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Playing defense involves doing a bunch of stuff forwards hate, which basically all boil down to stops and starts. We’re really good at loops and curls, not so much at making adjustments based off reading opponents. We prefer to read the puck (we shouldn’t).

But that’s the reality of playing defense – you often aren’t doing what you want so much as you’re trying to read and react to what opponents are doing. You’re the ego to forwards’ id. In the corners you have to play the mirror game, in the neutral zone you best be reading your opponent’s speed.

Gap control through the neutral zone is important at all levels because if you you’re backing in too fast you allow forwards to go east-west inside the blueline and create, and if you’re too tight you risk getting your doors blown off wide. It ain’t easy matching someone’s speed in a backwards-versus-forwards race.

In the NHL it’s even more important, because it isn’t too many strides inside the blueline before players are in a dangerous shooting area. And by “not too many strides” I mean like, seven feet of gliding, especially since they intend to use you as a screen. Most of these guys have bombs, which makes that area of the ice a little dangerous.

Carolina’s goal to tie up Buffalo with four minutes left in the third was the product of bad gap control – I’ll get to why it was so bad in the body. And yes, I feel sort of bad about highlighting a Canes goal in a game the Sabres actually won in regulation. Sort of.

***

What I explained above is glaringly evident here, but stick with me through the post so we can pick it apart.

Two Buffalo Sabres are caught behind the play, and the Canes have a bit of a rush. But, it’s a 4-on-3, which is rarely an issue. Matt Moulson is dutifully back and in position to pressure the puck, and Christian Erhoff and Alexander Sulzer are back to take the rush.

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Then, something goes DRAMATICALLY WRONG.

Matt Moulson loses his stick. Whether it’s because Eric Staal knocked it out of his hands on purpose, accidentally bumped him, or maybe shanked him with a sharpened metal file of some sort (which seems to be what the Sabres think)…it’s now on the ice.

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Yup, there it is. On the ice.

In the frame above, Erhoff and Sulzer are already awfully backed-off in the neutral zone. It’s fine if they wanted to honor Jiri Tlusty a bit and not let him behind them, that makes sense late in the game. But they’re pretty deep even if they’re trying to be overly cautious.

But after they see Eric Staal whip Moulson with a mace or whatever, they both immediately turn to the ref and take themselves mentally out of the play for a split second. You can see them both looking towards the stripes at the bottom of the picture, and they both make a “what the heck ref” gesture at some point. Oh, and they’re already a zone apart from the puck carrier.

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In their distracted states, they seem to flip on autopilot, and keep skating backwards while trying to figure out what comes next. “What comes next” is them back so deep in their own zone on a rush that Semin has more room than he knows what to do with, and he suddenly has numbers.

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Ideally you’d like to have the forward about a stick’s length away (okay, a little more, but that would be ideal if you were moving back with speed), because look at the options giving a guy more allows. He can cross with Staal and Tlusty to create confusion and switches, he can take it to the boards and set-up a cycle, or if he has a great shot, he could walk into the slot and use it.

Oh yeah, it’s Alex Semin. I’ve heard his shot’s okay.

So, he takes advantage of the room afforded him, and skates to the top of the circles before he’s contested.

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These pictures never quite do the play development justice, but Semin is moving forward at a good clip when he pulls the trigger – he might even be deeper in the zone than that (pic below may show it better).

Because Sulzer was so deep so early he was forced to slow up, which renders him less mobile, and he’s not able to block the shot or even get a stick on it. He’s playing freeze tag, and he’s not winning.

Semin, the offensive talent that he is knows firing this through the d-man’s legs is going to make it that much harder on Sabres’ goaltender and Ryan Miller, and just like that, goal Canes, game tied, four minutes left in the third. No major meltdown, no glaring error in communication, just two d-men who didn’t control the gap on a rush well to blame.

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Just look at where Semin got to on the ice because he wasn’t challenged. He didn’t even have to use his linemates.

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If you start with bad gap control early, it’s really hard to make it up later. And when things go terribly OMG wrong in the neutal zone (“Not a dropped stick, nooo!”), it can exacerbate the problem. D-man need to be disciplined in when they pull out of the zone to take rushes (which is why great skating d-man are so impossible to play – they don’t start backing out until later, leaving them with better gap management right out of the gate).

The Sabres managed to win the game late with a lucky goal credited to Erhoff (own goal by Justin Faulk), but simple plays like this shouldn’t burn NHL teams often.

If you’d like to watch the goal again, knock yourself out:

Comments (6)

  1. Hey Justin,

    What’s a good way for the defenseman to regain control of his gap when something like that happens in the neutral zone?

    • At the point where Moulson loses his stick and all 3 Canes forwards suddenly go sideways (just after Justin’s third picture), Sulzer and Erhoff should have come forward again to just over the blue line and then done a transition turn so that they start backing up at a proper gap distance. You can’t back up when the puck is at the red line, because recovering once you’re at your own faceoff dots and the puck is at the blue line is essentially impossible without some heroic backchecking.

      There’s a common drill that practices this — the forward(s) start at the red line or so, D starts back on their goal line. Forwards take a pass and skate forward, the D skates hard up to (roughly) their blue line, transitions to skating backwards toward their goal line while maintaining gap on the oncoming forward.

  2. Love the systems posts

  3. A big problem for the Sabres dmen this year has been backing in too far like they do here. I think might be because they are afraid of getting beat wide, but for whatever reason, they don’t get up and close the gap well enough. They get cored on like this almost nightly because the d just back in and end up providing a screen or deflection for the puck to find its way to the back of the net.

    • I noticed the same thing in the blowout loss to the Avs right before the Olympic break. It was particularly apparent on the MacKinnon PP goal off of a drop pass from Johnson after Johnson had backed off the defense when he rushed into the zone. It makes me wonder if the problem is that the defensemen are bad or that the coaching is bad. On that PP goal against, they had the chance to set up and defend the neutral zone and blue line however they wanted (not a broken play like this one) and yet that goal against happened very similarly to the play Justin analyzed.

  4. Fantastic posts! Keep them coming!

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