teemu Pulkkinen, and Tomas Tatar led the way for this team in terms of gaining entry to the zone and having controlled zone entries. Andreas Athanasiou's ice time is limited in this sample, but I expect him to also be very high in controlled zone entries. Given this information, the Wings should be designing their breakouts to make sure that the puck ends up on these players' sticks in the neutral zone to maximize zone entries.

Tampa's Defense

On the forecheck, Tampa likes to employ a wide 1-2-2 that can be very aggressive at times. In fact, I think Tampa's 1-2-2 is close to a mirror image of Detroit's 1-2-2 forecheck.

TB's "1" is aggressive and pursues the puck in hopes of forcing a turnover while the "2" other forwards sit back in the neutral zone to take away space from Detroit's forwards. The video above is an example of Detroit trying to execute a motion regroup against the Tampa forecheck but ultimately they ran out of space as Tampa held the blue line. One thing to notice is that Tampa does afford the defensemen a lot of room to skate with the puck as Brendan Smith does here. I think this will be a huge key as the Wings may have to rely on dumping the puck in more if Tampa continues to clog the neutral zone. A skating defenseman can, at the very least, gain the red line before dumping the puck in.

The other big key to the Tampa forecheck is very aggressive defensemen, especially off of faceoffs and disjointed breakout plays. Watch how Matt Carle stands up at the blue line here to try and force a turnover.

By standing up at the blue line, there is absolutely nowhere for the Red Wings to go and the only option is to chip the puck up the boards. This will be a crucial key for the Detroit forwards. Knowing that Tampa's D is going to aggressively step up, the Wings should look to be making a quick chip up the boards or looking back to the middle of the ice to find a player with speed. Either way, the Wings have to know that they will need to move the puck quickly as they exit the zone, especially off of a wheel breakout play like the one above.

Ultimately, Detroit offense will be facing almost a carbon copy of it's defensive forechecking scheme. The only difference is that Tampa is able to execute it significantly better due to the mobility of their defensemen. The Wings will have to be smart about exiting the zone, exercise patience with the puck when they have the time, and recognize when and where pressure is coming from. Communication between all five guys on the ice will be the key to successfully and repeatedly moving the puck up the ice. Even though Tampa is wounded, their structure is still present and I don't expect them to cut Detroit any breaks.

Series Key:

Exploit Tampa's aggressive defense in the neutral zone by increasing the utilization of the LW center ice drop pass to an onrushing forward. This type of play can create 2-on-1's early in the series, getting the Wings the quick start they desire. If the Wings can continually exploit this, Tampa may be forced to back off their neutral zone pressure, allowing the Wings to enter the offensive zone in a cleaner fashion.