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Micro Analysis: Montreal fell victim to Tampa Bay’s more effective offensive system

The Lightning used the entire zone to create offence, while Montreal’s predictability was fooling no one.

Montreal Canadiens v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

The comparison between the Montreal Canadiens’ offence and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s is unfair. That’s a given. This edition of the Lightning is about as stacked as we’ve seen a team in the past 10 years in the NHL. They are overflowing with talent at every single position, and their top two lines feature a bunch of players who would be MVPs on many less-fortunate teams. But let’s indulge the comparison anyway, because I don’t think the difference in offensive punch between the two clubs is only personnel related.

Montreal’s offence is often one-and-done, meaning that they rush in and immediately try their best to find a scoring chance before the opposition has had time to set up their defence. The Lightning play the long game. They don’t just take advantage of opposing breakdowns; they manufacture them. They look to confuse defences to create odd-man situations and free players in and around the slot for shooting chances.

In the Lightning system — because it is a systemic strategy — only one player stands somewhat still: the net-front forward. He acts as an anchor; his presence forces defenders to always think about reloading to the slot to make sure he doesn’t get an easy tip-in goal. The rest of the Lightning swirl around. They move the puck using the length and width of the ice until one attacker has enough space to take full control of it and make a play. When that happens, this attacker tries to attract more than one defender to himself.

Before he gets collapsed on, he again moves the puck toward a free teammate. This way, in just a few quick cyclings of the puck, the Lightning can successfully create two-on-ones against defenders, which they use to gain inside positioning in the slot.

Simply put, the Lightning consistently force defenders to make decisions. The opposition has to process multiple changes in coverage in seconds, which is incredibly hard even for the most drilled teams, let alone a squad composed of many AHL call-ups like Montreal’s last night.

Offensively, the main difference between Tampa Bay and Montreal (besides the obvious talent factor) is the willingness to use the top of the zone. Attackers consistently reload behind defenders back inside space near the blue line in the Lightning system. Montreal wants to keep all of their attackers near the net, directly inside the defensive box.

Players near the net have a better chance of finding an immediate scoring chance off tips and rebounds, but defenders can easily check them.

The top of the zone is where the most defensively challenged elements operate: the wingers. It’s also where a lot of switches between players happen, and in turn the area where the defence can commit the most mistakes. By relaying a constant movement of skaters up there, opponents lose track of their defensive responsibility, and that’s how the Lightning score so many goals.

It’s not the first time in these analyses that I’ve talked about Tampa Bay’s offensive system. Toronto’s, and even Carolina’s for that matter, is somewhat similar. These teams are showing us the future of NHL offensive play. They employ creative offensive schemes on top of a heavy-pressure style to control games.

The hope is that the Canadiens pick up some of the dynamic elements of their competition as they evolve in the next few years. Right now, their north-south, counter-attack-heavy style might best fit their identity, but their influx of young talent might turn them into a team capable of playing a wide-cycle, passing-oriented game that would have them manage the flow of the play more, which in turn would expose them to less absurd variations of momentum during games.

It would also help them create goals in games, like Thursday’s, where they can’t seem to catch opponents off guard.