The stretch pass is the Chicago Blackhawks’ preferred tool for catching opponents on their heels. The Blackhawks use the stretch pass to accelerate the pace of a sequence and try to place the puck on the sticks of their most skilled players. In the Stanley Cup Final, however, the Tampa Bay Lightning have impressively defended against this maneuver.
The stretch pass supplements and reinforces the Blackhawks’ rush game. But Tampa Bay’s defensemen and forwards have blanketed Chicago’s forwards and allowed them little separation. Their alignment is not especially ornate or unique: a garden-variety 1-2-2, or occasionally a 2-1-2. But passing lanes have been scarce for the Blackhawks when they look up ice on zone exits and on neutral-zone regroups because of how the Bolts’ skaters are reading the play and reacting.
This goal by Ondrej Palat in Game 3, was a memorable moment in this series. The Blackhawks have just taken the 2-1 lead after a Brandon Saad goal, and the United Center is going bonkers. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville puts out the fourth line, and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson tries to make a stretch pass up the boards to Marcus Kruger for a tip to teammate Andrew Shaw.
But Lightning defenseman Matt Carle assesses the play perfectly. Carle jams up the pass and the puck caroms to Tyler Johnson for the counterattack. Less than 10 seconds later, the puck is being fished out of Chicago’s net. The Blackhawks lost the game and suddenly trailed in the series.
Tampa Bay has overwhelmingly succeeded in thwarting the Blackhawks’ stretch pass. In the instances where Chicago’s completed stretch passes have yielded shot attempts, unusual circumstances had to occur for Chicago to generate offense off the rush.
In the first play, pay close attention to the positioning of the Bolts’ skaters. They have one man chasing the puck-carrier, and Palat, who is part of the second layer of coverage, anticipates the pass up the perimeter and tries to intercept it. Most importantly, Bolts defenseman Jason Garrison steps up. Unfortunately for the Lightning, Toews is incredibly good and manages to thread the pass through the middle of the ice despite the trap, and the puck slips between Nikita Kucherov and Andrej Sustr. Patrick Sharp opportunistically uses his speed to seize possession and gallop away for a partial breakaway. The probability of that stretch-pass sequence succeeding is low, so while the result was negative for Tampa Bay, the process was correct.
Now view the second play. How does Brad Richards get so open? The coverage fractures once Cedric Paquette takes a line change just as Duncan Keith feeds the puck up ice to Saad, and Johnson can not get on the ice fast enough to impede Richards! Sustr also makes a noteworthy mistake here. Instead of stepping up and eliminating the pass to Richards, who is the primary target, Sustr backpedals.
Richards musters a shot from the top of the left circle, but even with the line change in progress, it is crucial that Tampa Bay’s defenseman on the strong side challenge the charging forward who is designated to receive the puck. The Bolts’ entire defensive philosophy is designed so that their defensemen can step up and aggressively attack opposing skaters on entries while their forwards cover the back-side offensive pressure.
The Bolts’ defensive coverage disintegrates in the final play. The Triplets have just stepped onto the ice and they pursue aggressively on the forecheck. They have been gangbusters this entire postseason, and they have been downright tyrannical in their ability to disrupt the Blackhawks’ zone exits. Generally, their overconfidence is warranted, and two-man pressure on the forecheck would be understandable. What is not acceptable is the placement of Kucherov, the F3.
Kucherov is in no man’s land. By completely losing his positioning, he essentially forfeits the neutral zone and gives the Blackhawks a four-lane highway to enter the offensive zone. Sharp drops a pass to Toews as they criss-cross just inside the line, and Toews has a quality scoring chance.
These three plays are the exception, not the rule. Tampa Bay has systematically diminished Chicago’s high-octane attack by having equal or more skaters race back to quell the first wave and still jump out if the puck is distributed to the trailers. This has happened again and again. Chicago has been reduced to generating scoring chances from the power play, forecheck, counterattack, and offensive-zone faceoffs. Less diversity makes the Blackhawks more predictable.
The Bolts made a wise bet entering this matchup. They wagered that Chicago could not complete short-to-intermediate passes through the defensive zone and the neutral zone against Tampa Bay’s aggressive defense. The Bolts correctly anticipated that their large, mobile defensemen, and excellent transition defense by their forwards, could take away space and force Chicago to cabin itself in non-scoring areas. So far, Tampa Bay has been right. Your move, Chicago.