Oh, the hockey puck. One inch thick, three inches wide, and the gravity of a thousand dying suns. That thing will suck you in.
If you really break down a coach’s job, he’s basically spending one-to-two hours a day trying to get players to not stare at it, to not obsess over it, to think beyond its alluring blackness. But, her siren song forces teams to bag skate because guys handle them while coach is talking, it makes players oblivious to the presence of large humans skating at them with ill intent, and it causes teams to lose games. Try as coaches might, it’s awfully hard to get players to see beyond the black.
That’s basically what happened with the Devils last night when the Oilers scored their fourth goal in under nine minutes of the third period to claw back from a 3-0 deficit before winning in a shootout.
Below I’ll breakdown Taylor Hall’s goal that put the Oilers up 4-3 with six minutes left to highlight New Jersey’s breakdown.
You can take a look at it in full first:
The goal all happens off what should be a relatively harmless neutral zone draw.
I’d love to break this down black-and-white and say “Here’s what Brunner’s job is, here’s what Loktionov’s job is…” but teams defend differently off lost draws, and I’m finding it impossible to know if Brunner is thinking about jumping a play and going for a steal, or is just woefully out of position. Let’s talk.
First, we’ve got everyone lined up for the draw. The puck isn’t won immediately, but it ends up being cleanly knocked back to Justin Schultz.
First on the offensive side of the puck: Schultz gets the puck and his job, 95% of the time here, will be to gain the red line and get the puck deep. That’s his first priority. If that involves a pass, so be it, but the red is to be gained and the puck is to get deep if the Oilers get cut off. Obviously if they don’t, party on, but they’re going to receive pressure there almost every time.
Here’s where the defensive questions begin.
The vast majority of NHL teams will send one forechecker in to pressure the defenseman (in this case Schultz) with the puck. His role isn’t to chase him down, it’s to get between him and the other d-man to stop the D-to-D pass (when the puck changes sides after a D-to-D everyone has to rotate, rotating means humans have to think which causes problems, so the less rotating the better), and to push him up the wall and into their pressure.
It’s pretty apparent by the initial routes that Clowe, the winger in the middle, is assigned that role, while Loktionov appears to be responsible for staying above the opposing center (that’s pretty common – only real alternative in a 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck off a draw is the center goes through, and the board-side d-man gets above the opposing center). That would mean that one of the Devils’ defenders (the one in the middle of the ice off the draw) is likely supposed to push up on Hemsky and deal with him, likely to force a dump-in instead of allowing a carry-in. I’m guessing they’d prefer the pressure before the red, but it doesn’t always go down as you have it drawn up.
Here’s where we’re at:
Now comes the Brunner question. It’s really, really likely that his job is to lock on to Taylor Hall, and to stick with him until the d-zone where you can “release” him to the d-man. This involves some communication. “Yours,” a point, whatever, just a little communication. You have to “release” your guy, because the neutral zone play is designed to force a dump, which means Peter Harrold (Devils board-side d-man on draw) is expecting one, which means he’s going to play the puck, so there’s a chance there won’t be anyone to release him to, which means you wouldn’t release him, you’d stay with him.
If I’m wrong in that assessment of Brunner, that means the Devils use a 2-1-2 neutral zone forecheck, which I find highly unlikely. In the NHL today, d-men are largely too skilled to get flustered by the added pressure, so teams don’t waste their time, and instead prefer to have extra bodies back. How often do you see d-men with solid possession puke the puck away in those situations today? It’s damn-near pointless to chase them.
At any rate, Brunner sees Schultz start to skate up the wall, and I’m of the belief that he thinks there may be a D-to-D and he may be able to “jump the route,” like a defender in football trying for an interception (it’s that or the 2-1-2). He’s got a great offensive mind, and sometimes it’s tough to turn that off to think about bodies, not the puck.
The Oilers support the puck nicely – Hemsky for Schultz, Gordon for Hemsky – and the puck gets behind the New Jersey defenders and in the zone. They have executed step one (win the draw, get the puck across the red and in), and now it’s time for step two, the forecheck.
Now here’s where the failings of the Devils go from “Brunner may have gotten too aggressive and abandoned his man” to “a lot of people did a lot of things wrong at the same time.”
One of the toughest parts about playing defense as a forward is deciding when you’re moving to a different defensive system. As in, the Devils have a plan to defend a lost draw in the neutral zone. They absolutely do. But they also have a system to defend even-man rushes. If you’re looking at the picture above and thinking “the Oilers are on a rush” (when does the draw end?) then Loktionov needs to be shoulder-checking and finding the wide, weak-side forward, in this case, Taylor Hall (I love how wide he stays here by the way. The puck is supported, if the dump is a hard wrap he’s going to own it, and if Hemsky is allowed to maintain possession on the entry he’s wide open).
Either way, from this frame on, Harrold, Volchenkov, Loktionov and Brunner become obsessed. Nobody has a thought about positioning, it’s all about the puck (Loktionov is particularly fixated on it).
The Oilers forecheck is just perfect here. Boyd Gordon (who just won a draw, supported the puck, and got in on the forecheck in a coach’s orgasm of a shift) is in as F1, and his sole job is to get body on the defenseman. F2′s role is to take away the wall, and if F1 gets body on the defenseman and the puck is still available, to fish out said puck. Taylor Hall is perfectly positioned as an F3.
It’s around this point that a few things go wrong.
Andrei Loktionov: I’m not sure what he’s doing. He’s not supporting the puck well if he intends to help with the breakout (he’s actually going the wrong direction entirely for that). Hell, he’s not even an outlet in any way. He seems to be awaiting a turnover so he can defend, but he’s not looking around to see who he’s going to defend if that’s the case. He’s just…puck staring. In his defense, he has a great view of it, but he’s not helping in any particular way.
Anton Volchenkov: The chip just went by him, and having two defenders on one wall is never a great idea, so he needs to recover back to the middle (switch) and/or provide an outlet for Harrold. He might be starting to do one-or-both of those.
Pater Harrold: At some point you’re on the hook for what happens with the puck – we can only make so many excuses for you – so if you don’t have anywhere to go with it (and he doesn’t), just eat it and let everyone get set up.
Damien Brunner: You never plan on your team turning the puck over, but juuust in case things go wrong coaches would prefer you err on the side of being too defensively cautious. He’s got a pretty good view of Taylor Hall as he’s “coming back” into the zone. You’d think that might be worth hustling back for, or at least pointing out to the guys who are already back. The funny part, as you’ll see below, is that he’s already starting to curl back up-ice despite never coming back to a remotely responsible area.
Everyone is still really, really interested in that puck. It has sapped any and all human awareness from their brain.
There’s never a great time for a turnover, but with three players (two of whom are defenseman) in an area the size of a twin bed against the boards, you’d really prefer one not happen.
Gordon gets body on Harrold, and the latter is trying to make a panic chip up the paint past Hemsky. But the Oilers’ forward is executing his role of F2 perfectly, and he tries to smack the puck over to a wide open Hall. At least I’m pretty sure he was trying to smack it over there – at the very least, he’s trying to smack the puck into a trouble area. Hall picks the puck up with time and space, and hoo boy are the Devils not on the ride side of this equation:
From there Hall makes an absolutely beautiful pure goal-scorer decision. Martin Brodeur knows that most shlubs, excited at the chance for a mini-breakaway, will take the puck in too tight, so he’s already holding the knob-end of his stick so he can nip the chance in the bud before he even has to see a shot.
Hall starts to take the puck across the net, recognizes he’s in too tight and uses one stickhandle to stay out of the range of Brodeur. Once he’s around Marty’s stick, he knows five-hole has to be open, and slides it through so smoothly I’m not even sure if Brodeur touched it. Cash in on them shortened pads!
The move all GIF’d up:
These events quite excited Mr. Hall, as you may have noticed in the video.
For me, the whole meltdown happens because of a lack of awareness. If I’m the coach, when Loktionov and Brunner come to the bench I’m not necessarily upset that neither of them thought to cover Hall, I’m upset because neither of them ever seemed to think about bodies at all. It’s 3-3 in the third – you should be spending the majority of your shift obsessed with your coverage. Loktionov never so much as shoulder checks a single time from the red line to the red light, and Brunner’s a second away from being able to defend the goal because he’s obsessed with getting the puck and going the other way the whole shift.
Defensive responsibility is about the willingness to put aside the 5% opportunity for a great offensive chance to stop the 25% chance you’re going to be counted on to stop an opportunity from happening on your own net. You can always flip the switch to offense when your team has solid possession. Until that’s the case, you’re still concerned with your role on the defensive side of the puck.
If you’d like to give it another look, have at ‘er: