The two top teams of the Eastern Conference met in an epic clash of the titans Saturday night while the rest of us were watching Toronto roll over the Laval Rocket. To do anything in the playoffs, the Leafs have to play both the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, so I decided to watch this game and see what I could learn.

Missing from the Bruins: Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. Well, this is going to be easy for the Lightning then, isn’t it?

Missing from the Lightning: Their backup goalie, who isn’t playing, and that’s about it, beyond Ondrej Palat, who has been out for a while. This really should go the Bolts’ way.

First Period

Tyler Johnson gets a shot off on the very first shift off the opening faceoff. And Johnson’s a winger now? That’s weird. I thought Jonathan Drouin was the failed C. Anyway, full disclosure: I am not a Tyler Johnson fan. If I’d been Yzerman, I’d have traded him not Drouin, but then the Habs wouldn’t have overpaid for Johnson.

The Bolts pin the Bruins top line in defensively, but — and it’s not like I don’t know the score, so this analysis is steeped in hindsight bias — they are playing an odd form of reverse Leafs offence where their go-to move is high-to-low passes or shots into the corner, and then the forecheckers are supposed to generate offence. No puck is on net in a meaningful way.  Dun dun dun.

Boston is a stick-in-lane defensive team. They are strong, physical, and can pin a tough guy to the boards, but their bread and butter is knowing where the opposition is going to pass the puck and intercepting it. They are deeply annoying in that they do this very well. They totally disrupt the Bolts’ next offensive shift exactly this way.

Boston then moves into the Bolts end and take the puck away while Tampa is setting up with some long cross-ice passes. Tampa is drawing big geometry, long passes that make the opposition have to change direction. It’s not at all dissimilar to how the Leafs play.  Boston draws short, sharp lines with the puck. Their passes are a few feet, they swarm, and the forwards push towards the net together. There is less art in it, and they also need less footspeed.

The Bolts have their fourth line of Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan on the ice. This should be a good fourth line with the right mix of toughness and skill. Pacquette’s the weak link, and as a lovely and perfect long pass comes to him on the right boards, he gets easily pinched off by Bruins defenders at the blue line. It’s a rapid deployment trap the Bruins pull out from a non-trap structure.

The Bruins take the puck and execute a ring around the boards by Brian Gionta, who is on the third line (!!!) with Tommy Wingels and Riley Nash. Those two get into a bit of a board battle with Callahan and Anton Stralman and win it easily. What happens next is mostly down to how easy it was for the Bruins to keep the puck.

The Bruins pass quickly right across the ice to Krug at the left point, and roaring up the slot is David Pastrnak, on for Gionta, with three Bolts chasing him, two of them on their knees on the ice, one who was trying to block Krug’s pass/shot and one who was trying to look even more out of position on Pasta? Not sure. That guy is Mikhail Sergachev. Rookies, gonna rookie.

Pasta pots the goal, and the Bruins are on the board less than five minutes in.

I’m going to let the game play for a bit and just see what patterns emerge.

The Bruins are very conservative in the offensive zone, sending two men in until they have total control of the puck. The third forward hangs back with the defenders behind him.

This is the Bruins:

This is true in their defensive deployment as well. I’ve watched a lot of Finnish hockey which has beautiful geometry. A power play in a Finnish game is a dance of a five pointed star against a four-sided box where the distance between each point on either side rarely changes. The way the players respond to each other is as key as how they respond to the opposition moves.

This is the Boston defence, their transition through the neutral zone, and to some extent, their offensive game. The five-spot. They respond to their teammates and maintain position effectively with short passes and they control the ice.

The Bruins easily collapse two- or three-fifths of their five-spot to pinch off puck carriers at the blueline.  They take the puck away so easily, that they are risking less than you are when they give it away via a dump in or a shot. They have control of the puck because they control the ice.

Steven Stamkos takes an interference penalty at the midpoint of the first period, and Boston scores on the power play. It starts with a faceoff in the Lightning zone so the Bruins begin setup. It’s almost a gimme goal.

But now that it’s two to nothing, will the Bruins play even more conservatively?

The early answer is yes. Brad Marchand grabs the puck out of the middle of their five-spot formation in the neutral zone and zips up on a rush chance. The ensuing offensive pressure by the Bruins sees the defenders very reluctant to even cross the blueline.

The Lightning, facing an effective three-on-five from this line, give up several scoring chances. In their defensive zone, they follow the puck like a swarm of blue moths focused on the flame that is the puck. They do not respond to each other at all on this shift, and you can see two Bolts players competing for the puck as they get possession.

The Bolts, in trying to break out, have no one to pass to, since the other guy is right there going for the puck too. This happens three times on this shift, as the Bruins — still just three forwards — just keep taking the puck away from them. It’s like playing a line where every guy is Zach Hyman or Mitch Marner.

The Lightning, after three tries, get the puck out to the neutral zone, and the Bruins defender is right there to pick up the puck. The Bolts just spin in futile circles. And yes, this looks like the Leafs on their bad days.

The Bolts finally spread out, get a pair of forwards high, and collect the puck and pass it up past the three Bruins defenders. With some speed by the third forward, they now have the numerical advantage and can get the hell through the Bruins defence and into the offensive zone.

So the tactic that worked was not collapsing with numbers to the goal line and overwhelming the opposing team — fans seem to love this because it proves the forwards are working hard like they should. Instead, the forwards cheating high won the day. Memo to self: Does the Bozak line have good numbers versus Boston?

Tampa gets an extended shift of offensive pressure but never get to high-danger scoring position. They worked hard, they passed and skated, and the Bruins were pinned in, but they made nothing meaningful happen.

The Bruins just keeping working their zone defence, and eventually, they take the puck back and move out.

Okay, that’s the first period, baring the scary injury to David Backes in an accidental skate cut as they all go flying in front of the Lightning goalie. Excellent rapid response by the trainers, staff and officials getting him off the ice, by the way.

Second Period

Tampa is collapsing a lot less defensively, and the result is that only the Marchand line can get sustained pressure.  With their forwards behind the attacking Bruins, the Lightning are transitioning out of their own zone with speed a bit more.

The neutral zone is still owned by the Bruins, but with a two-goal lead they are policing it less fiercely. The Bolts are breaking through a fair amount.

The offensive pressure of the Lightning lacks dangerous chances, but it’s enough to draw a series of penalties. The Tampa power play is good, but the Bruins PK is excellent. Watch out for Rick Nash! He is as good, if not better, than Marchand at generating short-handed chances. They Bruins look more dangerous four-on-five than the Bolts do five-on-four for the first penalty.

Back at even strength, the Bolts finally get some traffic in the slot until Sergachev takes a really bad high-sticking call on a lazy swing of his stick. It’s a defensive zone faceoff for the Lightning, and the Burins start out essentially setup with control of the puck.  This is pretty much a gimme goal. Almost the same as the other goal and scored on a nice big juicy rebound from the Vezina candidate, Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Jake Dotchin stirs things up in a net-front pile up, and the Bolts are on the power play again. They have a good, open power play structure, but they aren’t moving their feet much. After the power play, they keep up this structure, rolling a five-spot of their own.

They keep to that rigid structure at five-on-five, and there is no chaos, cross ice carries of the puck or driving of the slot. All they get are some good cross-ice passes in front of Tuukka Rask.

The period winds down with the Bruins under a lot of pressure superficially, but the scoring chances look like this:

1st Period:  Lightning - 6, Bruins - 10
2nd Period: Lightning - 5, Bruins - 9

Third Period

I’ve cheated, and looked at the Corsi graph and the heat map for shots, so I know the third period is all Bolts as they enjoy some score effects

Will they get into areas for good scoring chances or just keep playing a regimented passing game that hasn’t even worked on the power play for them?

The Bruins have changed their configuration from a five-spot to a one-three-one, to clog the neutral zone, and deny zone entries. The result is that the Lightning can escape their own zone more easily, but on the rare occasions they get into the Bruins zone, they lose the puck to a stick in a lane, and it’s back the other way.

Consider for a moment that there is no Zdeno Chara in this game, and the Bruins are defending easily. Brilliantly even.

The five-spot is back in the defensive zone for the Bruins, and at one point, with the fourth line on the ice, one Bruins forward is trying to be the centre spot when that’s already taken.  He sidesteps immediately to his position, not worrying about the Lightning player with the puck, even though he’s quite close. The Bruins player doesn’t go to that guy, he simply gets his zone of control under control, and in time, the Bruins steal the puck and go the other way. Zone defence, done with this level of skill and discipline, is mesmerizing.

Alex Killorn comes the closest any Lightning player has to a goal, and it’s all driven by the traffic in the slot. That’s approximately the third or fourth time there’s been anyone in that high-danger area for the Lightning all game.

Boston is dropping their five-spot back so low that they don’t seem to care if they ever leave the zone. They really aren’t making a large effort to get the puck and leave the zone. They know it’s going to come to them.

Victor Hedman takes a high-sticking penalty with six and a half minutes left, and that’s the game. The Bolts have no serious chance of scoring more than a shutout buster here, which they never manage.

As we can see by the Corsi chart, the Lightning really did own the third period:

Now, let’s score adjust that:

And now the damning image:

The Lightning had great Corsi in this game, 49-36 unadjusted. But they did nothing with those shots. And a lot of that was their failure, not a particularly effective defensive execution by the Bruins. In the third period, the Scoring Changes were 6-3 for the Lightning. They didn’t actually get any better.

What the Bruins excelled at was taking the puck away all over the ice, but they weren’t really preventing the Tampa players from moving freely. They check hard, and they win board battles, but Tampa sat back offensively of their own accord. This game was not typical of their play, and shouldn’t be considered conclusive proof that Boston is better.

What does this mean for the Leafs, who are more Tampa and less Boston in style, but much worse than both at bleeding shots against?

The Leafs have better offensive skill, scoring touch, positional skill, fearless driving of the net, speed, all of it, and way down deep in the lineup. The Leafs are stacked, and their expected goals for rate is much higher than either Boston or Tampa.

That offensive skill works against the Bruins if you can gain the zone, the Lightning should have tried! The Leafs power play will not beat the Bruins, but it might kick some Bolts’ ass. The Leafs will have to play against the Bruins like every second of zone time is their last.

Against the Lightning, the trick really is to pressure them constantly and take the puck away. Live by the long stretch pass and die by it, the Lightning open the door for you.  The Leafs are faster than the Bolts, and much, much deeper.

If the Leafs limit the Bruins’ or the Lightning’s scary top lines as much as possible, the Leafs can feast the rest of the time.  Just like every other game they play, the Leafs have to outscore their opponents. Maybe get five every game, to be safe.

The playoffs begin in approximately three weeks. Are you ready?

Who would you rather face in the first round?

Who cares? I want to beat them both.195