In last nights Toronto Maple Leafs/Philadelphia Flyers game, Jaromir Jagr scored a breakaway goal after splitting the Leafs D with casual grace. That it did not look particularly difficult would be an understatement.
The situation came about because the Flyers had sent a stretch guy to the far blueline on their powerplay, as most teams do.
What this does is take away the defense’s ability to have good gap control (someone has to go with the stretch guy so you don’t give him a clean breakaway), leaving them flat-footed and buttery, so the hot knife that is Jaromir Jagr can come slashing up-ice with a full head of steam and cut through them.
(Though I should mention – I’m not sure what the Leafs neutral zone penalty kill should look like, but I highly doubt the plan is to have two guys keep tabs on the stretch guy while standing near stationary.)
Gap control is nothing more or less than a d-man’s most important neutral zone tool.
Hopefully this isn’t oversimplifying, but “gap” refers to the distance between the defenseman and the on-rushing forward. If d-men back up too much and give too much gap, they’re either going to:
A) Back up onto their goalie, making his life more difficult.
B) Be forced to slow down so they don’t back up onto their goalie, in which case the forward who’s picking up speed is going to roast the d-man wide.
C) Back in deep enough where the forward feels close enough to shoot, and gets to use the d-man as a screen. (Think Alex Ovechkin here. You have to have good gap on him or he’ll feast. He loves to use the d-man as a screen, loves beat them wide. You have to start in the neutral zone within a stick length of him and almost match his speed while going backwards, and that’s very, very difficult to do. It’s why he’s so tough to defend.)
The tough part for defensemen is just what I mentioned above – keeping pace with a guy skating forwards while going backwards, and knowing when to start backing into the neutral zone when you see a rush developing. A lot of d-men stay out after practice and do the “iron cross” (start at the bottom of a circle and do stops and starts and gretzky shuffles in a “+” pattern) to help with foot speed.
It’s a huge priority for scouts looking at young guys – how well do they control gap, how well can they close it when they need to?
A drill we did in college to work on it was a full-ice 2-on-2: the forwards would leave from the bench, skate down to the other end and regroup to come back up ice after a breakout pass from a coach near the top of the circles. The D would leave from the bench end too, mirror the forwards, then back up and defend them. The job of the forwards was to mess up the D’s gap. Sometimes you’d stretch a guy, sometimes you’d swing real low, sometimes you’d cross – whatever you could do to make the D work on controlling that gap, and controlling it as a tandem.
Our coach would be livid when the D would back off and play it safe. He wanted to see them up on the forwards as early as possible with good stick-on-puck.
If a D-man backs into his own zone far enough that forwards can criss-cross and drop the puck and get creative, they’ll get killed in the NHL. Guys like Pavel Datsyuk aren’t to be messed with if they have solid possession across the blue.
So here’s me being a coach: Gap. Gap. Gap. Gap. Gap. Watch your gap. Gap control is everything.
Unfortunately for the Leafs last night, the d-men found themselves flat-footed with a half-zone of gap and Jaromir Jagr flying up ice. That ain’t gonna end well for anyone.