It’s fair to say the Tampa Bay Lightning looked overwhelmed at home in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final. The Washington Capitals outscored the Lightning 10-4 to take a 2-0 series lead, which had many viewers thinking the series was all but over.
However, in Game 3, after a bit of a slow start, the Lightning looked much better and ended up winning the game 4-2 on the road. After looking completely out of sorts at home, how is it that the Lightning were able to regain their footing in the series as it shifted to Washington?
The first thing to pay attention to is scoring chances, which we can break down by game. Normally if I’m projecting a series I stick to 5-on-5 numbers, but since we’re looking for the story of the game instead of sustainable performance, I think looking at all situations makes sense.
Breaking things up by where in the slot the shot attempts are taken from, we can see that in Game 1 the Capitals absolutely dominated the inner slot or high danger area. The Lightning were the better team from the high slot, which makes sense given they want guys like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov shooting, and that’s where they set up.
That being said, shots from the inner slot are almost twice as likely to go in than those from the high slot for an average NHLer, so you can assume Washington’s territorial advantage was a big difference in the opening game of this series.
In Game 2 the territorial advantage switched, but the game was largely even despite the score, and Game 3 was dead even. We can say the Lightning improved each time out after a poor showing in Game 1, especially in how they protected the inner slot. But they haven’t outchanced the Capitals in any of the three games, so there has to be another area that has affected the results, but isn’t accounted for in shot locations.
What is it that has changed drastically in this short amount of time?
Unsurprisingly, it’s all about pre-shot movement. Overall, the Lightning have kept scoring chance totals pretty close in this series, but through the first two games they were getting a lot of static shots that Braden Holtby was able to get set for, while the Capitals were getting their passes through the Lightning defence with relative ease.
In Game 3 that changed and the Lighting tightened up defensively in a big way, forcing nearly 73 per cent of the Capitals’ attempted passes to the slot to fail. In Tuesday’s game, the Lightning blocked 47 Capitals passes in the defensive zone, whereas the Caps only blocked 15 of Tampa Bay’s passes in their own zone.
The Bolts played defence by committee in Game 3, with big games such as Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman standing out in particular. But on offence, their regular season star stood tall.
The Lightning completed a series-high 56 per cent of their passes to the slot in Game 3, led by Nikita Kucherov, who completed six of his eight attempts, including his brilliant setup on Victor Hedman’s game-winning goal.
Both Kucherov and Stamkos thrive on pre-shot movement to score their goals, especially on the man advantage, so getting those passes through Washington’s defenders is extremely important for them in this series.
On the other side of the equation, it’s extremely important for the Capitals to shut down this plan of attack if they want to maintain control.