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Lightning’s lack of attention to detail bites them once again

Games in hand don’t mean anything if you don’t win them.

NHL: New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After last night’s game against the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos lamented about their missed opportunities, “I thought the second and third periods, we worked hard, had plenty of chances, it just didn’t go in tonight. It’s tough. And then they get a break on that third goal and it just kind of sucked the life out of us a little bit.”

During his post game press conference, coach Jon Copper also commented on the missed chances and mistakes, “The mistakes that we made, we shot ourselves in the foot. The shorthanded goal we can’t give that up. And then we, I don’t know, unlucky break or whatever you want to call the third one. They’re johnny on the spot on a puck that was rimmed around and goes off our guy’s stick and ends up in the slot. You know that’s tough when you give up a third one, especially against a team like them.”

I followed this up later in the press conference with a question concerning whether or not the team is overthinking certain situations and whether or not that is something that could be hurting the team. Cooper paused for a moment, “No, I don’t think so. It’s, ya know, commitment to the d-zone. When you look at these, like I said, the first one was off kind of a nothing rush, the second one we gave it to them, the third one was off a kind of bad bounce and then it goes to the slot.”

Here’s the press conference in full, in case any of you want to revisit the questions asked.

Attention to detail has been something that has repeatedly bitten Tampa Bay over the past few years, and it reared its ugly head once again last night. Given the comments from the players and Cooper, let’s take a look at the Islanders first three goals and annotate the small details that I find to be troubling or interesting to take note of.

On a macro level, this is a rather nothing rush like Cooper says, however, on the micro level there are a few things to focus on.

The start of this sequence is great from Tampa Bay. Kevin Shattenkirk shields the puck with his body from the Islander forechecker before Anthony Cirelli recovers the puck and feeds it to Victor Hedman. Hedman then fires a brilliant stretch pass to Cory Conacher. From there, it’s on Conacher to make his breakaway count. His fake on the forehand does make Varlamov bite just a little bit, but once Conacher commits to his backhand it gave Varlamov that extra second to readjust and cut off the angle. Conacher’s head is also down for most of this breakaway, which means he doesn’t fully see Varlamov go down immediately after his fake. Given that Conacher was just called up, it’s hard to fault him for anything here, but the coaching staff does pre-scout the opposing goaltender and should’ve told their players to attack Varlamov’s blocker side, his historically weaker side. That’s a preparation issue.

After the save is made, Conacher recovers his rebound and tries to connect with Carter Verhaeghe in the slot, but the pass ends up hitting Verhaeghe’s foot and then play shifts up the ice. I don’t find anything particularly egregious here. Conacher made the right play, but simply whiffed on the pass. It looked like he was using his peripheral vision to see Verhaeghe, and it ultimately affected his pass trajectory.

As for the counter rush, Mitchell Stephens does a fantastic job crashing onto the open winger, and Luke Schenn is caught in no man’s land. He points to the open winger, who is taken by Stephens, and then just glides back. He doesn’t challenge Johnston or try to poke check him until he’s sprawling onto the ice. This opportunity is a low percentage shot for a player who had five career goals in 56 games up until that point—why is he diving onto the ice? It’s unclear if Schenn sprawling onto the ice masked Johnston’s release, but McElhinney reacts far too slowly on this shot.

Additionally, what is Verhaeghe doing in this play once it’s transitioned out of New York’s zone? He initially presses hard, but then glides through the neutral zone, and applies no form of backchecking pressure. The line change by Hedman and Shattenkirk also ends up biting them here since the first defender onto the ice is Schenn. Why Schenn, a slow skater at this point in his career, is the first one off is bewildering to me. You want your better skating defensemen to hop on first. Especially in a situation like this.

The second goal against is an infuriating one. It’s a power play, it’s a four-on-two, everything is in Tampa Bay’s favor. In this situation, it’s on Stamkos to be the last man back, which he does do at first. He goes wide and slow to allow Brayden Point and Alex Killorn to push the Islanders’ defense back. Nikita Kucherov sees this and feeds a pass that was slightly behind Stamkos.

This is where the first issue occurs—a toe drag and a blind between the legs pass to nowhere. One Islanders defender went down immediately while the backchecker was on top of Stamkos, but he still had control of the puck. There’s no one behind the net, two Lightning players in front of Varlamov (both Killorn and Point drove too far into the offensive zone to be of any help on this play), and Kucherov all by himself in the right faceoff circle (the only forward on this play in the right position in case the puck is rung around the boards or a shot goes wide). Kick the puck around and feed it behind the net to Kucherov.

The next issue is Hedman driving too deep into the offensive zone. It’s a four-on-two on a power-play there’s little reason to be at the top of the face off circles here. From there, it’s Josh Bailey dekeing out McElhinney to make it 2-0 in less than two minutes.

Teams practice odd man rushes, the fact that this went so awry is inexcusable in my eyes. There’s no reason Stamkos needs to make a blind between the legs pass when he has far better options available to him. That’s another detail failing from Tampa Bay. Players have to know what their outs are in certain situations. Stamkos had two better options; shoot it (he’s Steven Stamkos for crying out loud), or corral it toward the outside of his body and ring it around the boards to maintain possession and get set up with a power-play that ranks at the top of the league.

The immediate focus on the third goal is on Schenn, and rightfully so. However, Conacher had a chance to get this puck out shortly before the replay starts and instead blindly wraps the puck around the boards toward a waiting Islanders player. He needs to skate it out and pick his head up to gauge his surroundings.

Next, Tampa Bay’s defense goes into man coverage here, which isn’t an issue in and of itself. The issue lies in Schenn getting danced around by Anthony Beauvillier behind the net and failing to stick with his man (which is kind of the point of man coverage).

This springs Hedman into desperation mode and trying to create some kind of turnover along the boards—which, he does because he’s Victor Hedman. Verhaeghe makes the smart play to ring the puck down the boards to Schenn, but it’s here that Schenn makes a mistake. Yes, it’s a “bad bounce”, but let’s take a look at Schenn on this play.

First, his feet aren’t positioned properly as he goes towards the boards. This leads to him being unable to properly apply pressure to his stick to kill the puck. In turn, the puck hits the middle of the toe of his blade, which makes it extremely hard to control any kind of pass and redirects toward the front of the net. This falls back on Schenn’s skating ability, which isn’t up to snuff at the NHL level, and it is the crux of what happens on this play. One small issue leads to another, and it eventually snowballs. This should’ve been a routine play after Hedman and Verhaeghe played it well. Instead, it was executed poorly.

These are just details on the micro level. Structurally, Tampa Bay played fine until the third goal (then they got far too loose in order to catch up), but each of the three goals annotated were entirely preventable if the Lightning just cleaned up some of the minor issues in their game. These aren’t gaping holes in Tampa Bay’s play, they’re small innocuous details that build up if they’re not corrected. Whether it’s the coaching staff’s failing or the player’s failings is irrelevant. The issue lies in that there appears to be no accountability for small mistakes like this. That’s the only explanation as to why these kind of micro details keep occurring in breakdowns by Tampa Bay. These are fixable issues that require a consistent level of commitment to correct. But they won’t go away simply by scoring a lot of goals.