Habs v. Bolts: Protecting the House

Cooper and Therrien
Jon Cooper – Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports | Michel Therrien – Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The first of the two goals that Tampa Bay Lightning scored in Game 3 in their series against the Montreal Canadiens must have made Jon Cooper chuckle — and Michel Therrien furious. As head coaches, they and their coaching staff reinforce key ideas about how the game of hockey should be played, reminding their players about the complex and the basic over and over and over again. Positioning and assignment are the highest priorities: where a player needs to be in which situation — and what you need to do when you’re there. When your team is attacking and deep in the offensive zone, as Cooper’s Bolts were, his players always need to screen the goalie and get open for a pass. For Michel Therrien’s Habs, to defend against an attack deep in their zone means they need to be protecting the house, keeping the attackers on the boards and never give up the center.

Here’s what happened, approaching the 12:00 mark in the 1st period. Watch how Killorn takes the puck up the center of the ice:

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Why Cooper Would Chuckle

The reason why attackers want the center so badly is facing the goalie head-on gives them so many more choices as to where they might bury the puck in the net — or where they can make the play. If the goaltender is doing his job and facing the shooter, the shooter will see more of the net’s real estate than he usually would from the side — all four corners and the five-hole. Being in the center also gives the player peripheral advantage to determine what he should do — make a pass, based on the goalie’s position and the position of his teammate(s) — or make a shot. Jon Cooper would have, if not chuckled, at least had an even wider grin on his face than usual, as  Alex Killorn (#19), on a pass from Steven Stamkos (#91), was able to take the center, saw what was available to him and made the shot, beating the Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender, Carey Price (#31) and scoring the Lightning’s first goal of the night.

Why Therrien Would Be Furious

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

With an attacker coming towards the net from the center, the defending team is leaving their goalie vulnerable and with little choice of action. That’s because the goalie’s level of aggression is limited: moving forward in the crease to cover the angles leave the sides of the net open for a pass — or a bounce off the boards. With no options, the goalie has to stay deeper in the net, trying to make himself as big as possible, giving the attacker the smallest amount of net to shoot at.

The defenders’ job is to limit their net’s exposure by protecting the house – an area that extends from the top of the hash marks to the goalie’s crease. From the boards, an attacker sees much less of the net because the goaltender’s body is in the way, hugging the post, giving only one side of the net at which to shoot. Michel Therrien would be furious that his defenders gave Killorn the middle of the ice — and it only takes one player not doing his job properly to open up an opportunity for the opposing team.

Protecting the house and never giving up the center are two basic concepts that coaches need to remind their players time and time again, especially when fatigue and/or aggression can get in the way of remembering what job #1 is, deep in your own zone.

In the end, Tampa Bay defeated Montreal 2-1 to lead the best-of-seven series by three games to none. The Montreal Canadiens sole goal was scored by Brendan Gallagher (#11) assisted by Tom Gilbert (#77) and Greg Pateryn (#64) at 10:03 in the 3rd period. The Lightning’s second goal went in just as the buzzer was about to sound to take the game into overtime by Tyler Johnson (#9), assisted by Victor Hedman (#77) and Ondrej Palat (#18) at 19:58 in the 3rd. The winning goalie was Ben Bishop, who saw 31 shots on goal and let only one in — a save percentage of .968; the losing goalie was Carey Price who saw only 19 shots on goal and let two in for a save percentage of .895.

Game 4 takes place May 7, 2015, at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, Florida with a 7:00 p.m. Eastern start.