If there's one thing the Tampa Bay Lightning have built their legend on, it's the adjustment.
From the sweeping re-imaginations borne out of the devastating loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets three springs ago, to the minor tweaks used with the utmost patience versus the New York Rangers in this season's Eastern Conference final, much of what makes the Lightning special — and separates them from other teams — is their ability to consume, process, and use the data offered to them in real time.
It's the reason they're back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
It's the reason they're not for a second out of this Stanley Cup Final versus the Colorado Avalanche.
Game 1 in Denver on Wednesday night was very much an opportunity to gather information for both teams, but more specifically the Lightning.
Neither Lightning head coach Jon Cooper or his counterpart, Jared Bednar, appeared particularly concerned with hard matching, instead letting the pieces fall naturally.
Reflexively, Cooper did find reason to deploy his more reliable and defensive-minded pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak head-to-head versus Nathan MacKinnon, but it's clear the Lightning haven't settled on a preferred five-man unit designed at neutralizing the Avalanche's top line.
Along with Valeri Nichushkin, Gabriel Landeskog, and more often than not a five-man unit that included Cale Makar, MacKinnon saw fairly considerable time head-to-head against each of the Lightning's top nine forwards and lines, with little providing any real resistance.
The most shifts came in a fire-versus-fire scenario against Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and the Lightning top line, while the most lopsided ones came versus the middle six. In fact, it was mostly one-way traffic when MacKinnon drew head-to-head matchups versus the second and third lines of Tampa Bay, which essentially produced no meaningful offence versus Colorado inside those minutes based on expected goals.
It's exceedingly possible that throwing their best at MacKinnon is the way to go; the Lightning's best moment in Game 1 came with Kucherov and Ondrej Palat hitting the Avalanche's top players back on the counterattack.
But while the Lightning coaching staff could pick up on some of the benefits of top-line overlap, shouldering Kucherov and Stamkos with strict defensive responsibility threatens to leave the Lightning punchless. Part of the processing stage for the Lightning coaching staff has to include finding ways to free up Kucherov and Stamkos from an offensive standpoint.
Instead, the Lightning have to engineer something out of their middle six, an area they should be able to extract advantages from. It's an area which received a massive boost when Brayden Point was able to return.
And it's imperative they pay that off.
Point managed to mostly hold down a centre role in Game 1, moving freely enough around the ice to assume most of those responsibilities despite rushing back from an apparent lower-body injury. He did share some of the role with Nick Paul, who played the position in his absence, but Point not being stapled to the wing immediately — or cooked through the middle versus maybe the fastest team in the league — is certainly evidence that he's not in over his head.
Still, it's worth wondering if Point can be that adjustment for Cooper. If Point is elevated to the second line to pair with the team's next best two-way contributor, Anthony Cirelli, and another reliable in winger in Alex Killorn, the Lightning would be able to throw three of the best defensive forwards in the series out versus MacKinnon at the same time without messing with much of what has brought them back to this point.
It might be a move reserved for the opportunities with last change, but hard-matching Cirelli, Point and Killorn versus the Avalanche top line would create the conditions for Kucherov and Stamkos to work against the Nazem Kadri-less Avalanche second line, while Paul, Ross Colton and Brandon Hagel would draw one of two lines from the Colorado bottom six.
It will be interesting, though, if Cooper determines that Cirelli needs help in a head-to-head matchup with a five-man unit that more often than not will include MacKinnon and Makar.
Tampa was mostly caved in throughout Cirelli's five-on-five minutes in Game 1. Colorado outshot the Lightning 13-5 in that scenario, and Cirelli turned in the single-worst possession night among those in blue and white.
Most damning, the on-ice expected goals in those 15 minutes were 1.46 to 0.06 in favour of the Avalanche.
But it was the same story, however, at times in previous series, and a postseason in which Cirelli has been deservedly lauded. This was especially true in the second round versus the Florida Panthers when Cirelli was torched at even strength versus similarly high-end opposition. Cirelli had a 31.4 percent possession mark in that series, but not a single goal was scored for or against in his near 59 minutes at even strength, making the analytical data moot.
Cirelli was on the front foot far more in the seven-game series victory versus New York in Round 3. But one constant that remained the same for him and the Lightning, and even extended to Game 1 versus the Avalanche, is that the opponent achieved less than they were expected to earn in minutes versus Tampa Bay's shutdown centre.
Because despite being caved in in Game 1, and finishing with an expected goals for of 4.7 percent, the Lightning outscored the Avalanche 1-0 in Cirelli's five-on-five minutes.
So the question may be twofold for Cooper:
Can Cirelli continue to absorb the high volume of pressure that comes with a strict shutdown role versus a far more powerful opponent with it being reflected in the scoreboard?
And, is Point fit enough to drive his own line, and more specifically create advantageous matchups for the Lightning?
If the answer is no to either question, the logical conclusion drawn may be to team Cirelli and Point up on that second line as the first wall MacKinnon and Makar must break down in order to get to Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That all being said, maybe we'll just leave the adjustments to the experts.
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