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Pressuring puck proving key to Lightning's success

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

NEW YORK -- In a span of 15 days the Tampa Bay Lightning scored 15 goals and beat the New York Rangers three times in regulation. A big reason is the intense and, according to Rangers center Derick Brassard, rare level of pressure the Lightning apply all over the ice.

"They play a unique style that we don't see a lot," Brassard said prior to Tampa Bay's 6-3 win against the Rangers on Monday at Madison Square Garden. "Even Pittsburgh and the other offensive teams, they don't really play like those guys. It's the way they're built. They're built with three scoring lines and one checking line. They're young, hungry, skilled with big D-men who move well and pinch everywhere. They make you make a lot of decisions."

Brassard hit on exactly how the Lightning try to play against every team. The object, or rather edict from coach Jon Cooper, is to pressure the puck whenever possible and wherever possible no matter the position.

"We try to eliminate as many odd-man rushes as we can and try to be reliable both offensively and defensively, but being aggressive in the offensive zone is usually a pretty good defensive structure," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "If you're aggressive up ice you're going to have the puck more. That's our mentality, trying to be aggressive all over the ice."

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Oftentimes you'll see both defensemen pressuring at the opponent's blue line or the red line. It's particularly noticeable when Tampa Bay's top defense pair of Anton Stralman and Hedman are on the ice.

The Rangers figured out quickly that as soon as they tried to break the puck out of the zone they were being hounded and essentially forced to chip the puck in and play the dump and chase game that works sometimes but typically leads to giving the puck back to the Lightning.

That much was evident in the first meeting, a 5-1 Lightning win on Nov. 17. The Rangers were better in the following two, including a 4-3 loss at Amalie Arena last week, but it took almost a perfect play for them to get the puck up the ice on a clean breakout.

They had to have a player driving hard up the middle of the ice so the forward on the wall at the blue line could chip a pass up and away from the Lightning's pressure. When it didn't work, it was essentially a giveaway. When it did, the Rangers were able to generate the speed they wanted.

"A lot of times the defensemen, with the way they pinch in the offensive zone or neutral zone, makes you have to chip the puck because you don't want to turn it over," Brassard said. "So you chip the puck and basically that gives it back to them. The way you support the puck is really important. Being first on the puck is important."

The Lightning's style is risk-reward, but Stralman said Cooper tells the players the reward far outweighs the risk when you can pressure the puck all over the ice.

"That's what coach Cooper has implied to us, 'I'll take that goal against if it happens, but we have to have the pressure and the support from our forwards to do it,'" Stralman said. "If once in a while they score on us, then applaud them."

The results suggest the pressure is effective.

Tampa Bay is third in the NHL in 5-on-5 shots on goal differential (plus-104) and seventh in the League in 5-on-5 total shot attempts differential (plus-110), according to war-on-ice.com. They are 13th in the NHL in total shots on goal (736), but fifth in 5-on-5 shots on goal (598).

The Lightning lead the NHL with 90 goals (3.60 per game), 11 more than the next best offensive team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. It helps that their power-play shooting percentage is a League-best .236 as they've scored 21 power-play goals on 89 shots.

Stralman said the key to the pressure is the attack from the weakside defenseman.

"The weakside 'D' usually backs off a little, but instead of backing off we're pushing forward and coming across and letting the other 'D' kind of back off in the middle to support each other that way," he said.

It doesn't work if the Lightning's forwards are not supporting the pressure. They do it well.

"Our forwards are doing a great job backchecking and working hard," Stralman said. "We need that support for us to do that kind of stuff. When you play teams with that pressure, that are really on you, you don't get that many breaks. It's hard to get man advantages and the rushes."

Stralman likened the style to what he used to play in Europe, where the ice is 15-feet wider than it is in the NHL.

"You're trying to have pressure and good angles," he said. "That's what we're trying to do and that's something me and Victor can relate to really well, get to the blue line both offensively and defensively, not back in and let up. It's a little bit of a different type of dance here with the smaller ice and the speed to the game so if you don't make the right read you definitely get penalized by it. So it's a hard line to walk, but when we're on we're a really tough team to play against."

The Rangers found that out the hard way.

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