To most hockey fans, the word “system” is a vague notion often used to explain away failures (and successes) when there’s no clear way to assign them to a certain player. “I have no idea why our team is losing so much,” comes out of their mouths as “[Head coach]‘s systems are brutal,” and that’s the end of it.
If somebody complains (or praises) their team’s system, they either do a lot of research, have an incredible eye, or are an overheated windbag spewing fumes of superiority while taking full advantage of the fact that the person they’re talking to also has no idea about the intricacies of said team’s play. Few fans really know just what systems their team uses – it’s a fast game.
All of that is my way of saying that I don’t know exactly what the Devils aspire to do in their d-zone. I could be wrong. So, I’ll do my best to break this goal down while explaining what I believe is happening, and what the other options could be.
Here’s the goal – the Rangers first of seven – then we’ll get to it in detail.
First things first, 22-year old Eric Gelinas is back on the puck, as the Rangers’ Dominic Moore, F1, pursues him on the forecheck. The Devil’s d-man has got a lot of options here: he can wheel it around the net, reverse it to his partner Volchenov, rim it around to Homestar Brunner, or rim it around the boards on his forehand to Danius Zubrus.
He opts for what’s usually a smart play, the reverse to Volchenkov…and things start to go wrong.
Moore’s a smart player, and it’s possible that his actions are influenced by him hearing Volchenkov call for a reverse.
NOTE: It’s the job of Volchenkov and Brodeur to direct Gelinas with (mostly) one word commands: “wheel,” “reverse,” “rim,” “quick up,” or whatever, so I’m guessing he was told to reverse this puck.
Two things go wrong: one, you never, ever reverse the puck behind your own net, you do it more towards the corner. Two, he makes a casual, non-elevated, light bank attempt, and hasn’t figured out that Moore is that close to him.
Regardless, great job by the Rangers F1.
There’s a full two second gap between frames here, so just know that Carcillo has followed up as F2, and Volchenkov has grabbed him as a 2-on-2 battle ensues.
The Brunner situation is a curious one. He swings back awfully low, which might make sense for a breakout they use, or maybe he saw the turnover and initially committed to being the low forward.
Here’s the most important learning point from today, and where it goes wrong: For 90% of teams, it isn’t the centerman who defends low in the d-zone, it’s the first forward back in the zone (anything close to a tie will go to the centerman). That forward will play low, the late centerman will fill his wing, and they’ll start looking for a situation to switch. If there isn’t one, that first forward back will just stay low.
So, they battle.
Now it really starts to go to pot. Brunner has decided to curl up to fill his role as weak-side winger (so he’ll go to the slot area), and Zubrus, the next forward into the zone, seems to recognize this. That would mean that he’d now take the role of low forward.
NOTE: I’m thinking the puck was on Zubrus’ side so Brunner let him do it, but there’s also another possibility: Zubrus, at 6’5″ and 225 pounds might just be the forward they want to be in the low battles in the D-zone, given that the center on the line, Stephen Gionta, is 5’7″ 185.
If you’re going to be the low forward here, your concern would be Brian Boyle UNTIL you were able to switch with one of the low d-men to get in the battle. Teams rarely want both defenders in the corner two-on-two, as they’d prefer to leave at least one of them in front of the net with their eye on an opposing forward. But as is, Zubrus locks on with Boyle, who actually makes a pretty poor decision here.
Gelinas wins a touch on the puck, and frankly, this could have been a mess for the Rangers. Boyle doesn’t stay high despite his team not having solid possession, and with Zubrus on the offensive side of him, this could’ve been an odd-man rush the other way. Brunner and Gionta are ready to jump.
But, Gelinas makes another weak play with the puck.
As coaches always tell players, and as I wrote about in our last Systems Analyst post, if you aren’t able to get good wood on the puck, eat it instead of passing it to the opposing D.
So now we see our failure to communicate. If Gionta was in fact covering for Zubrus, he’s not on his point, and if Zubrus was in fact playing low forward, he scraps that plan. So the puck moves up to the point from Gelinas, who gets rubbed out and loses body position.
It’s uh-oh time. Four Devils are now concerned with the shot from Stralman, and not bodies. (If you’ve picked up a theme from all these Systems posts over the years, it’s that the puck is a hypnotizing, evil object, and d-men need to be thinking more about humans, and less about vulcanized rubber.)
It’s not uncommon for things to go awry when it’s not the centerman who’s back in the zone first, because most wingers aren’t used to the game-within-a-game that is low-man coverage, and they find it terrifying, and it involves communication, and…and…they just want back on their safe and sad little winger island. (I’m a winger, I’m allowed to say that.)
Stralman doesn’t so much as hold the puck for a second. He gets the slapper through, and that’s all she wrote. We’ve gone from “Is Brunner low?” to “Is Zubrus low?” to “Is Gionta…right wing/left wing/center/awake/trying to switch?
It all goes perfectly for Moore after that. Not only did he apparently slide on Frodo’s ring to go unnoticed en route to the net, but he managed to get the perfect bounce off Brodeur on the rebound too. And not many NHLers are gonna miss from there.
Gotta love the post-goal stance every hockey player takes up. Stand-up straight, roll your eyes (or make some Eli-Manning-after-an-interception gesture), and stop skating for a little coast.
When you have one player make two physical errors, it’s going to throw things off. You’re generally not going to be prepared for that. But coming back into the d-zone as a group of forwards is something that, in my experience, gets practiced a ton, usually as a conditioning drill. You go down the ice on a 3-on-2 rush one way, then a coach will stand somewhere in the d-zone at the other end, so after the shot off the rush (or the play gets defended), you turn around and hightail it to the other end and stand where you should, depending on how your offensive attempt left the forwards shuffled.
First forward back is on puck regardless of position, center fills his wing, other the winger heads home too.
If you do that, and you’re disciplined in your positioning, you shouldn’t have problems. Gionta should’ve been at least in Stralman’s lane, if not in a position to deny him the puck at all.
Here, see for yourself one more time.