Lightning must stick to system in Game 6 of East Final against Islanders

Lightning must stick to system in Game 6 of East Final against Islanders
The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by former NHL coaches and assistants who turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Rob Zettler and Rob Cookson will take turns providing insight throughout the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In this edition, Cookson, a former video coach with the Philadelphia Flyers and former assistant with the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, breaks down Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, and suggests adjustments each team might make heading into Game 6 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

The danger for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Islanders on Thursday is to start taking more risks to score instead of playing the way they’ve played throughout the series.

The Lightning’s commitment to their system and their commitment to defending and playing both sides of the puck are the reasons they lead 3-2 in the best-of-7 series. The coaching staff probably will remind the players of that after a 2-1 double-overtime loss in Game 5 on Tuesday.

[RELATED: Full Lightning vs. Islanders series coverage]

Players can have a tendency to try to take too many chances to score and get a lead, but the Lightning are getting lots of scoring opportunities. Looking at Game 5, they had 25 chances to score in the four and a half periods.

That basically was double the amount the Islanders had, but a lot of that advantage was nullified by strong play from New York goalie Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov has played well throughout the series; in the past four games he has a .931 save percentage (nine goals allowed, 130 shots).

That could get into the heads of the Lightning players, similar to what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights against Dallas Stars goalie Anton Khudobin in the Western Conference Final and against Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko in the final three games of the second round.

Getting back center Brayden Point after he was unfit to play in Game 5 would help the Lightning. Point missed Game 3 and returned in Game 4, but may have been re-injured when he was hit by Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech in the third period.

Tampa Bay hasn’t turned the puck over much in the series and hasn’t given New York a real chance to get anything going. The Islanders had a couple shifts when they were in the offensive zone Tuesday, but the Lightning did a good job on their coverage and limited them to 24 shots on goal, well below their postseason average of 30.1 per game.

One thing the Islanders did well in Game 5 was nullify a lot of plays coming out the Lightning zone. Tampa Bay got nothing off the rush other than a goal by defenseman Victor Hedman off a line change, and the great passing sequence where defenseman Zach Bogosian hit the post near the end of the second period.

In previous games, the Lightning had lots of opportunities off the rush.

The Islanders were able to limit the Lightning’s rush chances Tuesday because their sticks were really good on the forecheck. They got in the passing lanes, they pursued the Lightning defensemen and they took away the long passes out of the zone.

In addition, the Islanders had great gaps in the neutral zone with their defensemen. The defensemen were tight on the Lightning’s forwards and the third forward always was back to support the play and outnumber the Lightning in the neutral zone.

Video: Islanders defeat Lightning 2-1 to force Game 6

That’s the key, outnumbering the opposition in the neutral zone and being in position to kill a rush and get transition opportunities as result.

In the first four games the Lightning did an outstanding job of chipping pucks in and recovering them in the Islanders zone. Because the Islanders did a better job in the neutral zone, they killed that part of the Lightning’s game Tuesday.

New York also did a great job by blocking 32 shots, which prevented Tampa Bay from getting a lot of pucks to the net.

The Lightning have a mindset where their defensemen do a lot of quick on-and-off shots. They get the puck right to the goal and they always have two players at the net.

The Islanders don’t have that same approach. New York center Mathew Barzal is not going to fire the puck at the net; he’s going to try to stickhandle his way there.

The Islanders have some great players at the net, among them forward Anders Lee, who is one of the best in the League. If New York can get pucks there, it could battle it out and get more chances that way.

Islanders coach Barry Trotz made some good line changes in Game 5, putting Lee and Cal Clutterbuck with Barzal, which made the line heavier. Lee and Clutterbuck go to the net, so that helps Barzal’s game. Barzal needs to have more of a shot mentality, though.

The Lightning still have a territorial advantage in the way they play. They have the puck more than the Islanders do and they control the puck more.

I think back to when I worked for Canada in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. We didn’t possess the puck a lot. We had a good team, but we played a few teams that were very good and for us it was about protecting and waiting for our opportunity to get a break.

The Islanders played a little bit like that Tuesday. The keys are to continue to get great goaltending from Varlamov and to capitalize on their opportunities when they get them.

New York got that great break in the second overtime when Tampa Bay defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk fanned on a shot attempt. The Islanders got a 2-on-1 and Jordan Eberle buried it for the winning goal.

That’s what they’re going to have to do to get to a Game 7.

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