January 04, 2011
From the mid 1990s to the pre-lockout 2000s, hockey players trying to create offense basically had one goal when they didn't have a clean look at the net: cycle the puck.
It was an era of hooks, holds and grabs which made getting to the net like slogging through a gauntlet set in quicksand, so your best bet was to maintain possession in the corner for as long as possible and hope for a breakdown, preferably in the form of simultaneous ankle injuries to both opposing defensemen. THEN you might have some room to create something.
After defenders had the ability to mindlessly pin a guy to the boards with a knee between his legs stripped from them -- how in god's name was that ever allowed? -- we didn't immediately see a change in that offensive strategy. Players continued to cycle the puck, only it looked more like some hot NASCAR action rather than something a hockey team should be doing in an attempt to score hockey goals.
I distinctly remember a college game in which our line cycled the puck for a good nine bump-backs and feeling a touch absurd, like we were still using some archaic premise that felt outdated in modern times, like using "thus" in writing.
Thus, something had to give.
Around my junior year in college (2005-2006), things began to change fairly rapidly.
Given that they were unable to rush a guy for the hit-and-pin, teams switched to defending their opponents more by "keeping them on the paint"; as in, keeping them and the puck near the bottom yellow dasher when they had solid possession (less convoluted: keep them outside).
The thinking being that any shot that comes from out there should be stopped, and getting too aggressive on a player with solid possession (that you couldn't pin), would eventually lead to a massive breakdown and expose some dangerous scoring chances. Given that a number of players these days have some electrifying dangles, I'd say that's pretty sound logic.
Because of this shift in thinking, offenses have adjusted by trying to spread those suddenly patient defenders out.
Monday night's Canada-USA World Junior game was a good example of this -- Canada effectively worked the puck from low-to-high in the offensive zone, which meant the defensive wingers couldn't collapse too far down low and shrink the zone on the offensive forwards (given that they're responsible for the offensive D-men), allowing the Canucks more room to create.
The low-to-high pass is followed up by one of three things: a D-to-D pass, which also stretches the zone (this time for width); a pass back from high-to-low, which maintains the stretch in defenders; or a shot (the d-man is supposed to drag the puck to the middle before pulling the trigger), which is basically the exact thing that makes coaches climax, especially if the low forward who passed the puck gets to the net for a screen.
This more broad method of puck movement creates holes -- pockets of weak ice where forwards can creep into and get a quick pass for a one-time bomb that seems to come out of nowhere.
Stretching the zone also means utilizing the east-to-west behind-the-net pass as your pressure release valve, especially when you're breaking into the zone and trying to establish solid possession after a dump-in, like on the power play.
After a smart dump, the first forward will get to the puck first, and F2, instead of providing him strong side support -- a must for starting the cycle -- will beeline behind the net, almost to the opposite corner. After defenders have almost reached the guy with the puck and set up their d-zone, the forward will go corner-to-corner with the puck, making the defense rotate, the first step to creating room for your team, and creating problems for your opponents.
As I mentioned, defenders are supposed to keep offensive players to the outside and not pressure them too much (aside from stick pressure) until there's a bobbled puck, then they jump.
When that bobble happens, going east-to-west with the puck (similar to the break-in play) can help re-establish solid possession and switch the side of the attack, again, forcing those defenders to rotate (the more you make hockey guys think, the more likely that some meatball will get exposed.
If you can follow up that east-to-west pressure release with a low-to-high pass ... well, guess what son, your line is probably about to get double shifted.
I've noticed it more during the World Juniors than ever before -- the cycle isn't dead, it just rarely goes beyond two or three bump-backs anymore.
More commonly, teams are looking to stretch the defenders out and create weak spots on the ice for one-timers, net drives and to just wreak general havoc on the opposing team.