The New York Islanders defensive transformation under new head coach Barry Trotz was nothing short of revolutionary. In the 2017-18 season, the Isles conceded 293 goals against, which was league worst. This season, it’s down to 196, best in the league.
No doubt this is in large part to Robin Lehner and Thomass Greiss having stellar seasons under goaltending coach Mitch Korn, but systematically Trotz has implemented a structure under which the Isles have flourished.
So where has that defensive structure gone against Carolina, and why was it so effective against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round?
In hockey parlance, the “house” or slot is the area between the hash marks of the circles from the front of the net to roughly the tops of the circles. It’s the area of the ice where you’re the most likely to score goals, and it’s the area you want to protect the most. Melbourne Ice Hockey has a superb diagram of what’s delineated as the slot.
Trotz’s defensive system is to box out opposing players whenever they’re in the slot, or to not allow them entry in. The thinking is that if the shots are limited to the outside, it makes the workload on Lehner easier, and if he can see it, he’ll likely stop it unless it’s a perfect shot.
And it’s built in layers. Similar to when he coached the Caps, the more layers of defense you have to get through to get a shot off, the less likely that shot will even materialize.
From there, once each player is boxed out, the Islanders can win a puck battle with their size and strength, or a skilled forward can swoop in and help take the puck back. They’re relying on the other team to get impatient and shoot so they can take the puck back and score in transition.
This box out from the Penguins series is the perfect example. The Isles have so clogged the middle of the ice that the Pens have to keep the puck to the outside for a low percentage shot. Even if a player does get a shot, they’ve left a window of space for Lehner to see the puck to make a save. Every man is marking up on someone, and once the Penguins shoot, the Isles get the puck back.
This kind of defense is relentless and is based on puck turnovers.
So, how is Carolina beating it? They’re playing a faster version of the Isles game, and big kudos go to Rod Brind’Amour for prepping his team to essentially beat themselves.
To start, they’re using that pesky 2-1-2 forecheck I wrote about earlier. It’s hard for the Isles to get possession back when they don’t have enough bodies in the defensive zone to start.
Justin Williams’ most recent goal is the Isles nightmare. Lehner settles the puck and then he’s got two options: throw it backhand to Thomas Hickey, or shovel it forehand to his forward for a quick breakout. He tries to send it to his forward. But it gets intercepted by Sebastian Aho, who knows that puck is going up the boards to his side. Devon Toews goes down to help but it’s too late. Williams beats Anders Lee to the front of the net and he cleans it up.
Carolina is known for taking shots from everywhere, but the other thing Carolina has done is to start attacking the slot in waves and using their mobile defenders to hold firm on the blue line in order to make those perimeter shots matter. This goal shows both those strengths.
Instead of covering Jaccob Slavin at the point and contesting for the puck, the Isles let it get to him. From there, Slavin looks towards Nino Niederreiter, who’s coming in as a sort of decoy to draw the Isles away from the net. Also, note how high up Lee is. He’s worried that the puck is going across the blue line, and Slavin recognizes that, so he shoots it low. The decoy move from Niederreiter works because he takes both defenders with him, and Teuvo Teravainen is backdoor for the goal.
Trotz noted before Game Four he was going to make changes, potentially at all positions including goalie. But the changes can be subtle. If the Isles mark up like they did in the Pittsburgh series and can defend the Hurricanes attacks in waves, they’ll find a way to win Game Four.
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