Photo: Patrick Smith
I don’t know if anyone else has been paying attention to the numbers that Sportlogiq has been tweeting out about each playoff game, but I find them fascinating. For instance, did you know that in Game Five of the Caps/Flyers series, the Caps had offensive zone possession for 5:44 and the Flyers for only 2:07?
— SPORTLOGiQ (@SPORTLOGiQ) April 24, 2016
It was an impressive showing by the Capitals in the loss to be sure, but the interesting thing to me in those stats is that there was only 7:51 of even strength offensive possession by both teams combined. That leaves 32:09 of even strength time in a close, 60-minute game where there wasn’t offensive possession (there was 20 minutes of non 5-on-5 time). That is a huge percentage (80.375 percent to be exact).
That isn’t an outlier either, the Blues/Blackhawks series averaged 10:41 in even strength offensive possession by both teams combined, and they went to three overtime periods. So much emphasis is put on how players and teams play with the puck in the zone and defend in the zone, but the vast majority of time is spent doing other things, carrying or passing through neutral, fighting for loose pucks in all three zones, and regrouping and breaking out.
When it comes down to it, much of this game of hockey is played between the tops of the circles and not beneath them. That area of the ice is where the little things can cause more zone time, a quick strike goal or a huge breakdown. For the Capitals to win this series, they will need to outplay the Penguins here, in the middle of the ice.
The Penguins have enjoyed a lot of their success so far this season by getting through that portion of the ice efficiently and quickly. They use stretch passes, high-arching flip passes and a pestering forecheck to create quick opportunities while spending as little time as possible between the tops of the circles.
The Capitals will address this strength of theirs by using a right-wing lock neutral zone forecheck. The right-wing lock is a variation of the more popular and better known left-wing lock (the Capitals use the right wing version because Alex Ovechkin is a left winger).
In the lock, as you can see above, the Capitals will stack their own blue line with their two defensemen and usually the right winger, though any forward back will take the spot. The lowest forward will steer the puck carrier of the opposition, and the last unaccounted for forward will read and react, usually sitting around the red line between the low forward and the Caps defense.
If the Caps can diligently keep structured in neutral against the Pens, they will have a great shot at slowing the Penguins transition offense and forcing dump ins and turnovers. If they don’t, they will run into trouble.
The Capitals are in the midst of a change here, but in this controlled breakout by the Penguins, they would like to be in their neutral zone forecheck. Unfortunately the right winger, Tom Wilson, moved forward into the zone off the change, and Jason Chimera, the second winger to have come onto the ice, didn’t read that quick enough to get back. He also moved forward.
The Caps had all three forwards in the offensive zone and the Pens had all three of theirs at or beyond the red line. With all that space, the defenseman of the Penguins was able to make an easy stretch pass to spring a 3-on-2. These types of plays need to be minimized for the Caps to be able to take this series in seven or less.
On the other side of the coin, the Penguins do not try to slow the movement though neutral of the opposition with a lock or trap. They pressure. On their forecheck in the offensive zone, they use an aggressive 2-1-2. In the neutral zone, they also use a 2-1-2.
The basic principles of the 2-1-2 are the same no matter the position on the ice even if some of the look and feel may be different. In their neutral formation, F1 will pressure the defenseman with the puck. The F2 will take away the second defenseman usually in a staggered fashion, and F3 will take away the center of the ice and read the play.
The soft parts of this neutral zone forecheck are up the walls and to either side of the F3. The trouble is making the right decision quick enough. If the center can curl low enough like Richards in the above play, the defenseman can find him before the second man can affect the pass.
If the center isn’t there, or is being covered tightly or the second forechecker is on him quick, the defender must read the play back across the ice to his partner or wide wing or he can dump it in with help from a tip by the nearside winger. See below.
Nobody was available to Matt Niskanen to pass to, so he tried to gain the line but was met by Chris Kunitz, the F2. Backstrom provided a nice outlet on the nearside boards to tip it in to negate the icing. Switching sides is going to be key for the Caps this series if they want to gain the zone with control, but the outlet up the boards for the dump in is the safety net.
In the Capitals’ defensive zone, the Penguins will be pressuring hard with their 2-1-2. If the high forward gets sucked down as he sometimes will do, the Caps will want to pounce on possible odd-man rush opportunities the other way. See below from the Penguins/Rangers series. The smart pass or chip is all that is needed.
At the other end of the ice, when the Capitals defensemen pinch, as is their custom, the Caps need to be sure he gets the puck, and they have a high forward coming back to help, because the Penguins forwards have a propensity to fly the zone a little earlier than most.
In this example, Karl Alzner expertly keeps the puck in, and Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz are already heading to center ice. TJ Oshie is in position to backcheck, but if Alzner could have punched it forward instead of trapping it, the Caps would have had a quick 3-on-2 in zone.
The middle of the ice is where this series will be won by one of these teams. The most important 20 feet of the ice are the five feet on either side of both blue lines. If the Caps can force chips and dumps when the Pens are trying to exit the defensive and enter the offensive zones, they will be setup for success. If they have trouble doing the same, it could spell trouble. In parting, please none of this:
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