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Frame by Frame Analysis: Playing Defense Is Hard (Seriously)

There’s nothing quite as crappy as a 3-on-2, especially when it’s complete luck (okay yes, and some skill) that sticks you with it. This is one of those goals where there isn’t much else to do but sit back and go, “Well… okay.” because you know what? Sometimes things just don’t work in your favor. The Blues scored a really pretty goal here, so we’ll give them credit for that. In the mean time, let’s talk about why defending can be so hard and see what happens with Shea Weber and Alex Steen.

The Goal: Vladimir Tarasenko (15) on Pekka Rinne from Alexander Steen (11)

Here we go!

This play takes place immediately after a center ice face off. The puck still has yet to leave the neutral zone and the play leading up to this shot has been very chaotic. Neither team has really gained solid control of the puck until right now, when Jarnkrok gets it back to Josi so that the Preds can regroup.

TJ Oshie is heading to the bench and Vladimir Tarasenko is about to get off. Dun dun dunnnnnn…

Josi creates some time and space by moving the puck across the ice to Weber, who looks up ice in the hopes of finding an open Pred in the shifting mass of players still inhabiting the neutral zone.

We’re jumping to a different angle here to better see what happens with the Weber pass. Craig Smith is the only semi-open Predator Weber can find, so he passes him the puck. Despite immense pressure from Gunnarsson, who is practically draped over his shoulders, Smith is able to redirect the puck to Calle Jarnkrok. The pass is a bit in front of him and it’s moving fast, so he has to reach for it, but considering the pressure Smith is under, it isn’t a terrible pass.

Just because: I don’t know that Smith would have been able to just tip the puck into the zone, but I don’t think he would have anyway. We aren’t a dump-and-chase team anymore, remember? He sees Jarnkrok skating up center ice uncontested, so why not?

Because the puck is in front of him, Jarnkrok has to stretch out across his body and catch it on his backhand. Tarasenko lunges at him, but he’s able to dodge the stick.

Worth mentioning is the fact that in this screen cap it does look like Calle could drop the puck back to Colin Wilson, but in reality the players and the puck are both moving so quickly that Calle barely has enough time to corral the puck, never mind enough to control it and pass it accurately. Also, it’s important to minimize passing in the neutral zone (I’ll discuss this in a second).

Fact: If you’re on your backhand, you have less control over the puck.

Jarnkrok knows that he’s not guaranteed to flat out beat Tarasenko one-on-one in such close quarters, so he tries to backhand the puck past him into the offensive zone. If he makes it, Wilson can hustle on through, pick it up, and maybe get a good chance at the net. Unfortunately he doesn’t make it. Tarasenko juts his leg out and the puck bounces off his knee and right past Jarnkrok. Bad puck luck, Calle. I’m really not sure there was much that could be done about it.

Anyway, here’s my spiel about neutral zone passes: The fewer the better. The neutral zone is exactly that: neutral. If you make an oopsie in a zone where everyone is desperately battling for puck possession, it’s probably not going to end well. The easiest way to make an oopsie (by which I mean give up the puck) is to allow the puck to leave your stick (by which I mean pass it). So optimally you just blast through the neutral zone on 0-1 passes, and if you have to make more than one pass you make damn sure it’s going to connect. If you aren’t sure, you just keep on carrying it in or if you’re under too much pressure you just dump it into the zone.

So all that being said, I’m okay with what Jarnkrok attempted to do here. Tarasenko just got really lucky with the positioning and angle of his leg. Good for him.

Sigh… So yeah, I know Calle didn’t mean for this to happen, but it still sucks. In the neutral zone it’s so important that you get the puck all the way through and into the offensive zone – no fancy moves, no poking around, no extraneous passes, nothing – because if you don’t get it all the way in, turnovers happen. (Side note: I’m watching the Preds/Hawks game as we speak and Shaw’s goal was also the result of a neutral zone turnover. See?! They do not end well, guys!)

The worst part about turnovers is that they usually lead to odd-man rushes, which is what we’re about to see here. So Jarnkrok bounces the puck off of Tarasenko’s knee and immediately knows he screwed up, as evidenced by the slamming-on-the-brakes angles of his skates and body. Backes sees this going down and takes off, and so does Steen.

Steen has no one on him and here’s why: Steen is Craig Smith’s guy. Craig Smith is not there, however, because he left to cover the center for Jarnkrok, who at the start of this play was pressured into taking the puck over to the left-side boards (not shown). So no one is glaringly out of position here. Wilson was perhaps a taaad over zealous in trying to make the offensive-zone jump for the puck (watch, he scoots/darts pretty quickly around Tarasenko right as the puck hits Tarasenko’s knee), but that’s a gamble you have to play by ear and sometimes take. If you win, you can certainly win big… but if you lose, it can be really bad.

Aaaaand we have a 3-on-2. This is exactly why neutral zone turnovers are scary. If your forwards get caught behind the puck, you’re screwed baby!

Now let’s get into the defensive part of this article where I empathize with Shea Weber. Here’s a good rule for defensemen: once you hit the hashmarks you have to close the gap. You have to stop moving backwards eventually or you’re going to head-butt your goalie (…sorta), so the hashmarks are as good a place as any (not too close, not too far). The hashmarks therefore are the signal to tap the breaks and let the forward skate into you. He wants to get to the net, so he’s usually not braking very much. That’s the simplest way to look at it. It sounds so easy when you put it like that! Once you get in depth with it, however, it becomes a lot more complicated.

Tarasenko sees Steen with time and space, and Weber sees Tarasenko seeing Steen. This current positioning is very difficult to defend, much more so than you probably imagine from looking at the image. Let’s play make-believe for a second.

Weber Steps Up to Steen: In this make-believe scenario, Weber slams on the brakes and fully commits to Steen. He’s the only open guy, so why not? Might as well have him covered, right? The problem is that the moment Weber stops moving his feet, Steen is just gonna blow right past him and become an even better option for Tarasenko because then he’ll be all alone in front of the net while Weber is flailing around trying to get back in time.

Weber Entices Steen Down: In this make-believe scenario, Weber continues to back away from Steen and doesn’t tap the brakes. It gives him a cushion to deal with whatever Steen ends up doing (so he could, say, block a shot), but it also gives Steen the impression that he has more room down low. If Steen tries to jump into that perceived space, Weber (who has to stop reversing because of Rinne) can very suddenly step up and throw him down. The massive downside of this scenario is that if Steen puts the brakes on at all, he gets lots of time and space and to do whatever the hell he wants.

Weber Steps Up Just a Little While Still Enticing Steen Down: In this make-believe scenario, Weber finds the Goldilocks solution. He needs juuuust the right rate of deceleration to (A) maintain the proper distance from Steen (i.e., he can still stick-check him) while (B) still giving him the perception that there is room down low. This scenario is heavily dependent on Steen maintaining his current rate of acceleration. If Steen speeds up or slows down just a little, Weber either ends up clearing a body from in front of Rinne (the significantly preferable option) or having to change directions and skate up to cover the forward (all while worrying that the forward is gonna just blow past him once he gets there). And seriously – it doesn’t take much change in speed (+/-) to screw Golidlocks up here; the tiniest little edge-scrape can throw this delicate balance completely off its rocker.

This is one really good example of why good defensemen take longer to develop than good forwards. If you can score, you can effectively learn the positioning necessary to become a useful forward (that’s obviously over-simplified, but you see what I mean). There is a much heavier, and much more significant, mental aspect to the defensive game, and it truly is a mental game within the game of hockey. It’s much a touchier position and its much easier to fall off that edge and screw up. Forwards, backwards, how quickly should I go, should I slow down, how much is he slowing down, wait is he speeding up, where is he looking, what is he about to do, where is he going to pass…. It’s almost always reactive to the forward, so it takes a lot of time and experience to gather a “database” large enough to work each play correctly based on what you anticipate from the oncoming player.

So all of that being said, I really feel for Weber in the next few screen shots – especially considering that Steen is smart and talented and can work a 3-on-2.

As you can probably guess, Weber goes for the Goldilocks option. Luckily for Steen (and unluckily for the Predators), Tarasenko’s pass ends up more in his skates than his stick. This forces him to pull up sharply to receive the pass and that means the puck is juuuust out of Weber’s reach.

Steen’s decision to touch-pass this directly back to Tarasenko is perhaps slightly risky with Josi/Backes in the way (if it banks off of them, Smith and Jarnkrok are hot on their butts and ready to haul it away), but it is a smart move. Not only does it prevent him from having to waste time by turning and facing Weber before shooting the puck (and at this point Weber is fully committed stepping up to him), but it also gets Pekka moving across the crease because it is a FAST pass.

I do believe Pekka expected a shot from Alexander Steen here. Can’t say I really blame him. With Pekka trying to recover and move back over to the other side of the net, his glove hand is dragged down by his momentum and he isn’t able to pull it up in time to catch Tarasenko’s bullet of a shot. No miracle saves this time 🙁

But hey, we won anyway! Here’s the goal again, so you don’t have to scroll up to the beginning.

Talking Points