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Breaking down Tampa Bay’s defense and penalty kill

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A potent offensive team with a mobile, offensively-minded defense goes up against its mirror image in this series. How the series goes might turn on which version of the Lightning defense shows up.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

So much of the hype for the second-round series between the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning surrounds the offensive firepower for both squads, and to be sure, a forechecking clinic put on by the likes of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov is sure to be appointment viewing.

But there’s much more to the matchup than just an offensive track meet. These two Southeast Discover® NHL® Central Division rivals are elite at both ends of the ice, and given the reputation of the Hurricanes’ defense around the league, it may come as a bit of a surprise that the numbers actually have the Lightning graded out just a little bit higher, although well within the margin of error.

The bottom line is that this series will feature high-level hockey regardless of situation, and while that might cause the coaching staffs to wake up in cold sweats trying to game plan, it’s music to the ears of hockey fans.

At a Glance

Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

Simply put, in the regular season, the Lightning was a stifling defensive team. In every single scenario, the Lightning defense allowed expected goals against at a lower rate than league average, even when trailing. In fact, they were the stingiest defensive team in the league when down a goal, allowing 1.6 expected goals against per 60 minutes according to Natural Stat Trick. The Lightning is great at playing with the lead, but might be even better when tied or trailing.

On the penalty kill, it was much the same story: the Lightning allows 5.15 xGA/60 when killing penalties, second to the Bruins and – yup – the Hurricanes. And for all the well-earned plaudits for the Hurricanes’ penalty kill generating offense from defense, the Lightning do the same thing to a slightly lesser degree: while the Hurricanes were far and away the regular season’s most dangerous offensive team on the penalty kill, sitting pretty at a 24.75% xGF percentage, guess who was second? You got it: the Lightning, at 19.46%.

In the playoffs, though, they’ve tailed off a bit, becoming middle of the pack rather than near the top at even strength while falling precipitously on the penalty kill. The Hurricanes will hope that the sterling regular-season numbers were a product of the Lightning feasting on lesser competition and the playoffs are causing them to regress to their true level, but in any case they need to be ready for the Lightning defense to clamp down at any given moment.

Pairing 1

Player Regular Season Playoffs
Player Regular Season Playoffs
Victor Hedman 54 GP, 9g, 36a, 45p, +5, 25:03 TOI/GP 6 GP, 0g, 8a, 8p, -2, 23:13 TOI/GP
Jan Rutta 35 GP, 0g, 8a, 8p, +12, 16:02 TOI/GP 6 GP, 0g, 0a, 0p, +1, 13:05 TOI/GP
Pairing 52.1% CF, 46.7% xGF, 103.1 PDO 49.6% CF, 49.2% xGF, 98.9 PDO

Much has been made of Victor Hedman being a Norris Trophy candidate for this season on his overall body of work rather than his actual performance this year, and while it has taken a dip from the form that resulted in him being a Norris finalist the past four seasons, winning the hardware in 2018, he’s still a workhorse. Hedman is one of only nine defensemen in the league to play more than 25 minutes per night, and that heavy reliance is why the Lightning was compelled to trade for minutes-muncher David Savard at the trade deadline (more on him on a second).

Hedman spent the majority of the season with Jan Rutta, a bottom-pair defenseman who is serviceable but little else. He doesn’t play on special teams, which explains the extreme disparities in the ice time (especially in a series as chippy as the first round matchup with the Panthers), but considering the subpar advanced stats numbers of this pairing, this is a matchup that the Hurricanes will want to exploit.

Pairing 2

Player Regular Season Playoffs
Player Regular Season Playoffs
Ryan McDonagh 50 GP, 4g, 8a, 12p, +13, 21:54 TOI/GP 6 GP, 0g, 4a, 4p, +8, 21:48 TOI/GP
Erik Cernak 46 GP, 5g, 13a, 18p, +8, 19:47 TOI/GP 6 GP, 0g, 4a, 4p, +7, 20:02 TOI/GP
Pairing 55.2% CF, 57.3% xGF, 100.2 PDO 40.1% CF, 43.2% xGF, 110.0 PDO

The pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak usually matches up against the top line of the opposition, and the top-line numbers back up their usage. Especially in the games in Tampa, you can imagine that Jon Cooper will be matching this pair up against whichever line Sebastian Aho is centering. You might look at those low percentages and high PDO and think that the Panthers’ top line just feasted on this pairing, only to come away absurdly unlucky (and, with an on-ice save percentage for this pairing of .980 in the first round, you would have a case), but their goals-against numbers were right in line with expectations.

That said, Cernak in particular was shaky against the Hurricanes this season, skating to a -8 while sporting a ghastly 12.5 goals-for percentage at 5-on-5. Don't be surprised if the Hurricanes try to load up the left side of the ice to take advantage of that matchup, and Andrei Svechnikov in particular should be salivating at the potential of being on the ice against the Lightning’s worst statistical defenseman in the eight games they played against the Hurricanes this season.

Pairing 3

Player Regular Season Playoffs
Player Regular Season Playoffs
Mikhail Sergachev 56 GP, 4g, 26a, 30p, +5, 21:58 TOI/GP 6 GP, 0g, 2a, 2p, -2, 21:30 TOI/GP
David Savard 54 GP, 1g, 5a, 5p, -27, 20:26 TOI/GP 6 GP, 0g, 0a, 0p, -1, 15:40 TOI/GP
Pairing 65.6% CF, 76.1% xGF, 104.8 PDO 45.6% CF, 46.6% xGF, 98.6 PDO

As good as the Lightning defense has been this season, this pair might quietly be the best of the bunch. David Savard’s acquisition from the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline allowed them to remove a good bit of Hedman’s workload. Since the McDonagh/Cernak pairing was mostly used against the opposition’s top line, this one has been able to take advantage of a bunch of ice time against lower-threat offensive players. That 76% xGF number stands out: Savard and Mikhail Sergachev are the Lightning’s version of Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce, solid in their own end and using that defensive prowess to springboard their offensive game.

And yet, two players that spent significant time matched up against Savard and Sergachev in the first round, Jonathan Huberdeau and Patrik Hornqvist, were scoring nearly at will. Huberdeau tied with the league lead in the first round with eight assists, and his 10 points were second to only Nikita Kucherov. Now, Huberdeau is one of the most underrated players in the league, and he is capable of going off at any time. But you know who else is massively underrated offensively? Jordan Staal – who will see a decent bit of this pairing, you’d think.

Penalty Kill

PK1: Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, McDonagh, Cernak
PK2: Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, Hedman, Sergachev

This is, in all likelihood, the key to the series. The Lightning penalty kill against Florida was, in a word, shambolic. They have allowed 11.5 expected goals against per 60 minutes while shorthanded, killing just 72.7% of Panthers power plays. For a team that was fourth in the league at 84.2% in the regular season on the PK, it’s a stunning drop-off – and it should be noted that the Panthers power play is nowhere near as potent as the Hurricanes’.

Against the Hurricanes, the Lightning were the division’s best team on the penalty kill, allowing just four goals on 28 attempts. They gave up six power play goals to the Panthers on 22 opportunities, by contrast, in the first round. The Hurricanes’ power play was a little shaky to start the first round, but it started to find its legs late in the series against Nashville. If the Lightning’s penalty kill remains as toothless as it was for long stretches against the Panthers, look out.

Advanced stats from NaturalStatTrick.com, NHL.com and HockeyViz.com.