For all of the things that went poorly for the Lightning in their season-opening 6-3 loss to Atlanta, there were several that went well. The team fired 39 shots on Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec and generated numerous scoring chances. Marty St. Louis netted two goals. In his NHL debut, defenseman Victor Hedman
played a team-high 26:27 and recorded his first NHL point with an assist.
And, of course, there was the power play. After clicking at nearly 25 percent during the preseason, the Lightning’s power play went 1-3 on Saturday. St. Louis got the goal during a four-on-three late in the second period. The Thrashers sandwiched two penalties around a Lightning infraction, so in addition to the four-on-three, the Lightning had two shorter five-on-four looks in that sequence. Then the team got one more chance in the third period. In all of their power play opportunities, even the unsuccessful ones, the Lightning looked sharp, enjoying lengthy possession time in the Atlanta defensive zone.
New assistant coach Adam Oates has been working with the power play unit since the start of camp and needless to say, he’s been a welcome addition. Head Coach Rick Tocchet, who originally asked Oates to come to camp as an unpaid consultant, admitted that last year, he tried to implement too many different power play strategies. He said that Oates, on the other hand, feels that it’s important to teach three or four things – and then do them really well. That’s what has been emphasized so far this year.
Before the Atlanta game, I asked Oates about his power play philosophy and what components make up a successful power play.
"Chemistry," he replied. "It’s a hard thing to find because every team has got some quality players and it’s having the ability to figure out a way to make them all gel. Because there’s only one puck. One of the first things is whether a guy shoots right or left, because that matters. And their positions on the ice. Really, my philosophy is I want to make the puck move, not the players move. If the puck’s moving and they’re standing still, then their mind is free to see all of their options. But if they have to keep moving, keep moving and rotating to try and generate a shot, then they’re mentally and physically tired at the end of it. The other thing is, goalies are good, so you’ve got to make them move. So at some point, you want to have to create an opportunity to make the goalie go from post to post."
The chemistry part of the equation seems to be solid for the Lightning. During the preseason the first power play unit consisted of St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone and Kurtis Foster. Other than Foster, the rest have all played extensively together and have established good chemistry. But another key seems to be, as Oates detailed in his answer, that the Lightning are using the two righties – Foster and Stamkos – on the left side of the ice. (Depending on where the puck is, Stamkos roves from the left circle into the slot, which is where he scored a couple of power play goals in the preseason finale against the Thrashers). The other three lefties are generally positioned on the right side of the ice (although Malone goes to the front of the net, too). This positioning gives all five players good angles from which to shoot. Look for a similar type of setup when other players get turns on the power play.
Oates also mentioned that the best power plays have the ability to generate fear in the penalty killers. Alex Ovechkin, he said, has such an effect on the penalty killers that have to face him. That’s a huge advantage for Ovechkin and his Washington teammates. The Lightning, with their offensive weapons, also have the capacity to scare the opposition.
What strategy does a penalty kill unit employ against a dangerous power play? It can be more passive and attempt to block passing and shooting lanes. Or it can aggressively pursue the puck carrier in hopes of forcing a turnover. Both types would seem to play right into Oates’ philosophy. If you give skilled players time to move the puck around, the passive penalty kill box will be in constant motion – and so will the goalie. But also, quick puck movement can expose an aggressive PK unit that is intent on chasing.
If there’s anyone who knows what he’s talking about, it’s Oates. He’s sixth on the NHL’s all-time assist list with 1,079. Jeff Halpern, who played with Oates in Washington, told the St. Pete Times that his former teammate is the smartest hockey person he’s ever met. Lecavalier stated to the same newspaper that Oates, unlike some former stars, is an excellent teacher and is able to impart his considerable knowledge.
And there’s this fact, too. Having been with the Lightning less than a month, Oates has only scratched the surface on what he wants to do with Tampa Bay’s power play. The rest of the league should beware.
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