Breaking Down Film - Defending the 2-on-1

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Canadiens have given up a lot of odd-man rushes so far this year, which is something Michael Therrien has tried to cut down on. But what about defending them?

Over the past few weeks, Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien has placed an emphasis on cutting down on the number of odd-man rushes allowed by the Canadiens. It's no secret that both up a man and at even strength, the Habs have allowed more than their share of these. As I've outlined in past BDF posts, Therrien likes to play an up-tempo style that gives his defensemen the opportunity to pinch in, and his forwards to play down low. This system places undue stress on the d-men, however, and even one small mistake can end up in the back of their own net. It is important, therefore, that those defensemen are good at breaking up such rushes. One thing I've noticed, through the first 11 games of the season, is that they generally aren't. As with seemingly everything else, a part of that is strategy, and a part of it is execution. In this post, I will look at how the Canadiens defend 2-on-1s, and whether it can be improved.

I already broke down one instance of this in my first BDF post, focussing on Game 1 against the Leafs, but I'll quickly rehash it here. Francis Bouillon is the last man back and lunges awkwardly at Mason Raymond, giving the Leafs winger time to slip the puck easily over to Dave Bolland for the tap-in past an out-stretched Lars Eller (well that's not actually what happened but it easily could have, Raymond ended up scoring).

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Having seen the Canadiens attempt to defend a rush in similar fashion over the next ten games, I'm pretty confident that I understand what Therrien (or Daigneault) is trying to teach. Here is Winnipeg Jets forward Dustin Byfuglien trying a similar technique.

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As Eller and Galchenyuk come down on this two on one, Byfuglien starts to go down, but notice that he's facing up ice and not towards the puckhandler. This is important for a couple of reasons. 1. Because it means that he will slide back towards his goal (although ideally a little bit diagonally towards Eller) so that he can stay with the play if Eller just waits him out. 2. It means that he can stretch out his stick into the passing lane. Since Bouillon was facing Raymond, his stick was rendered useless once the pass was made.

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What Byfuglien does is more effective because his body is blocking off a direct passing lane, while his stick makes it harder to thread a pass through as well. He also slides slightly towards Eller, as I pointed out above, because that makes it harder to get a good shot off.

Here is where preference comes into the equation. When I was a goalie, I wanted my defenseman to close off the passing option above all else. I liked to be able to focus on the shooter and not worry about cheating over. Here is an example from the San Jose game with Jason Demers as the defenseman. He very much plays the passer.

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Plekanec has a very clear shot at the net. Demers is ensuring that the shot is the only play possible, even if it's a good one, and Niemi makes the save.

This is a fine line, though, because if the defenseman simply sticks to the far man, you're presenting the puckhandler with a virtual breakaway, which is no good either. As a result, some goalies will prefer that a d-man pressure the forward with the puck, and that (well kinda) seem to be what both Bouillon and Byfuglien have been told to do, with very different results. Eller's pass ends up deflecting off of the latter's stick and Galchenyuk can't settle the puck down enough to finish. Meanwhile, Bouillon's feet are pointed right back at Raymond. The puck hits off one of them, Price commits, and it's an easy goal for Mason Raymond.

Now let's look at Raphael Diaz's attempt at the same strategy against the Ducks last Thursday.

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This comes after a Gorges turnover at the blueline, one of those plays that Therrien will be trying to help his defensemen avoid. Rather than the easy play up the boards to Bourque, Gorges tries to thread a backhander through two sticks to Desharnais, and predictably it is intercepted. So Diaz is the last man back, and he has to react quickly.

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Diaz decides, as he's likely coached, to try and do what Byfuglien does. He tries to make Nick Bonino's life difficult by sliding in his direction while using his stick to block off the passing lane. The issue is that rather than slide with his hands facing Patrick Maroon and his feet facing the bottom corner of the shot, he does the opposite. He lunges head-first, and therefore his stick isn't at an ideal angle, and he doesn't block off nearly enough passing lane with his body.

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As you can see, Diaz' stick is kind of in the passing lane, but it's so close to Bonino that it's a simple task to put a little sauce on the pass and lift it over right to Maroon. Diaz' body is also doing very little to help. I'm not sure why he would do some kind of hybrid kneel rather than a full slide, or if he's even coached to do it, but it fails miserably in this case.

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As you can see, like Bouillon before him, Diaz winds up at completely the wrong angle, and Maroon only has to lift the puck over a sprawling Price to get the Ducks on the board. The play starts with a sloppy pass by Gorges, but ends with a sloppy dive by Diaz.

Now let's look at Andrei Markov back defending in a similar situation against the Jets.

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The situation is a little bit different because the play is focussed on the far side of the ice, and because the near-man for the Jets (Andrew Ladd) needs to speed past his teammate in order to hold P.K. Subban at bay, who is charging hard.

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The pass is made here, fairly early on, trying to surprise Markov. The Habs' elder-statesman makes somewhat of a feeble attempt to get his stick on the ice and block it.

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The pass gets past Markov fairly easily, and Ladd is sprung on a breakaway with quite a lot of time.

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Luckily, Price is on his game and makes the save. But 2-on-1s can't turn into breakaways. That's simply unacceptable. Markov's age and mobility rear their ugly head here. He's still a good, smart defenseman. But he, like virtually all of the Canadiens D, has defensive issues. Why virtually? Well let's look at Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban handle a similar rush in the same game.

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Subban has gained a reputation as a poor defensive defenseman, and I think there's a pretty clear explanation for that. The Team Canada hopeful plays a high-paced, physical game that involves taking a lot of risks. What's incredible, if you watch him closely, is how often those risks pay off, and even when they don't, how good he is at recovering and still making a play. Every now and then, he won't be able to and a risk will come back and bite him - and full credit to Michel Therrien for pushing him to ensure this happens as little as possible - but people need to understand that what he can do as a result of these risks far outweighs the odd gaffe.

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Here, Subban takes a different approach from Markov (or Diaz or Bouillon). He goes down on one knee and slides through the passing lane. This is NOT easy to do, trust me. But it's not hard to see that relative to simply placing a stick on the ice, it is very effective when executed correctly.

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Subban allows basically no room for a pass, either along the ice or above it, and predictably makes the stop without the Jets even registering a shot. This is one of two instances in the game where Subban manages to do this; the opposition simply doesn't have an answer for his defensive positioning. It's plays like this that also make P.K. so effective when used on the PK. He can close off passing lanes extremely well, and he doesn't have to lay on the ice, meaning he can return to his feet and pressure the puck carriers when the time is right. Subban plays more of a risk/reward style than most other defensemen, but that's because it would be foolish for most others to try and do the things that Subban can. Next time someone claims that he's poor on defense, however, show them a play like this, where it's so clear that he is leaps and bounds better than anybody else on his team, and generally anybody on the ice.

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