The NHL playoffs have been inundated with those inside and outside the game putting forth ideas that would create increased offense, lessen the density in slot and generally make the game more aesthetically pleasing.  This is in large part due to teams like Washington, Phoenix and New York making successful runs in the this year’s playoffs; each of these three teams have succeeded in large part by having five players stand between the hash marks in the defensive zone.

While one cannot deny that the games in this year’s playoffs have generally lacked a certain awe factor, aside from Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia, it would be foolish to presuppose that all teams remaining in the playoffs have reached the conference finals on the basis of simply plugging the defensive zone and hoping for the best.

The most pressing issue, according to recent media, is the need for coaches to put as much time towards coaching offense as they do coaching defensive schemes. Defensive schemes are practiced ad nauseum by teams—both on the ice, but more importantly with video sessions.

In quite simple terms, the NHL does this to itself.  With 82 games per season, constant travel and the accompanying wear and tear on players’ bodies, coaches are reticent to practice religiously in fear of wearing players down even further.  This then leads to an increased amount of video coaching—as this method lends itself to coaching while saving players for the real game action.

Offensive play is far more spontaneous than defensive play.  Coaches can explain what they want in certain situations but defensively they have far more control.  Will a coach bench a player after shooting instead of passing on a 2-on-1 if the shot was the right decision?  Likely not.  Conversely, a coach is more likely to bench that same player for not being in the exact position he is supposed to be in order to confront the opposing team’s defenseman at the blue line off a face-off.    The irony is that the 2-on-1 scoring chance was actually a better scoring opportunity than the shot from the blue line, but coaches can only control so much on offense.

Defensively controlling coaches are the NHL’s trademark and no coach received more credit for his defensive acumen this year than Ken Hitchcock.  He is the prevailing favorite for the Jack Adams Award.  While “Hitch” is considered a mastermind by many, he was soundly outcoached in the second round of the playoffs by fellow Albertan, Darryl Sutter.

St. Louis and the Neutral Zone Trap

The Blues’ success hinged on a number of factors this season: Strong forward depth, the maturation of talented young defensemen (specifically Alex Pieterangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk) and terrific goaltending from Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot.  However, prior to Davis Payne’s firing, all of the above listed factors were already in place.  It was only after Hitchcock’s hiring that the team took the next step in the NHL standings.

What Hitchcock does best is coach defense.  He did it in Dallas.  He did it in Philadelphia.  He did it in Columbus.  Now he is doing it in St. Louis.  He knows what he is good at and he sticks to it.  While his teams may be boring to watch at times, give the veteran coach credit for sticking with what he believes in—even if he has been fired on three occasions.

The Blues play the trap as well as any team in the game because they are big, fast and, most importantly, very disciplined in their positioning.

In the first round versus San Jose the Sharks did not handle the Blues’ trap very well.   The key to the neutral zone trap is to cut the ice in half and then pressure the opposing team into turnovers by trying to force the issue on one side of the ice—all the while begging for a cross-ice pass that can be intercepted and turned into a scoring chance.

As you see in the above graphic, the Blues first forechecking forward (F1) cuts the ice in half and forces the puck carrying defenseman into a turnover.  See the gaps above—or lack thereof.  The defenseman does not have the other defenseman as a safety net to pass to, the cross-ice pass is not available as David Backes is sitting there waiting for it (specifically to break in for an odd-man rush) and the Blues’ two defensemen are waiting to pressure the puck on any long pass.  This is the epitome of a five-man unit.

In this snapshot, Vladimir Sobotka is F1 and is cutting the ice in half by taking away the defenseman-to-defenseman pass and forcing the Sharks defender up the left boards.  Not in view are two Blues forward preparing to meet the Sharks in the neutral zone.  The Sharks defenseman here makes a long pass across ice—which is available in this case, but the Blues’ left defenseman meets the Sharks right winger at the pass and it results in a turnover.

On both occasions, the Sharks are feeding into the trap, as they are not reversing the puck to counteract the trap, are not chipping and chasing and are not coming out of their own zone with speed.

In this case, Jamie Langenbrunner (F1) pressures Justin Braun (not pictured) into making a pass from behind the goal line.  The Blues forwards (F2 and F3) move up in this instance as they have numbers with Langenbrunner applying back-pressure (pressure from a trailing forward).  The cross-ice pass is not available to him, so he tries banking the puck up the strong side boards to the Sharks’ left winger.  The pass is a flimsy backhanded that gets intercepted by the Blues forward and, once again, the Blues immediately begin applying pressure off a transition turnover.

These turnovers in the neutral zone result in scoring chances the other way and serve as a tactic for wearing down the opposing team’s defenders—especially for the Blues, as they are a team that forechecks relentlessly and make a concerted effort to control the boards in order to create offense, all the while wearing down opposing defenders.

The Sharks had significant trouble with this for the duration of the series and it was one of the reasons San Jose was hitting the links in April.

The Los Angeles Kings Breakout

Coming into the second round, the Los Angeles Kings had just defeated the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks leaving hockey fans wondering if the Kings were finally reaching the potential that pundits thought they had prior to the season.  If you bought into the Kings, or even if you did not, the second seeded Blues presented many barriers to the conference finals.

Most analysts believed the teams were mirror images of each other: Big, strong up the middle, talented on defense and above average goaltending.

One thing was for certain with Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchock behind the benches, controlling the neutral zone was a key heading into the series.

In this snapshot the Kings are spread out and have options; furthermore, they have options with speed.  First off, Drew Doughy, the puck carrier, has not been forced to one side of the ice.  Secondly, he has his defense partner open for a cross-ice pass.  Thirdly, he has Anze Kopitar creating speed down the left wing with Justin Williams streaking down the right side (both Kopitar and Williams curled back in the zone to gain speed through the neutral zone).

The speed that Kopitar and Williams create cannot be understated.  What this does is back off the Blues defensemen from being too aggressive in the neutral zone insofar as they are concerned with being caught flatfooted.  Also, on the left side of the screen you can see Dustin Brown who is curling back from above the red line to provide a mid-ice option for Doughty.  So, Doughty has four options, as opposed to the Sharks defenders who were stuck without any viable passing options.

In this example, the Kings do a great job of moving the puck before the Blues set up the trap.  You can see T.J Oshie at the top corner of the screen as F1.  He pressured the Kings defender Rob Scuderi who makes a quick tape-to-tape pass up the boards to Dustin Brown.  Brown quickly passes the puck cross-ice to the opposite side defender Drew Doughty—cross-ice passes make it increasingly difficult for the Blues to set up their trap.  What’s more, Doughty receives Brown’s pass with speed and is at the red line putting the puck in deep in a matter of seconds.

The Kings were continually proficient in moving the puck side-to-side and creating speed in their own zone.

In this example, Chris Stewart pursues Rob Scuderi as F1 and gets caught a little bit too deep in the offensive zone.  Having F1 too deep in the offensive zone was an issue for St. Louis in the series on numerous occasions.  Again, Los Angeles has options with a cross-ice pass available to Drew Doughty, a pass up the strong side to Mike Richards, who curled back in his own zone for speed, or a cross-ice pass to Jeff Carter (the option he chose).  Carter then skates up the ice and once he is pressured by F3, he feeds the supporting Richards.  Richards creates speed and is off through the neutral zone.

The Result

It would be simplistic to boil down the Kings’ sweep of the Blues to just one factor.  Jaroslav Halak’s injury played a significant role, so did the excellent play of the Kings’ top players, never mind the lack of scoring from top Blues scorers such as T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, to name a few.

Having said that (credit: Larry David), the Kings’ ability to penetrate the Blues’ congested neutral zone was a significant factor in the team’s trip to round three.  Darryl Sutter carries the reputation of being a motivator, someone who does not specialize in the X’s and O’s of hockey.  That may be the case, but whoever was responsible for the Kings’ game plan heading into the second round deserves much credit for the team’s success.

The perception was that Ken Hitchcock would out X and O Darryl Sutter; the reality, however, was far from that.

**All images courtesy of NBC/Comcast**

  • Kevin

    Kindly swept under the rug is the fact that Drew Doughty is really good and top tier defensemen handle forechecks pretty well.

    Not always about strategy!

  • He is really good and is a factor in all of this, but at the same time if he doesn’t have options, his skills won’t get him out of such trouble.

    It is not like San Jose does not have solid puck-moving defensemen like Boyle and Vlasic to name a couple.

  • harold

    Vlasic isn’t a good puck handler, and Boyle and Burns are turnover machines. San Jose will go nowhere until they learn how to pass and generate consistent entries. They’re too PP dependent.