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Lightning's, Penguins' Styles Of Play Equally Viable

Tonight's opponent for the Penguins boasts one of the more effective forechecking systems in the NHL, and one that has recently come under heavy scrutiny.

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I went to my first Penguins game of the season on Tuesday, against the offensively gifted but defensively deficient Colorado Avalanche.

The Penguins came out looking wholly derelict, and allowed the Avalanche offense to run rampant. Matt Duchene bested Marc-Andre Fleury, providing one of the prettiest goals of the early NHL season.

Even with an early deficit, it was clear from the start that it would be a night in Evgeni Malkin would shine brightly. He looked in deadly form from the first drop of the puck, and capped off his performance with a memorable goal of his own.

Nine goals, five unanswered from the Penguins, and inspired tallies from Duchene and Malkin typified the Pens' 6-3 victory over the Avalanche. Extremely entertaining, and anathema to defensively-minded coaches. 

Thursday night, the Penguins travel to Florida to face the Tampa Bay Lightning. When the Lightning last played at home, last Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, the game was entertaining, but mostly because of the bizarre spectacle in which the teams engaged.

The Lightning employ one of the more effective defensive schemes in the NHL, a 1-3-1 neutral zone trap. As you can see on the video, the players effectively line up in a cross. The player farthest forward funnels the opposition's break out to one side of the ice or the other. Two of the three middle players collapse on the puck carrier and force him to make some sort of hopeless decision. The deepest player almost acts like a sweeper in soccer, cleaning up mistakes and clearing danger.

It is an effective system that frequently breeds counterattacks for the offense. It is also the bane of Flyers captain Chris Pronger's existence.

"That's not hockey in my book, but whatever," Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger said of Tampa Bay's defensive plan. "The league's letting them do it. Would you pay money to watch that? I wouldn't either. That was a TV game, too. Way to showcase the product."

Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette simply described his team's stalling tactic as "figuring a way around" the 1-3-1.

The Lightning ended up winning 2-1. While they're currently stuck in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning's deployment of their their effective trapping mechanism, and the Flyers' reaction to it, prompted heated debate over the next few days. 

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic, while espousing the entertainment of the Penguins win, and decrying the tedium of the Lightning's similarly positive result, included the following anecdote.

During those 30 seconds (between dead puck stoppages), according to accounts close to ice level, the Flyers stood at their bench to call the Lightning "cowards," among other insults to their manhood. On the ice, Philadelphia forward Daniel Briere motioned to Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, the high man in the 1-3-1, and shouted, "Go get the puck! We're not moving until you do!"

A number of other columnists went after the Lightning far more aggressively for their tactic. The reasoning assumed is that it is to the total detriment of hockey, and the Lightning are only scaring fans away. 

This fails to take several things into account:

1. The Lightning don't always play the 1-3-1. It is a number of systemic tweaks they make over the course of a game.

2. Every team traps on occasion. Every team. Even the Penguins, though they probably trap the least in the NHL.

3. The Lightning's games aren't less entertaining than most NHL games. Tampa is currently surrendering the seventh-most goals per game in the NHL at 3.12, and are 14th in scoring at 2.76 goals per game. Translation: scoring is above the NHL average when the Lightning play.

4. Any notion that what Tampa is doing is "strangling the life" out of the NHL is absurd. This is not trap-era hockey. Obstruction has not disappeared, but it is far less prevalent. Hooking is called on the most innocuous of stick work. The two-line pass has been removed. The NHL has effectively instituted a number of measures to make it far easier to move the puck and dissect the trap. 

It's still fun, fast hockey, and has been since the lockout. Meanwhile, the Lightning have surrendered the eighth-most shots on goal per game in the NHL.

5. Since when was pragmatism illegal? Look, I idolize mid-to-late 90s Penguins, guys who played beautiful hockey, won games and lost in the playoffs. I loved watching Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev run rampant on opposing defenses, while meek, replaceable defenders and checking lines were constantly violated.

But just because a team doesn't play my, or the public's, preferred style, doesn't mean their wins are any less relevant. Last year, I didn't exactly love the Penguins' aggressive, grinding style of play, but it got the job done and Dan Bylsma deserved praise for his excellent work with a ravaged roster.

Bylsma, in fact, gave the Lightning credit for how effectively they played against the Flyers.
"Regardless of the hype or the attention drawn to it, I think [the Lightning] left that game accomplishing what they hoped to accomplish, which was to minimize the offensive ability of a team that's scoring a lot of goals -- minimize the shots they got on net, minimize the dangerous situations," Bylsma said.
Coaching is a job, like anything else, and home fans prefer winning to style points. Last I checked, Tampa Bay was a laughingstock until Guy Boucher arrived. And it is with his measured style that they've gotten back on the right track, and into the playoffs.

It is, of course, more enjoyable watching nine-goal games than trap-heavy affairs. But before we burn Boucher in effigy, let's not make him out to be the witch that he isn't.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.