Road teams feasting on defensive breakdowns
By Stu Hackel
Road teams continue to roll in the Stanley Cup playoffs. With the Lightning winning in Washington on Sunday night, visitors have now captured four of the seven games played so far in the second round and 31 of 56 since the start of the postseason. The Bruins, who won on Saturday in Philadelphia, will try to extend their 1-0 advantage tonight.
The Flyers are going to have to be smarter and more physical to avoid dropping a second game on home ice and suffering the fate of the Capitals, who are going to Tampa Bay trailing 2-0 in that series. Can the Caps rebound? That answer is far from certain, although fans will remember that the Bruins fell behind Montreal after losing two games on home ice, then came back to take their dramatic first-round series in seven games.
When you look at how the Flyers played in losing Game 1 by 7-3, their shortcomings were obvious -- apart from their goaltending, that is. The entire hockey world -- except, it seems, the Flyers -- knows that Philadelphia's goaltending has been chronically mediocre to poor for years, and somehow that is never addressed. But the shortcomings we mean here have to do with ridiculously sloppy play. The Flyers weren't ready. They were sleepwalking from the outset, not forechecking with any purpose and not taking the body along the boards in their own zone, which led to goals by David Krejci (video) and Nathan Horton (video). Maybe worst of all, the Flyers suffered a collective brain freeze on Mark Recchi's goal that extended Boston's lead to 3-1.
On that play, the Flyers were in an excellent defensive posture, outnumbering the B's with four players between the puck and goalie Brian Boucher, but simply watched as Recchi's great jump and second effort resulted in a back-breaking goal. If you were Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, you'd have been happy to see your team have the advantage in numbers in that situation, but you'd go berserk at the result.
That goal is especially interesting because outnumbering the puck-carrier at the point of attack is a tactic some teams are favoring this spring. In Saturday's Game 2 between the Canucks and Predators, Vancouver scored the game's first goal on just such a situation. The Canucks had just taken a penalty and Nashville's Sergei Kostitsyn stickhandled out of his own zone. But two Canucks, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler, converged on him at his own blueline and forced a turnover.
It's a rather risky move with a man short. If Kostitsyn had dished the puck off or gotten through Burrows and Kesler, an odd man rush for the Preds would have likely resulted.
It's something worth watching from the Canucks in various situations, and it doesn't always work. On the Predators' game-winner in the second overtime period, Shea Weber made a neutral zone pass to Ryan Suter near the boards just outside the blueline and two Canucks, Burrows and defenseman Aaron Rome, went after him. Suter quickly backhanded the puck to Nick Spaling who had lots of ice in front of him, as did his teammates...
...feeding Matt Halischuk for the goal that knotted that series at 1-1.
The notion of outnumbering the puck-carrier has been a big feature of the NHL game for a while. It's an essential component of the 1-2-2 neutral zone trap in which the first player steers the puck-carrier toward the boards and his teammates, trapping him into a turnover or forcing him to dump it down the ice.
A big reason this worked so well prior to the lockout was that the rules didn't allow for the two-line stretch pass from inside the defensive zone to the far blueline. The team without the puck only had to defend half the neutral zone for the trap to work, a pretty small area in which to cram bodies. Needless to say, the trap murdered the game's creativity. Once that rule was changed and was no longer an offside pass, defenders had to worry about the entire neutral zone, which spread them out and gave the team with possession of the puck more room to operate and more options. Obviously, teams still try to outnumber the puck-carrier in the neutral zone, but are less successful than before the lockout. As a consequence, we now see more defenses -- but not all -- making a stand inside their own zone, getting numbers back, giving the outside to the team with the puck and protecting the front of the net, forcing opponents into low percentage shots. That's why shotblocking has grown into a major feature of defensive hockey during the past few seasons. Coaches want their players to protect "the house" (the area from the goal line up to the faceoff dots and then to the high slot), get into the shooting and passing lanes to disrupt the attack, and turn the play the other way. You risk injuries from shotblocking with that defense and some coaches still want to contest pucks more aggressively along the boards.
One such coach is Guy Boucher of the Lightning. Among the many features of the system he uses is outnumbering the puck-carrier in all areas of the ice. He's not even been averse to having three players enter into a puck battle along the boards in his own zone if there are two opposing forwards there.
Boucher's 1-3-1 system, which is a relatively new wrinkle in the game compared to the 1-2-2, has one forechecker, then a three-man layer with one defenseman joining the other two forwards, and then the second defenseman as the lone player back. It is also designed to outnumber the puck-carrier along the boards and force a shoot-in, but it's quicker in making the transition to offense because of the extra player up ice.
One of Guy Boucher's principles is moving the puck quickly and spending as little time in his team's own end as possible. When you look at how swiftly the Lightning moved the puck on the winning goal in OT on Sunday night in Washington...
... the tally came from a bad change by the Caps, it's pretty clear the Lightning know how to do that.
And a road team once again defied the home ice advantage.