(AP) — Each time Boston’s top line jumps over the boards, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on red alert.
Make a mistake and Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak can make you pay. They have.
“You think it’s going all right and you’re playing well, and they only need one look,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We knew that. That’s no surprise. They’re a good line.”
Top lines are lighting up opponents all over the playoffs, ratcheting scoring up to a pace not seen in more than two decades. Top trios from the Capitals, Golden Knights, Penguins, Jets and Predators are having their way against top opposing defensemen. Goals are supposed to be harder to come by in the playoffs, but after years of NHL rule changes to get goals, goals and more goals, that is exactly what’s happening.
“Every line, every group of forwards, give different challenges for defensemen,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s the types of reads and the tendencies of the group and as a series goes on there’s going to be more and more deception happening from a forward group to our group of defenders and vice versa. It’s the constant reads and the constant communication and the constant positioning that you have to have against really dynamic people who are good collectively or individually.”
Especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s not easy being D.
A total of 332 goals were scored through the first 54 playoff games, the most at that point since 1996 (338). Elite goaltenders are putting on a show, yet top lines like Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist (Pittsburgh); Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson (Washington); Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg); Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith (Vegas): and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville) are taking advantage of their opportunities.
Top lines have been on the ice for 42 of the 78 goals scored through Tuesday in the second round, a showcase of skill that shows great offense is beating great defense. So many of the game’s best defensemen are now counted on as much for their offense as the play in their own end, yet even those tasked with stopping the stars haven’t been able to do it.
“We’ve got a game plan, but I don’t think we’ve completely executed it yet,” Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon said of containing the Golden Knights’ top line. “We’re kind of doing it in bits and pieces.”
The Penguins trail the Capitals 2-1 in their second-round series in part because they haven’t gotten much offense beyond Guentzel, Crosby and Hornqvist, plus the goals that top line is giving up to Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.
“They’re pretty aggressive, so there’s some open ice heading the other way against them,” top Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “You’ve got to defend hard when they have it and make your plays and have confidence to make plays when you do have it. If you’re only playing defense against them, it’s going to be a long night. You have to go on the attack, as well.”
That’s the risk-reward for elite defenders in the playoffs: knowing when to counterattack. It has worked some for the Bruins, who so far have limited the damage from Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and put up some goals against them.
Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy corralled Auston Matthews and Toronto’s top offensive performers in the first round and continue to draw the toughest assignments against the Lightning.
“The guys on the ice, that’s their assignment for 15, 18 minutes, whatever they play at even strength that night,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “There’s no magic formula about following them around or any particular structure other than Z and Charlie have done a good job of not getting caught up ice, giving them odd-man rushes for the most part.”
Pittsburgh’s biggest hole through three games defensively — outside of Matt Murray’s apparently vulnerable glove hand — has been defending the Capitals on the rush.
“They’re a very skilled team,” defensemen Justin Schultz said. “You’ve got to have numbers back and keep your head on a swivel because they’re very talented.”
It’s not just rush goals, though, as the Jets’ Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler showed in helping lead a comeback from down 3-0 to beat the Predators 7-4 to take a 2-1 series lead. Winnipeg and Nashville have combined for 25 goals despite two Vezina Trophy finalists in net and some of the best defensemen in hockey. It’s a blueprint for how the NHL wanted to crank up offense.
“I think the mindset is definitely to play well defensively,” Predators captain Roman Josi said. “Both teams want to play a good game defensively, and for some reason these two teams seem to bring the best out of each other and they’re always high-scoring games.”