Speed kills, size matters

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:11 PM ET


 Throughout the Eastern Conference final, momentum has been a fickle commodity. Sometimes it's with the Philadelphia Flyers; sometimes it's with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

 For the most part, the determining factor is a matter of which team is managing to make the most of its primary asset. If Tampa Bay can use its speed and break free from Philadelphia's tenacious checking, then good things happen.

 But if the Flyers are able to slow down the Lightning and keep that high-speed offence in a lower gear, then momentum tends to turn their way.

 In the pivotal fifth game on Tuesday, won by the Lightning 4-2, the Tampa Bay speed was unleashed before the Flyers were able to keep it in check. As a result, the Lightning opened a 3-0 lead and nursed it home.

 To do so, the Bolts took some risks, but such is the nature of their game.

 In today's defence-first hockey, you usually have to put aside any hopes of an odd-man rush. So if you're the puck carrier, you get to the red line and shoot the puck into the zone.

 You know you're not going to be able to carry it across the blue line, and your coach has preached the importance of avoiding the dreaded neutral-zone turnover. So as soon as icing is no longer a concern, it's dump-and-chase time.

 But the Bolts play a risky game. When they're at their best -- as they were in the first period on Tuesday -- they hold on to the puck longer.

 They risk the neutral-zone turnover in the hope of the greater reward. In the process, they freeze the Philadelphia defence.

 Usually, defenders stay at the blue line until the puck is unleashed, then they turn and chase it. But by holding on to the puck, Tampa forces those defenders to hold their ground longer. This has a two-fold advantage.

 The Lightning forecheckers don't have as far to go to get possession; and they're starting with speed, whereas the Philadelphia defenders are standing still.

 The Flyers, being a well-coached team, react to this tactic once they see it developing. But their reaction involves coming out to apply pressure in the neutral zone, a move which has obvious disadvantages.

 It breaks down that wall built across the blue line; and it allows the Lightning to send the puck into the zone without being outmanned when it gets there.

 Because Tampa is the faster team, the Flyers are at a disadvantage. They start lumbering around in their own end and have to hope that goaltender Robert Esche can freeze the puck to get a faceoff.

 Naturally, the Tampa system is not flawless. If it were, the series would be over by now.

 But it is difficult to play against. It relies on a lot of movement and a lot of intelligent play, especially without the puck.

 And it is especially difficult for many of the better Philadelphia players -- Mark Recchi, Keith Primeau, John LeClair for instance -- who are not particularly fleet of foot.

 The Flyers have to use their size to slow down the Lightning and they have to finish their checks to make sure that the Lightning can't use speed to create an odd-man situation.

 The Lightning plays an aggressive, risky style that often intentionally allows an odd-man situation in the defensive zone. The team will float a forward out, away from the pressure, in the hope of connecting with a breakaway pass.

 The Flyers are a good team. They see all these thing happening and they try to adopt the appropriate defensive measures, making the most of their size in the process.

 When they're successful, they're in charge. But when they're not, the Lightning takes over.

 And so far, there has been no clear victor.


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