Final exam

The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Final because both were able to combine an extremely talented roster with a supercharged, aggressive playing style. Essentially, this style allows each team’s forwards and defensemen to pursue scoring opportunities forcefully in the offensive zone. On the defensive side of the puck, both squads’ defensemen can challenge entries while the forwards supply an adequate amount of back pressure to suffocate any opposing forays.

The Blackhawks and Lightning have seen their opponents attempt to nullify their speed, batter them, shade their best players with checking lines, and turn the game into a grind by establishing the forecheck and slowing the game down. So what will happen when these two juggernauts collide?

The series could go two ways. It could end up being the 100-meter dash of all playoff series, with ineffable quickness and passing and offensive firepower personified. The second option is exciting hockey with plenty of rushes, but not quite mayhem. Door No. 2 is what the Blackhawks should seek, because their biggest flaw, inadequate transition defense, could extinguish their Cup dreams if this turns into a track meet.

For the most part, the Rangers did an outstanding job of diminishing the Bolts’ offensive impact on their rush. It is a testament to the 200-foot commitment and collective hockey intelligence of all five New York skaters that they were able to stultify Tampa Bay’s first wave and then stall its second wave. The Lightning procured a lot of offense from the power play, offensive-zone faceoffs, counterattacks, and most prominently, the forecheck.

There were two fissures in the Rangers’ transition-defense fortification in Game 7, and the Lightning were able to convert both chances via the rush. The first goal came when Alex Killorn struck on an extremely slow-moving rush against the Rangers’ fourth line. But the second goal is more important for forecasting purposes.

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Bolts goaltender Ben Bishop makes the first pass to his outlet, Ondrej Palat, who makes a terrific touch pass off the half wall. The pass glides into the middle of the ice where it finds Tyler Johnson, who is powering out of the defensive zone. Once Johnson surges through the neutral zone, he pulls up right as he crosses the blue line on the entry. He makes an excellent cross-ice pass to Palat, completing the extended give-and-go. Palat corrals the puck and then deposits the puck in stride. But this play demands a closer look.

There are two Rangers forecheckers just below the circles, and New York defenseman Dan Girardi is pinching as the F3. Just above him is teammate Carl Hagelin, looking like a safety trying to cover a large swath of ice. But Hagelin’s position is precarious against the speed of the Johnson line, especially when Girardi fails to keep the puck in the zone and establish territorial advantage. The puck escapes the Rangers’ attackers, which leads to the Triplets scoring in transition.

This goal is important not only because it changed the score from a one-shot game to a multi-goal margin, but also because the Bolts’ ability to strike off the rush had been hampered all series by the Rangers. New York’s transition defense was very good, but a costly slip-up burned it in the deciding game.

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Now watch this goal by Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad against Anaheim, which extended Chicago’s lead to 3-0 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Blackhawks want their defensemen to pinch and play the role of the F3 (when necessary) as well! It is successful in this instance, as the Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf’s failed clearing attempt caroms off Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya. The puck skitters onto the stick of Patrick Kane, who finds Saad for the backdoor goal.

However, the Blackhawks’ aggression can also leave them exposed. There were many instances where Anaheim was able to evade Chicago’s pressure on the forecheck and generate quality scoring chances. This goal by the Ducks’ Hampus Lindholm is a great example. The Blackhawks fail on the forecheck, and the transition defense is lacking. The Blackhawks’ first line chases the puck below the circles, leaving not one, but two trailers open. This leaves them vulnerable for the second layer of the attack, where Lindholm receives the pass and scores.

And these are the Blackhawks’ three best defensive forwards failing to provide sufficient transition defense! Admittedly, this is rare, because this trio of Chicago forwards shows outstanding hockey acumen defensively. But this sequence is telling. Chicago’s best defensive forwards are prone to mistakes in transition defense, and the rest of their nine forwards are markedly worse in the exercise. The Blackhawks are not going to succeed on every forecheck, and failing to account for the second incursion against the Lightning is a death wish.

The Blackhawks are at their best when their defensemen play at manic speed. They need to be joining or leading the rush, establishing the forecheck, and engaging in the offensive-zone cycle by cutting to the backdoor and diving into the slot. The Blackhawks also have several stellar two-way forwards, especially now that Marian Hossa is separated from Jonathan Toews and Saad.  But transition defense at this stage demands that every skater on the ice find his man and attach himself, and that is never a constant for the Blackhawks.

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Ironically, since Tampa Bay is capable of exploiting the Blackhawks’ transition defense, Chicago may want to slow down the game. Slowing the game down is relative, however, as the Blackhawks most certainly will want Patrick Kane to be streaking through the neutral zone as much as possible. But they do not want to be trading rush attempts with the Lightning. The Blackhawks’ game plan should be to halt the Bolts’ transition game as much as possible, and force them to win with their forecheck, counterattack, offensive-zone faceoff plays, and power play. That should sound familiar because that is precisely what the Rangers, another finesse team that likes to play fast, attempted to do.

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This is not to call for a total departure from the formula that the Blackhawks used to reach the Cup. Really, it is just good puck management tailored to their opponent. Chicago still needs its defenseman on the weak side activating in the transition.  The involvement on the rush from the backend visibly loosens the defensive coverage for their forwards. But where the Blackhawks concede the puck will be of utmost importance. The Blackhawks need to limit the odd-man rushes, and they need to be prepared to defend not just the first, but the second wave of Bolts attackers. If they do not, they could get torched by the Lightning offense.

In addition to maintaining tight transition defense, it will be on the Blackhawks’ defensemen and forwards to coordinate clean breakouts, and for all five skaters to make judicious decisions with the puck in the neutral zone. Chicago will look to stymie Tampa Bay’s forecheck and counterattack and maintain puck possession. Generally speaking, good things happen for Chicago when it has the puck a lot.

Chicago needs to recognize that Tampa Bay can have four to five skaters attacking, while still maintaining defensive accountability when its opponents counter. The Blackhawks do not have that luxury. What Chicago does have is a group that excels when they support the puck in all three zones. Like the Rangers, the Blackhawks want the tempo of the forecheck and rush played at a diluted pace. Unlike New York, Chicago has enough creators on offense and aces on defense to win this series as long as it is not scrambling.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six

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