Five minutes into overtime between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche last night, Mikael Granlund started to make the best play of his young NHL career. His linemates Zach Parise and Jason Pominville helped the Wild gain possession low, and room opened up behind the net. With Avalanche defender Jan Hejda draped all over him, he carried the puck east-west, at one point hanging on to it with one hand on his stick, took Hejda out to the far wall, where a combination of shoddy body position from his opponent and a fortuitous bounce left him with a clear lane to the net.
He then took the puck directly into traffic, stick-handled beneath the player waiting in the slot (Marc-Andre Cliche) and above Eric Johnson, carried the puck across the crease, and tucked his seventh shot of the night home on the far side.
With that, Granlund became just the fifth player ever to score his first NHL playoff goal in OT of a 1-0 win, and the Wild trimmed Colorado’s series lead to a manageable 2-1, instead of falling behind 3-0.
I wanted to explain what went wrong for Colorado (it wasn’t all Hejda’s fault), and I will below, but first here’s what made Granlund’s goal so special from an offensive standpoint:
* He got his legs moving behind the net and took the puck east-west, which forces defenders to rotate, and can create problems.
* He actually thought about cutting in with a wrap-around, feels he doesn’t have body position, but stays with it and stays strong on his skates.
* He was relentless. When he gets taken into the wall, he’s immediately looking for the puck, and immediately gets his legs moving again.
* The pure skill of the play. He showed great hands in tight and a nose for scoring goals. Not bad for a 22-year-old.
As it is with any goal, some players messed up. I wanted to briefly point out something that seems misunderstood when hockey people talk systems and positional play: you are not chained to any particular area of the ice, so when things break down, you’re allowed to leave.
I’ve written about a system I like before here, which the Boston Bruins play. In every hockey game some players are going to get beat in the d-zone, so you want your team to be able to provide help when that happens. The idea is that you want to force the other team to make plays.
If our guy gets beat in a one-on-one situation, I’m going to leave my guy to pick up the puck carrier who he lost. Yes, I’m leaving my guy open, but instead of allowing a guy a clean path to the net, I’m forcing him to make a pass through me. And if I’m leaving my guy, it’s likely another teammate will jump on him if they see things unravelling. You don’t mind if the wingers leave their points and we allow a shot from the blueline – just don’t allow the easy goals down low.
The Colorado Avalanche are supposed to be playing a system not too dissimilar from the one I’m describing.
Here’s what Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy had to say about their preference, as told to Mike Chambers of the Denver Post:
It’s man-to-man/support. More and more teams will have their defense men involved in the attack, and if you play (zone), you cannot follow them.
All the teams that I’ve watched have success — St. Louis, Detroit and the other top teams — are doing it. And in order for us to have some success, there are things you have to copy, and this is one of the big things.
Erik Johnson chimed in with this:
The biggest part of our D-zone is our forwards, and a lot of what Patrick is telling us to do is support — play man-to-man and when someone gets beat, there’s always a guy supporting you.
The Avs didn’t have a ton of success avoiding giving up shots with this system this season (20th overall), but the claim they’re making is that they’re giving up lower quality shots, and like I mentioned, that is part of layering. From the points, from the walls, sure. From the house (or home plate), the area show below, no thanks.
So, with all that pointed out, on the Wild’s OT winner, we’ve got man-on-man from Hejda (Granlund), man-on-man from Johnson (Parise), and Marc-Andre Cliche apparently keeping an eye on Jason Pominville.
The strong-side winger is taking away any option for Granlund to cut-in in the frame below.
With the puck heading to what is now his weak-side, the strong-side winger on the Avs comes down to the slot (2nd frame) because, if Under Armor has taught us anything, WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE.
Just moments later, it’s clear to everyone in the building: Hejda is now on the wrong side of the puck carrier’s body – obviously not a great play on his part, going for the hit-and-pin – and he needs help. Someone hit the panic button, now.
The biggest problem for Colorado is that what they want to do (man-on-man with support) breaks down if there’s no support. It’s why pure man-on-man is goofy.
Cliche is overly concerned with “his man” and where on the ice he should be, and doesn’t release to help Hejda. He stays in the slot, when he should have released and pressured the puck.
He takes a swipe and almost knocks the puck free, and Erik Johnson, who was tangled with Zach Parise almost does too, but it’s too late. There was no help reaction, and a goal is scored.
As I mentioned up top, full kudos to Granlund for the amazing play, but defensive players can’t get too obsessed with where they are on the ice and forget about the actual hockey part of the game.
It’s a pretty simple rule of thumb: if a guy is skating unmolested in on your goal keeper and you’re the closest guy, you might want to do something about that.