The Lightning are down two games to one in the Eastern Conference Finals. That's not a terrible place to be and if they can win game four, the series will be even heading back to Pittsburgh. Coming into the series, the Lightning were underdogs in most places and heavy underdogs in some. Winning game one on the road was a surprise and they nearly stole game two as well despite Pittsburgh controlling the game. But in game three, the Lightning were not as lucky and even a superhuman performance from Andrei Vasilevskiy was not enough to keep the Penguins' from putting four goals on the scoreboard.
It doesn't take any special sort of analysis to see that the Lightning were significantly outplayed. But what does seem concerning is the degree to which the Penguins have dominated this series since the early parts of game one. During the last ten minutes of the second period, the Pens outshot the Bolts 16-3. And that's shot attempts not shots on goal. The Lightning only directed three shots toward the goal for a ten minute stretch. During that stretch, head coach Jon Cooper has to use his timeout to get the team a line change. But no matter what they tried, they could not get the puck out of the zone and on the rare occasion they did, the best they could do was dump it into the offensive zone and get a line change. That ten minutes was about as one-sided as 5v5 hockey can possibly be. Doing that to any team is impressive. Doing it to a defending Stanley Cup finalist in the Eastern Conference Finals is an indication of a great team.
As impressive as that stretch of play by the Penguins was, it was only ten minutes of a seven game series. If it was isolated, one could disregard it as an outlier. But the problem for the Bolts is that while it was certainly an extreme, it wasn't as far out of line with the rest of the series as they would like. The following chart with data from war-on-ice shows the breakdown of the types of shots each team is generating at 5v5. The most striking thing in this chart is that the Penguins have as many high danger scoring chances as the Lightning have regular scoring chances. Taking only the high danger scoring chances into consideration, the Penguins have a 48-19 lead. The story here is not only that the Pens are outshooting the Bolts by a wide margin. They are generating the types of shots that lead to goals at a much higher rate.
The next two charts show the possession metrics for individual players in the series thus far using data from corsica.hockey. The story here is how starkly the teams are contrasted. In the first chart, the top right indicates above average shot generation and above average shot suppression. The bottom left indicates being below average in both metrics. The story is obvious. Almost the entire Lightning team is in the wrong area of this chart while the Penguins are the exact opposite. The second chart is just as telling. If not for Justin Schultz, one might mistakenly think the players are sorted by team instead of shots for percentage. Every single Penguins player except for Schultz has a better on ice shots for percentage than every single Lightning player. Calling out specific players seems a little unfair given how the team looks as a whole but seeing the Valtteri Filppula, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat line below 33% is disconcerting. And four defenseman - Slater Koekkoek, Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn - all being below 40% is equally jarring.
Three games is obviously a small sample size and anything can happen in a playoff series. But the Lightning obviously need to play better if they hope to have any chance of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. And that might be an understatement. Given these numbers, one could argue that the Lightning are lucky to not have been blown out of both games two and three. And if they don't do something to change the pattern, they're going to have a difficult time winning another game let alone making a run at winning the series.
The talk out of the Lightning locker room after game two was about forechecking and puck recovery in the offensive zone. They did implement some of that in the early part of the first period. But by the second half of the first period and especially in the second and third periods, the Lighting were rarely able to get out of the defensive zone with possession of the puck making it impossible to even think about doing anything in the offensive zone. That has to change in game four if they want to compete with a team as good as the Penguins. The Lightning cannot rope-a-dope a team this talented and live on odd-man-rush counterpunches.
Shot metrics aren't gospel but they do tell a story. And the story through three games does not flatter the Lightning. But tonight starts a new chapter and the impetus is on the Bolts to insert another twist in the story.