By any predictive metric, the Pittsburgh Penguins have generated a staggering amount of offense against the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals. Earlier this week, we looked at how the Penguins are able to create possessions with good defensive habits in the neutral zone. Today, we’ll examine how they create a volume of offensive chances via positional switches.
To fully understand the ideas behind the Penguins’ offensive zone play, it is necessary to study the “Total Football” philosophy:
The line of thinking lends itself well to the speed and teamwork-oriented nature of hockey as well. While the Penguins are by no means the first team to apply these ideas, they are a good example of how they can be used effectively at the highest level of the game.
Here are some clips from Game 3 and Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final illustrating the tactical benefits of fluidity and positional switches.
1) Positional Swich On Zone Exits
Lots of things happen in a short span of time, so you will need to watch this several times. But it is a thing of beauty.
San Jose dumps the puck in against Pittsburgh’s fourth line. Kris Letang wins the foot-race (barely) and makes a “corner reverse” toward his partner Brian Dumoulin. Because of the intense pressure applied by SJS, Dumoulin is immediately checked.
But notice the play of the first PIT forward on the scene. He “becomes” a defenseman and makes an aggressive play on the SJS player to win possession. At the same time, Letang anticipates the win and temporarily assumes the role of a right winger. He’ll be the one making the controlled entry down the ice and taking a shot toward the SJS net.
2) High F3 To Create Chances
Here, we see Letang making a cross-ice feed to Phil Kessel, who just misses putting the puck in the net. But watch this clip against and try to figure out who you don’t see.
Carl Hagelin (PIT62) is not in the frame as the puck comes around the boards to a pinching Letang. He is sitting back near the blueline, allowing his teammates (who is in a better position to get to the puck) to make a play without fear of turning the puck over and conceding an odd-man rush. Once against, Letang becomes a RW for a moment while Hagelin is the “defenseman.”
What’s more, once the initial shot taken, Hagelin drifts down toward the slot, completely unchecked, while Letang recovers toward the point. Had a rebound squirted loose toward the front of the net, Hagelin would have been in an ideal position to get an easy goal.
3) High F3 To Extend Zone Time
Later in that very same shift (during which PIT spend 58 seconds with the puck in the SJS zone), we see another example of how a high F3 – playing both the role of forward and defenseman depending on the situation – can tilt the ice in the Penguins’ favor.
Because of Hagelin’s positioning near the blueline, Dumoulin is able to pinch early, stopping the first clearing attempt as early as the hashmarks. San Jose gets a nice bounce, but Hagelin cuts off the second clear. By the time San Jose gets a third touch, Dumoulin has already recovered and has both a speed and positional advantage on the SJS forward.
For PIT, this is actually close to the worst case scenario – the opposition clears the puck with great difficulty. With a friendlier bounce, the puck would have remained deep in the SJS zone, possibly for another chance on net.
4) A Final Bonus
Immediately after the previous clip, SJS makes wholesale changes, leaving Dumoulin with space and time to operate. Because of his inherent qualities as a player, and of the tactical habits adopted by his team, he feels confident to attempt a controlled zone entry on his own rather than to dump the puck in and go back to the bench right away.
A fresh batch of PIT forwards join the fray, but the referee blows the play dead – Dumoulin has drawn a penalty, putting his team on the powerplay – a great position to be in any game.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.