(Photo via ftw.usatoday.com)
The Lightning are in the middle of a well-deserved rest after sweeping the President's Trophy-winning Florida Panthers. Three of the four games were tight, and the Lightning did a great job in limiting the NHL's best offense to just three goals in the four-game series. The philosophy of the Lightning seemed to change from their seven-game first-round series against Toronto, and there were several key factors as to why the Bolts made quick work of the Panthers.
Sometimes the easiest answer is the right one. Through the first six games of the Maple Leaf's series, Andrei Vasilevskiy had put up a .885 save percentage, and was thought to have been fatigued after 63 regular-season games, the 2nd-most in a single season in his career (65; 2018). OT in game six showed a glimpse of the old Vasilevskiy, stopping all nine Maple Leaf's shots for the win. He then regained form in the game seven win, stopping 30 of 31 shots. As good as the Maple Leafs were, the Panthers were thought to be an even bigger challenge.
Vasilevskiy's biggest change in net came in his positioning. Even as he posted a .981 save percentage in the four-game sweep, there weren't a huge amount of highlight-reel saves from Vasilevskiy due to his fantastic positioning.
Just look at this screenshot after the empty-net goal from game four. While everyone else is celebrating, he's still dialed in.
Florida Panthers coach Andrew Brunette was nominated for the 2021-22 Jack Adams award, given to the league's best coach. Jon Cooper was not. Yet, in this series, Cooper took Brunette to school using a few methods, some of which he's used before.
The 11 forward, seven defensemen system has been Cooper's calling card for quite some time now. During the 2020 Finals, the Lightning played 11 straight games with the 11/7 format and went 8-3 in that span. They used the 11/7 alignment against Florida in the 2021 playoffs, going 1-1 in two games. The Lightning's willingness to bring in an extra defenseman proved to be crucial throughout the series, especially at times where defenders were out with injury for portions of the game.
Secondly, Cooper's strategy to play a zone defense was a key contribution. Instead of placing individual assignments, Cooper made the adjustment of crowding the slot area between the faceoff circles and making the Panthers beat them either off the boards or from the point. Take a look at this shot chart from game three, as provided by HockeyViz as an example:
Notice how clean the area in between the faceoff dots is. The Lightning, and Jon Cooper, forced the Panthers to beat them with outside shots. While the area in front of the net was a little more crowded than you'd like to see, the Lightning skaters did a much better job of boxing out the Panthers' skaters.
Finally, Cooper laid down the mentality of blocking shots. The Lightning sacrificed the body in all four games, blocking 77 shots from the Panthers (19.25 per game). For reference, the San Jose Sharks led the NHL in blocks per game during the regular season with 16.7, and the Lightning only blocked 12.73 shots per game in the 2021-22 regular season.
There was talk of the former Hart Memorial Trophy winner being sick during the Toronto series, which may have explained his relatively poor performance. He certainly turned it around in the next series, putting up seven points in the four-game sweep. The decision-making from Kucherov was a lot better as well, substituting the no-look passes for a smarter, more calculated approach. Instead of passing off to a streaking Brayden Point for their offensive zone entries, Kucherov took it upon himself to carry the puck in himself and would end up generating the third most shot opportunities through zone entries among forwards in round two. Kucherov also led the second round in shot assists, giving chances to his ever-changing linemates with the 11/7 format. Kucherov was, by all accounts, the best Lightning skater in round two, and his highlights certainly prove it.
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