Destroying an Opponent's Game Plan
How TBL can stem the tide against FLA
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Isaac Newton’s Third Law
Today we examine how the Tampa Bay Lightning, FLA’s first-round playoff opponent, can neutralize its in-state rivals.
First Principles Thinking: Why is FLA Good?
“First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.”
What are the first principles behind what makes FLA’s gameplan so effective?
I would argue that there are only two:
FLA’s Ds sprint into the play to create advantages off the rush
When rushes fail, FLA’s Ds get tight to suffocate counter-attacks
The Panthers’ creative entry plays, fluid OZ movement and more-than-adequate DZ coverage are lesser considerations.
Indeed all of the other good things FLA does well stem from their transition offense and transition defense.
Incept and Exploit
The tricky thing for TBL is that their players cannot actually prevent FLA’s Ds from activating, pinching or surfing.
For the Lightning, countering FLA is not simply a matter of tactical adjustments.
The only real way to get FLA’s Ds to stop doing things that bother TBL so much, is to get into their heads.
TBL needs to convince MacKenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, Markus Nutivaara, Brandon Montour, Keith Yandle and Radkos Gudas that joining the rush and playing a tight gap is bad for them.
TBL needs to influence FLA’s Ds to stay back when their forwards are pushing out.
TBL needs to force FLA’s Ds to sag instead of getting tight and standing up at the line.
A Rallying Cry
If I were Jon Cooper, I would post the following expression in TBL’s locker room during the entirety of the first round:
“Pound the Stone.”
In this case “pound the stone” isn’t a vague statement about the importance of hard work and perseverence.
Because “the stone” is actually a player: Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
The late-blooming Weegar is the rock that holds FLA’s D corps down, its most-used and most-dependable player in the absence of Aaron Ekblad.
Weegar exemplifies FLA’s building-from-the-back philosophy and is one of the best NHL Ds at controlling the neutral zone.
But for all his skill and smarts, Weegar has a fatal flaw: he is simply not a very fast player, by NHL standards.
In fact his entire game is built around compensating for that one weakness:
He retrieves with deception to make forecheckers back off and give him more room to breathe
He pinches to kill plays in the OZ instead of backing up early unless absolutely necessary
He holds the middle against the rush and pushes wide only once the puck carrier has shown his hand
Like NYR’s genial defenseman Adam Fox (whose “mind games” I discuss in detail here), Weegar wants you to put a foot wrong and beat yourself before coming in with a finishing move.
It speaks to his advanced hockey sense, but also to a fundamental insecurity.
If Tampa’s skaters pound him on the forecheck, body him on pinches and then skate right at him off the rush until he blinks, Weegar will break down.
The Domino Effect
Weegar is just one of 20 Panthers in the game, but he is by far their most important player, because he’s the piece that holds the entire scaffold.
With Weegar off his game, his partner Forsling, who has never played big minutes against top lines in the NHL playoffs, is exposed.
With the top pair neutralized, the second pair of Nutivaara-Montour begins taking unnecessary risks.
With the second pair demoted, the third pair of Yandle-Gudas is overcome and takes undisciplined penalties.
With the Ds playing on their heels, FLA’s forwards don’t get good pucks and have to sprint 200 feet just to play defense.
The next man in is Anton Stralman, who is too old and slow to play FLA’s way.
Coach Joel Quenneville makes adjustments and dials back on his team’s aggressiveness.
FLA loses its identity, and with it its biggest chance of toppling the defending champs.
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