May 10, 2011
Much like the woman in the opening scene of "Austin Powers 2," the Detroit Red Wings simply refuse to die, despite the amount of times the San Jose Sharks have appeared to have them down and out. The games have been exciting and close (total series score: 14-13); with all five contests being decided by one goal, I think it's safe to say that we're in for another tight battle between two evenly matched teams in Game 6.
Teams play differently in close games — obviously not as tight as when they're protecting a lead, not as loose as when they're chasing. Everything has to be just right, so your team can limit opportunities and quickly transition for a few of your own. No two coaches are the same, but the majority I've played for emphasized similar theories about the best ways to play in those situations.
As you watch Game 6 of the Sharks/Red Wings series, here are some things to look for when it gets close.
(Cue the blowout after that jinx, hey?)
A defenseman's job is pretty similar in most situations, but that's not exactly the case for wingers. When things get close, they actually need to be paying attention, which can be like trying to get a puppy to focus while it studies for the SAT. Hey look, something shiny!
In this situation, most coaches prefer the wingers to play less tight on the defenseman they're covering, so they can collapse down in front of the net if things break down in coverage there.
When they're collapsed lower they can also help their defenseman stop anyone from walking the puck from half-wall to the middle of the ice. It's why in close games it feels like every chance comes off some slap shot from the point — you'd rather see the puck moved up there and try to get in the shooting lane than have a guy take the puck directly to a danger zone — thus, you sag. (Montreal has done this expertly the past couple playoff seasons).
The centerman can play his defensive role as usual, but the emphasis for him is on low support in transition — as in, if the defenseman makes a quality first pass to the winger, that center needs to be lower than his winger so he can either make a direct pass or opt for a chip-and-support play (if you're losing, a center has more leeway to jump up early, as do the defensemen).
If Joe Thornton(notes) gets ahead of Patrick Marleau(notes) on a play like this, and Marleau turns the puck over, suddenly they're outnumbered with the puck heading the wrong way — rarely a recommended defensive plan.
The high forward in the offensive zone will need to be Willie-Nelson-with-a-gigantic-bong-level high (quite), as the last thing you want to do is give up an odd-man rush in a close game. You just never know when one of those crazy d-men is going to pinch unnecessarily.
A trailing team will tend to activate the high forward more — you'll see more three-man cycles, more east/west play behind the net, and more traffic. In this case, the high forward's offensive job is to find the soft area on the strong side so he can get off a quick shot while both low forwards head to the net for traffic and rebounds.
As the clock ticks by and the game still hangs in the balance, teams are generally more content to pass up an even-numbered rush chance (risking a turnover) and settle for getting the puck 200 feet from their own net, out of harm's way. Because of that, you have to take away the easy tipped-puck dump-ins.
Those dumps consist of a defenseman snapping the puck at a stationary forward who simply tries to get a touch on the puck to void the icing, while the other two forwards can head in to start the forecheck, leaving the flat-footed forward to be the high guy.
Well, that's just too easy to allow.
Knowing that forwards are less likely to physically stop the puck and attempt a rush in this situation, defenseman are asked to be more active on jumping that forward, hoping to jam him, causing a turnover and allowing your team to transition to offense. In turn, there needs to be a hinge with the other defenseman and the forward coming back to ensure you still have defensive numbers if something goes horribly wrong on the pinch, as it occasionally does.
Aggressive neutral zone play can create opportunities as quickly as it takes them away, you just have to be able to count on your forwards to provide that safety valve, especially late in games.
Experience is so valuable in close games because it takes patience to stick to a system in a frenzied building, with the pressure on. Things can fall apart pretty quickly as soon as one guy decides to play rover.
Detroit has enough experience to fill the Joe, and the Sharks have been amassing a decent amount of their own over the past couple seasons. It's why things are likely to be tight in this series night in, night out.
All you're looking for is that breakdown so you can pounce. With two smart teams and two quality coaches, those moments should be few and far between Tuesday night.