I often get irked when people cite Gretzky’s famous ”Don’t go where the puck is, go where it’s going to be” quote because A) seriously, it took the greatest player of all-time to say that for the concept to register with you?, and because B), it’s a lot easier said that done. We don’t all know where the puck is going to go, so we rely on anticipation (semi-informed guessing), which means we’re right back where we’re started, with Wayne Gretzky still being better than all of us, and us getting burned on bad guesses.

In this edition of “Systems Analyst,” we take a look at two Washington Capitals who “anticipate” where the puck is going to go, and subsequently get caught out of position.

The video:

This goal starts off with everything hunky-dory – Kyle Clifford of the Los Angeles Kings has solid puck possession in the corner, and the Capitals have flawless d-zone coverage established, with Dennis Wideman defending the man with the puck.

When you work on d-zone coverage in practice, this is basically how the drill starts. “Okay, everybody set?” and then coach throws a puck to one of the two low offensive forwards.

Coaches love two things from their players in the offensive zone: when they move the puck “east to west” behind the net, and when they move the puck from low to high (in this case, Clifford chooses to skate it up the wall).

Basically the idea is, your odds of beating an NHL defenseman 1-on-1 and creating a scoring chance are lower than your odds of changing the minds of fans from Boston and Vancouver on the Marchand hit. Not good. But by moving the puck from low to high you start to stretch out the defense, creating more passing lanes for yourselves, and increasing the odds of a mental error from your opponent. The old cycle-yourself-dizzy tactic is on the way out.

As we see here, the Caps are still in great position:

Everybody is bang on.

Instead of just lingering at the front of the net and covering nobody, Orlov is out on the Kings’ Trent Hunter, showing trust that Jay Beagle will contain Colin Fraser down low. Beagle owns Fraser this whole shift, as you’ll see in future screenshots.

Perreault is doing the right thing as the weak side winger, staying low and keeping an eye on his d-man, and staying in his shooting lane. The other winger, Matt Hendricks, is also doing a good job. He’s supposed to stay in the shooting lane of his strong-side d-man, but if Clifford comes high enough up to his area of the ice, he’s allowed to help his defenseman stop Clifford from cutting into the middle.

I’m a fan of what Clifford does after moving the puck:

He heads all the way outside the zone, hoping to get lost in the shuffle. I used to love doing that - you can usually get a good look at where the soft (undefended) pieces of ice are, and in the lower leagues, d-men freak out. They’re not that comfortable straying that far from the front of their net, but they should be.

Wideman is rightly locked in on Clifford, Perreault is in the shooting lane, Orlov is locked on to Hunter, Hendricks is solid, and Beagle is able to get Fraser’s stick up on any shot/rebound situation. Nicely done, Caps d-zone.

After the block, the puck heads to the half-wall, where Hunter goes to play it, and Orlov goes to defend him.

Now watch what happens here.

Orlov decides to give up his body position to get involved in a 50/50 stick battle for a loose puck, and Wideman sees the puck, guesses Orlov might win it down the boards, and abandons Clifford.

Now look where they are.

Those three screen shots were taken over a span of like, 1.5 seconds of real-time hockey, and suddenly both d-men are out of position. (Hunter should probably just pass this to Clifford, but they scored, so I’ll shut up now.)

From there, all you’re left to do is watch Hunter use the ice you’ve given him and pray your goalie bails you out and controls the rebound.

Buuuuut, nope.

Hey Orlov, I know Clifford isn’t your guy, but you’re allowed to help when things break down.

Anyway, the big rebound gets kicked out, Wideman makes a desperation slash, but Clifford makes a great move to go backhand five hole to put it away.


There it is.

Gotta maintain body position, d-men. Leave that Gretzky stuff to forwards….and Nick Lidstrom.