There wasn’t much space on the ice last night. The Columbus Blue Jackets suffocated the Montreal Canadiens’ offence with timely and relentless pressure, showing their hard-working identity inspired by John Tortorella’s coaching style. It was the kind of game where single events are magnified; any rare break through the layers of defence has the potential to become the deciding play of the game.
It’s in those tightly played back-and-forth matches that the best players have to shine through, make the extra effort, pierce through the walls put up by the opposition to get the team ahead in, or back into, the game.
It first happened for the Blue Jackets. Zach Werenski faked shot as he entered the zone and baited Tomas Tatar into a blocking position. The defenceman then moved around and lower in the zone to beat Carey Price with a well-placed wrister.
The response from the Habs came from an unlikely member of the team — Nick Suzuki.
The surprise factor came more from the coaching staff for keeping the rookie on the ice for the offensive-zone faceoff with relatively fresh productive forwards on the bench. If you have been following the career of Suzuki, the pass he executed on the tying goal was straight out of his playbook, probably even written in bold on the front page of it.
He lived and died by his deceptive abilities in Junior. His speed couldn’t carry him past the line of defence, or push it back to create space for his plays, so he had to be imaginative and find other ways to be a dominant offensive player. So, he become one of the best dual-threat skaters in the entire CHL.
He kept defences guessing as to what he was going to do — shoot or pass — and forced them to commit into a defensive stance before rapidly hitting the other open play. Opposing teams tried to block his deadly shot, so he turned his shooting motion into passes at the last second. They tried to take away his playmaking options, so he opened shooting lanes by first faking cross-ice passes.
The feed he sent to Tatar last night exemplified the shot-into-pass motion that Suzuki has honed through the years.
Almost everything about Suzuki’s body tells you he is shooting: he looks at the net, his feet point that way, and his blade also. A quarter of a second later, the forward pushes his top hand away from his body to send a hard feed toward Tatar on the other side of the ice. Suzuki’s commitment to the shooting motion moved a couple of defensive sticks out of the cross-ice passing lane, and he slid his feed under the only one that remained.
Here is a video compiling some other clips from Junior of Suzuki similarly selling the shot before connecting with teammates around the slot.
On the tying goal, the work of Phillip Danault can’t be omitted. He moved to the “bumper” position on the man advantage and dragged defenders toward him. It also helped opening up the cross-ice passing lane.
Creating space for players on the periphery is exactly the role of the bumper player. Danault has proven that he knows how to do it in timely ways.
All NHL teams use fluid positioning in the defensive zone. The objective is to rapidly limit all time and space for the opposition as they try to settle into formation. It means that the first two players inside the blue line play as defencemen, the first forward as the center (F1), and the last two as wings (F2 and F3).
Where coaching philosophies differ is in if those players switch back to their “natural” position after the defensive-zone sequence is established, and if they do “switch,” when that shuffle happens. Claude Julien is a coach who wants his players to change back to their natural position when they can.
There can’t be a rigid rule or setup on when and where to switch, as all defensive situations are different. It would be impossible to teach. The switch is made when players feel it can be made, usually when opposing players move themselves inside the offensive zone and force that switch, or when the play is stalled along the boards, leaving time for a positional exchange.
When players don’t manage the switch well enough, however, we see sequences like the one that led to the first goal for the Blue Jackets.
It was a mess.
All the inserts in the video (probably too many) highlight a decision by a defender that ultimately led to the goal. Some good ones were made, but generally it was a chain reaction of mistimed and confusing exchanges that left everyone on the ice wondering about their duties.
The issue with switching late or early is that it automatically leaves more space to the opposition to operate than you want. NHL offences don’t need much room to create dangerous looks. On the other hand, if you don’t switch, you can get players filling roles they are not comfortable in. For example, a winger acting as a defender, or vice versa.
As the game continues to speed up and players better learn to play all positions on the ice (there is a bigger emphasis on this at the Junior level) I think we will see fewer and fewer switches in the defensive zone. Skaters will simply play the role they find themselves in as much as possible to limit mistakes. Right now, switching to natural positions is another facet that makes the defensive game complex. Players who are timely switchers are often more capable of limiting scoring chances, and in turn more trusted by coaches.