Coming out of the All-Star Break and bye week, Lightning players and coaches spoke about the importance of honing their game in advance of the postseason. Specifically, they mentioned "attention to detail" as a high priority.
"Attention to detail" covers a lot of ground, but at the most basic level, it means that the players become machine-like in their execution. They make the right reads. They're in the right spot. Their decisions come automatically. There's no hesitation, thanks to repeated reps through games and practice.
This can help a team offensively. For example, players will be going to areas that might lead to scoring chances and/or rebound opportunities. But the big payoff is on the defensive side. Recently, the Lightning's attention to detail has been excellent and, consequently, they've been dialed in defensively. Over the past six games, they've allowed a total of eight goals. While the goaltenders deserve plenty of credit for those numbers, the Lightning's play in front of the netminders has been as good as we've seen all season. Here's how they've done it.
Puck Management: So much of solid team defense is tied to what happens when your side has puck possession, before the other team goes on the attack. Sloppy puck management often leads to turnovers, which fuel the opposition's offense. With the puck, players need to a) make good decisions (what do I do with it?) and b) execute that play (was the pass tape-to-tape?).
If a team does commit a turnover and has to quickly transition from offense to defense, players might be caught out of position and the other side can generate a scoring chance. At the very least, a turnover means that your side no longer has the puck and must defend.
In the last 18 periods spanning the previous six games, the Lightning have had only two sub-par periods with their puck management: the second period against Florida on February 10 and the first versus Columbus on February 18. In both of those periods, the other team played well and dominated puck possession. But the Lightning's poor puck management contributed to the narrative. Fortunately for the Bolts, a combination of other factors - good defensive play without the puck/Louis Domingue's goaltending in Florida and Andrei Vasilevskiy's 20 first period saves at Columbus - prevented the opposition from capitalizing.
But those were only two of 18. In the other 16 periods, it's been a different story. For the vast majority of that time, the Lightning's puck management has been outstanding. In particular, during the consecutive home wins last week over Calgary, Dallas and Montreal, the Lightning strung together nine periods in which they greatly limited turnovers. That helped them keep the opposition's scoring chance numbers low.
Rush Coverage: Is the other team generating chances off odd-man rushes? Is the opposition carrying the puck into the Lightning's end and making a play? Certainly, puck management issues in the neutral or offensive zone can directly lead to an odd-man rush against. But sometimes, even without a costly turnover, forwards aren't getting back quickly enough to support the two defensemen and the other side has a numbers advantage. On the other hand, if the forwards are strong on the back-check, the defensemen can "gap up" and take away space from the puck carrier. This may lead to a Lightning steal and counter. At the very least, the defense doesn't have to back in and cede the blue line.
During this stretch, the Lightning's back pressure and corresponding gap has been excellent. While the Flyers did score two goals off the rush on Tuesday, those opposition opportunities have been extremely rare. Instead, the Lightning's tight neutral zone play has foiled opposition rush chances and often allowed the Lightning to turn over pucks and regain possession.
Defensive Zone Coverage: D-zone coverage refers to the shifts when the other team has possession in the Lightning's defensive zone. With the lone exception of the first period in Columbus on Monday, this area of the Lightning's game has been air-tight during the past six contests. Players are structured in their positional play, so the other team hasn't gotten open looks from prime scoring areas. The Lightning are getting in shooting lanes to block shots. They're also boxing out opposition forwards in front of the net to prevent dangerous tips or chances on rebounds. Similar to their neutral zone play, the Lightning skaters have supported each other well, so that when one player engages an opponent and dislodges the puck, a teammate is there to grab it.
The Lightning's d-zone has been so good that even when they've had some puck management hiccups and didn't execute clears, they've recovered quickly and the other team has been kept to the perimeter.
There have been other areas of strength. The Lightning's compete-level has been high, so they've won lots of 50-50 pucks. They've been physical, which helped in those same puck battles and in those aforementioned d-zone challenges on puck carriers. As it has performed all season, the penalty kill continues to shine. And of course, when there have been breakdowns, Vasilevskiy and Domingue have produced key saves.
So with strong attention to detail, the Lightning have honed their defensive play. Never satisfied, they will continue to work on it during the final 21 regular season games.