Much has been made about the somewhat surprising success of the New Jersey Devils in this year’s playoffs. The consensus among hockey types was that the Devils were talented up front but lacked both talent and depth on the back-end, never mind the seemingly fading netminding of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.
Perhaps the Devils were underrated—any team with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk ought not be taken lightly. But even so, many projected a second round exit for a team that was tasked with a relatively easy matchup against the revamped Panthers in the first round. Those projections appeared as if they would be precisely on point; what with the Philadelphia Flyers having dispensed with the Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the first round.
The Flyers, many said, would pose too many issues for the Devils in round two. They were too big, fast and strong. More specifically, the Devils defense was no match for the Flyers offense that was scoring goals at will against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins.
Five games later, many pundits swiftly changed their tone and were left wondering what these Devils were capable of. New Jersey had dispatched the Flyers in five games and, frankly, it did not seem overly difficult.
One of the common misconceptions surrounding the Devils this season has been that the team is very much in-line with the strategic elements of past Devils squads. On the contrary, the 2011-12 version of the Devils is far more offensively aggressive than past Devils teams.
This year’s squad forechecks relentlessly; creating much of its offense as a result of winning puck battles along the boards. Relentless is the operative term with respect to the Devils forecheck; as the team is hard working and puts pressure on the opposing team’s defenders beginning in the neutral zone.
Starting the Forecheck
An example of how the Devils’ forecheck begins is documented below:
Here the Devils have possession of the puck in the neutral zone against the Panthers in the team’s first round match-up. The left winger at the top of the screen possesses the puck and puts it in deep upon crossing the red line. At the bottom of the screen both Adam Henrique and David Clarkson get on their proverbial horses to put pressure on veteran Panthers defender Ed Jovanovski.
The Panthers’ right defenseman confronts the Devils forward at the red line for the dump in; with that, the Devils have now immediately outnumbered the Panthers on the ensuing forecheck.
It is not as if this strategy was only employed against the Panthers. The Devils have utilized this same strategy all playoffs long, including this round against the cross-Hudson River rival Rangers.
The above picture documents once again how the Devils forecheck really begins in the neutral zone. Both Adam Henrique and David Clarkson are skating hard to get below the goal line to begin the forecheck. The Rangers’ defenders are already trailing the Devils’ attacking forwards and are close to losing position. The Devils use their skating ability, and persistent work ethic, to make the Rangers defenders work hard just to gain position to defend the forecheck. Furthermore, the physical contact along the boards if the Devils gain possession of the puck, or, conversely, the physical punishment a Ranger defender would endure from being the first player to the puck in the defensive zone serve to wear down the defenders game after game.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), it is Henrique and Clarkson who are in on the forecheck in both the Panthers and the Rangers examples provided thus far.
Referring back to the Panthers game for a moment, the picture below documents how Clarkson and Henrique are in on the forecheck outnumbering the Panthers defenders. David Clarkson is the first Devil to the puck with Adam Henrique coming in from the slot for support.
This pressure immediately puts Florida on the defensive—as the Panthers right defender is trailing the play due to the fact he had to confront the Devils left winger at the red line to force a dump in.
Three Players in Deep
The Devils are very aggressive in their 2-1-2 forecheck, meaning two forwards aggressively attack the puck. However, one of the more fascinating aspects of the team’s forecheck is that they employ two forwards in deep, but also are not afraid to have three forwards beneath the hash marks in the offensive zone. Many NHL teams are reticent to have the third forward high jump deep into the offensive zone without another forward dropping back to cover. With the Devils, they make a point of backchecking with ferocity and are less concerned with three guys deep. In fact, it appears the Devils are fine with employing such a strategy—especially because it requires the other team to have a center in deep to play defense, thereby limiting the chance of a 3-on-2 the other way.
As you can see above, Alexei Ponikarovsky is the third man high. Nonetheless, he is very deep, almost joining the forecheck along the boards. This is an example of the Devils’ support on the forecheck.
The same held true against the Flyers. In this above snapshot, the Flyers’ defense is working hard along the boards and center Daniel Briere is behind the net defending the forecheck. This helps the Devils in many ways. Briere will become tired from having to defend for long periods along the boards (which are aggressive minutes) and will also have to start the offensive attack from deep in the defensive zone.
As you can tell, the Devils forwards are not just moderately deep, but the Devils basically have three players below the goal line. Some teams would be concerned about having that many players in deep, but the Devils are confident that no odd-man rushes will emanate from such pressure and, moreover, probably feel the sustained pressure and resulting offensive chances from the forecheck will outweigh the other team’s chances in the opposite direction.
One of the biggest keys to the Devils’ ability to sustain a forecheck is the team’s willingness to encourage defensemen to pinch along the boards to keep the puck in deep. This makes good use of the team’s fairly mobile defenders and puts significant pressure on the opposing team’s wingers to win battles along the boards and keep their heads on a swivel.
The Devils are able to do this because the third forward high, even if he is deeper than the same player would be on another team, expects the defender to pinch and gets on his horse to cover for the defenseman.
As you can see above, Peter Harrold has pinched along the right wing boards to keep the puck in deep on the forecheck. The Panthers’ left winger Marco Sturm is late to the puck and Harrold is successful beating him to the puck. Alexei Ponikarovsky, as the third forward on the forecheck curls back to the blue line to support Harrold and the Devils are able to continue putting pressure on the Panthers.
It goes without saying that continual sustained pressure on the opposing team wears down opposing defenders, forwards and goaltenders. Especially in a long series, like the Devils’ seven-game series against Florida; shifts with longstanding pressure pay off down the road in games six and seven.
This same strategy worked so well against the Flyers, that the Devils did not even need games six and seven to seal the deal.
The Devils clearly made a point of making the Flyers work in the entire defensive zone. This forechecking pressure was not limited to work below the hash marks. The Devils pinched their defensemen along the boards and had the support of the high forward in the zone (that is once again on display in the picture above), necessary to make such a move.
Remember, this makes the defensive wingers work, thereby involving every Flyers player and requiring every player to engage in playing defense (which players hate doing).
Making the Flyers play defense, after they disposed of Pittsburgh with great success, was one of the keys to victory. The Flyers’ defense missed Chris Pronger and also lacked mobility with such players as Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossman. The Devils sustained a terrific forecheck and not only created offense from that, but they also sufficiently wore down the Flyers’ defense and made the Flyers’ dynamic offensive players play defense in their own zone for prolonged periods of time.
If you recall, the Penguins employed a similar strategy against Philadelphia, especially at the beginning of game one of the first round series, but, for whatever reason, the team moved away from putting the puck in deep and it may have cost them the series.
As much as the Devils’ strategy has a lot to do with the type of team Peter DeBoer has, it still has a lot to do with mindset. DeBoer has admitted that the players came to him and asked to play a more aggressive style of hockey this season. To the first year coach’s credit, he did not shy away from such a request and reply with the “my way or the highway” mantra that some coaches may have responded with. Instead, by employing such a strategy he empowered the players, while at the same time, placing the burden on those same players to execute the very type of system they preferred to employ. With such trust comes accountability and with a place in the conference finals, it is hard to argue that either the players or the coaches have not held up to their end of the bargain.
**Images courtesy of NBC Sports, Fox Sports and NHL Live**