As the playoffs hit full throttle, the decisions players make (or don’t make for that matter) get further put under the microscope. While we tend not to overreact to one particular play, shift, or even one game on this site, player scrutiny for better or worse always gets turned up a few notches this time of year.
Perhaps no area of the ice fuels more debate around the blogosphere and Twitterd than what happens in the defensive zone. More often than not a goal will be scored, a chance will be created, or a unit will get pinned and out come the pitch forks. While we can’t stop the finger pointing, we figured we might as well at least try to teach people where to point those fingers.
For these reasons, today’s post will focus on basic defensive zone coverage within the low zone collapse system.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
As Suit said this morning, the Rangers and the Caps are meeting in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Last year, the Caps took the top seeded Rangers to a seventh game under Dale Hunter, who is now departed. Replacing him was Adam Oates, who took a unique style of coaching with him to Washington, and after a slow start, the Caps picked it up and ran with it.
This is not the same Caps team that the Rangers went 2-0-1 against. These Caps are 11-1-1 in April, and 15-2-2 over their last 19 games. They have been clicking on all cylinders, and really adapting to Oates’ hybrid systems. While there is generally an adjustment period to a new coach and a new system, the Caps full adjustment has made them the hottest team in the NHL heading into the post season, and teams are having trouble defending their hybrid schemes.
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So for the 4th time in 5 years, the Rangers will square off against the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In that time, the Rangers post-season record against the Caps is 8-11. Although there have been some key personnel changes on both sides, not to mention three different head coaches in DC, the song remains the same. The Rangers have the best goaltender in the world, while the Capitals have the best goal scorer in the world. That formula always makes for some edge-of-your-seat hockey.
This year will be no different. To no surprise, the Capitals are again a goal-scoring machine. They rank 4th in the league with 3.04 goals per game. They also rank 1st in the league in power play conversion (26.8%). Interestingly enough, they’ve reached those heights while simultaneously being one of the best shot blocking teams in the league (ranked 8th in the NHL). Of course, you already know blocking shots doesn’t stifle a team’s offensive ability
So what does this mean for the Rangers?
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Pick a team, any team…
With the Rangers finally clinching a playoff spot last night with their win over Carolina, the final game of the season against the Devils has lost some significance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tremendously grateful that the boys from Newark don’t get to play spoiler against us a week after we eliminated them from postseason contention. However, the game could be important when it comes to shuffling out the bottom of the Eastern Conference deck.
The Rangers, Islanders and Senators currently sit 6-8 in the East with 54 points. The Sens hold a game in hand on both the Rangers and Isles. At the moment, the Rangers hold the tiebreaker with 21 regulation wins to the Senators’ and Islanders’ 20. As we know, the Rangers only remaining opponent is New Jersey on Saturday, while the Isles only have lowly Buffalo remaining, and Ottawa has Philly and Boston. The final few games could have the bottom three spots in the conference shake out in a number of ways.
This got me thinking, out of the four possible opponents for the Blueshirts in the first round, is there really a preferred matchup? As the standings currently, well, stand, the Rangers could potentially matchup against Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, or slightly less likely Montreal. Let’s have a gander at how the Rangers match up against each one…
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One of the biggest weaknesses the Rangers organization has faced the last several seasons has been a mediocre power play. Not since the 2009-10 season have the Rangers finished in the top half of the league in PP conversions. This season in particular, the Rangers power play was a disaster early on. With that said, there was quite a bit of turnover in the offseason, a truncated training camp and plenty of injuries. Just when the Rangers were looking to turn it around in mid-February, Rick Nash went down with an injury and missed four games.
Once Nash returned, not only have the Rangers been playing great 5-on-5 hockey, but the power play has improved as well. As Dave mentioned yesterday, prior to the Rangers win streak, they were sitting dead-last in the NHL with an 8% power play. Currently they are at 15.8% overall (22nd in the NHL), 17.6% at home (20th in the NHL) and have doubled their efficiency over the past seven games. As Dave reported, their 27% efficiency rate over this streak is good for second in the NHL.
But can all of that be attributed just to Rick Nash’s return? Here’s what I’ve noticed.
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I know there is a small, but vocal contingent of the blogosphere that will trash Tortorella when the team isn’t performing well and leave him alone when the team wins. Some people just look at the scoreboard and develop a strong opinion about the man and that’s all there is to it. Part of being a sports fan I suppose. However, what we try to do on this site is dig a little deeper.
When you peel back the onion a bit, one of the things I have come to appreciate about Tortorella are the less publicized tactics he uses to help win hockey games. Last season he changed up the Rangers neutral zone forecheck on the penalty kill, which aimed to create short-handed chances. This year he’s developed a new breakout designed to beat neutral zone traps.
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If you’ve been coming to this website for a while, hopefully you’ve been reading all of my hockey systems posts. To date, we have discussed forechecking, puck possession strategies, powerplay strategies, penalty killing and face-off tactics. We’ve also covered Tortorella’s systems and philosophies with great depth, which you can read about here.
The one aspect of a hockey system we really haven’t talked about much are defensive zone strategies. The three most common systems are the strong-side overload, low zone collapse/box and man-on-man coverage.
Unlike other aspects of a hockey system, defensive zone strategies are not really implemented in a “one size fits all” approach anymore. The game has evolved. More and more teams are using certain strategies for specific game situations.
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Photo credit: Jim McIsaac
One of the bigger stories during minicamp has been the position switch made by Marian Gaborik. Gaborik, a left-handed shot, has played the off-wing his entire career, until now. This season, Gaborik will at least start the year on the left side, with Derek Stepan as his center and Ryan Callahan as his right wing (the other top line is Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Rick Nash). Many –including myself– assumed it would be Nash playing on the left side, something he’s done in the past. But Gaborik on the left side offers some very important benefits.
Spreading out the defense
Torts decided to resist the urge of putting together a super line of Nash-Richards-Gaborik, which would surely draw the top defensive assignments from both the blue liners and top defensive forwards in league. By keeping one of the wingers off the line, and with another very competent center in Stepan, the Rangers will force teams to spread out their defensive assignments, making them more vulnerable to miscues. This is something we talked a lot about last year with Torts’ line juggling.
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Hockey will be back soon and finally we can start talking about the systems and strategies of this great game we all know and love. One of the most critical – and contested – aspects of the Rangers system in 2012 was their power play.
For the sake of brevity, I will just say last year’s mediocre power play was not due to coaching decisions or their umbrella formation (seen above). The problem was a lack of execution based on limited personnel. Penalty killers could key in on one guy and knew the others either wouldn’t sense open ice (hockey IQ) or put a quality shot on net.
So how can Nash help the Rangers improve?
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Brian Boyle will be a key cog of the bottom six.
Last week we took an early look at the Rangers potential top 6 line combinations. I think the majority of us agree some iteration of Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan will comprise our top 2 scoring lines. With that said, the Rangers bottom six is a bit less certain.
The assumption is Carl Hagelin, Brian Boyle, Taylor Pyatt, Mike Rupp, Jeff Halpern and Arron Asham will fill those roles. However, three of those six have never played for John Tortorella before and we all know how Torts utilizes his 4th line…
Ultimately, it comes down to skating, work effort and a team first attitude. If any of these guys prove to be a liability in any of those facets of the game, they will be replaced by someone from Hartford.
On to the line combos…
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