2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three

Today’s not your typical Systems Analyst post in which I break down a play that led to a goal or scoring opportunity. Earlier in the week I wrote this post that goes over the “Bruins’ defensive system” that you always hear about, and explained that they use layers to stop the opposition from cashing in after a single defensive breakdown. That was last Wednesday.

That night the Stanley Cup Final opened, which saw Chicago win the game in triple overtime by a score of 4-3. I thought the Hawks did a good job at times of making quality support passes to soft areas in the Bruins layers, so when I did my 10 takeaways from Game 1, I wrote this:

3. Blackhawks passes to soft areas in the offensive zone

One thing I noticed early (and I wrote this note about 10 minutes into the game) was Chicago creating opportunities by finding the soft areas in Boston’s coverage, and making great passes. And to be clear, I don’t mean the usual soft areas, this was different. It’s something elite teams can do that the dregs can’t. Use vision and skill to pass to areas you don’t usually see players. It was pretty clear they’ve taken a long, hard look at how Boston defends and decided to make the conscious effort to avoid the normal “set” offensive spots.

I don’t love how I worded that, because when I wrote it I was really thinking about a few three-to-five foot passes the Hawks made to get the puck to dangerous areas, and it was effective.

When I was with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL I got to know Kevin Croxton, a gentleman fresh out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he scored 143 points in 147 NCAA D1 games. He was among the more cerebral players I’ve played with, which means he was too smart to continue kicking his own ass in the minors (where he was very good as well) with a degree from a private research university in his back pocket (he’s now an economist for a financial services firm).

Anyway, two games have elapsed since I liked what the Hawks were doing and they won, and Crox text me a couple times yesterday to point out a major flaw in Chicago’s offensive attack right now.

Let’s go through his observation and look at the tape. (And by “tape,” I mean cellphone video of a TV uploaded to YouTube.) I’m including his kind words, because validation from him is validation I’m proud of.

Been reading your blog and listening to the podcast pretty religiously. Great stuff.  You obviously have a level of knowledge that others just don’t have because of your playing career and being a “headsy” player.  I know you wrote a post about the defensive layering of the Bruins and it was bang on.

Everything I’ve read/heard from the pundits deals with the guys with the puck, when the most glaring thing I saw last night was the lack of support from guys without the puck. There was a play last night where I think it was Saad who carried the puck up the wall and was clearly in trouble, so any half-decent hockey player can read he’s going to dump it down the wall.  Of course, it goes right to a Bruins’ player because both Chicago forwards didn’t want to work hard enough to get in between that layer. It happened in the Pittsburgh series too.

You mentioned in your post today that Kane would carry it in to nobody, but his linemates need to work to get the position in between that second layer. If they can get closer to the puck carrier they can make a three-foot support pass and move without the puck, then they’ll beat this system. There’s plenty of examples from last night I just thought it would make an interesting systems analysis post given that not many people have correctly identified how to beat the system.  Another good example is on the power play, teams will make a support pass to a guy in the middle of the ice not even in a shooting position just to move the defense around.  Obviously a little tougher 5-v-5 but the same idea.

Croxton took a quick video to highlight what he’s talking about in the sentence I done bolded up.

Here’s a good example from a game awhile back. They give it to Datsyuk not because he’s in a scoring position but to move the defense.

I wish I had some video of the examples from Monday but it was making me insane watching the puck support. Everyone is so spread out.

The short clip, where the pass goes to Datsyuk inside the box just to draw pressure.

On yesterday’s podcast I talked a little bit about Patrick Sharp on the powerplay, circling the zone artfully, cutting a whole lap with solid possession…without generating a damn thing. It was like watching Cirque du Soleil – the talent on display was breathtaking – but in hockey terms, it wasn’t doing any good because there was zero threat to penetrate the Bruins’ penalty kill.

More from Croxton today:

Perfect example of what we spoke about yesterday. Sharp doesn’t move his feet to get inside positioning on Ference (to support Smith), then the puck goes down to Bolland and Smith doesn’t get close enough to him to support before the Bruins’ second layer.  It’s funny because from the time you’re a mite coaches tell you to spread out, but Chicago needs to revert back to staying closer together to support the puck carrier.


Here’s the video:

Nobody’s close enough to help anybody, meaning all three Blackhawks are playing the Bruins by themselves.

This isn’t helpful on a rush:


On your own, no support. That’s not exactly Sharp’s route, but a general depiction of the help Blackhawk’s forwards have given one another.

The below gives you two options outside of “try to do something fancy yourself” to maintain puck possession. A direct, higher-risk pass, or a chip to a teammate who’s going to be first on the puck.


Nothing’s gained by staying out wide but remaining safe, out of harms way.

Yesterday I compared Patrick Kane’s play against the Bruins to that of Sidney Crosby in the previous round in that he’s skating dead into a group of three defenders and trying to stickhandle under a d-man’s triangle and dangle by him a little too often. Here’s what I wrote about Crosby when the Bruins were shutting him down in the Eastern Conference Final:

Puck support

There was a comment on CBC last night by Elliotte Friedman where he observed something I had tweeted about too – the Penguins had no puck support. They skated away from each other on even-man rushes, and they never once chipped the puck behind a d-man while a teammate skated onto the puck, which is mind-blowing considering how great the Bruins gap control was last night. Bylsma was forced to play some line bingo, drawing numbers at random, but that’s no excuse to abandon basic help and play as three individuals.

Which isn’t a terrible point, but it ignores the reality that with teammates hanging out on the perimeter away from traffic, you’re kind of left without a plan B.

Recently Daniel Wagner wrote a post for Backhand Shelf that explained that, despite the reputation, the Bruins are actually among the smallest (size-wise) in the NHL. While that’s true, that doesn’t devalue the concept of “The Big Bad Bruins” to me, because even their small guys play hard as nails. I’d put a long list of “small” Bruins up against, say, Michal Handzus anyday.

The point is that the Bruins’ tough reputation, valid or not, seems to have brought teams to the point where they’re hesitant to skate into the Bruins. Going around is a lot more appealing when you know that skating through traffic might involve a new bruise by the time you get to the bench.

Whether fear has any reason to do with why the Hawks haven’t been comfortable getting body position between layers or not the last couple games, I don’t know. But if they hope take the series back to Chicago knotted at two, spreading out and avoiding traffic are the last things they need to do.