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Canadiens vs. Penguins: Strategic keys for qualification round — Neutral-zone play

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How the Canadiens can get a step on the Penguins through the middle of the ice.

NHL: FEB 14 Canadiens at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens are not equipped to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in blow-for-blow combat. They’re overmatched in skill, depth and competitive experience. In this matchup, only discipline and preparation will earn the red, white, and blue team the victory.

Fortunately, Montreal doesn’t head into this series blind. It’s unlikely that the Penguins have changed the formula that earned them success during the regular season. The Habs know their opponents — how they attack, how they defend, and specifically, how they defeated them in previous encounters. The tapes of those matches will have been dissected by a coaching staff searching for key strategic elements to relay to their team.

We can’t know the exact plan the coaches will devise, but from doing the exercise myself, here’s a few tactics they should favor as they prepare for the opening night of the series.

Breaking out through the middle

The Penguins employ a traditional offensive zone forecheck. After dumping the puck in, the first forward (F1) pressures the opposing defenceman tasked with retrieving the puck. He aims to neutralize and steal. If he can’t close his gap with the defenceman in time, he blocks the strong-side boards (the wall on the same side as the puck) and tries to force the opponent into a pass behind the net.

F2 follows his partner in the zone and reads the play. If F1 manages to arrive at the puck at the same as the opposing defenceman, then F2 jumps to the aid of his partner to win possession. This double forecheck usually happens after a strategic strong-side dump, when the Pens forwards gather enough speed to win the race to the disc.

However, if the opposing defenceman reaches the puck first with time, space and options, or if the puck ends up sitting behind the net protected by the cage, F2 can’t pounce on the puck. If he does, a pass will easily beat him and his partner (F1). Instead of double-pressuring, he slows down and cuts off the strong-side board to prevent any play to a winger up that wall.

F3 acts as a pressure valve. If both his teammates engage the opposition low in the zone, he tightly seals the higher part of it, and reads and reacts to the opposition’s move. If the play switches to the other side of the ice, he turns, gathers steam and drives that way to pressure the receiver (often the other defenceman). On a long rim to that weak side, he also covers for his defenceman when he pinches to stop it.

In other words, the Penguins’s forecheck is all about controlled aggression. Forwards and defencemen work together to steal the puck or to take away easy passes along the boards. This strategy is quite deadly against teams who don’t regroup fast enough; defencemen have limited pass options and end up losing possession to immediate pressure or on a forced rim.

In order to defeat the Pens forecheck, the Habs forwards need to beat and outnumber their opponents quickly. They have to give their blue-liners pass support in the middle, the region of the ice less guarded by the Pens. It’s probable that Pittsburgh won’t coordinate their forecheck as well as they did before the interruption of the season so Canadiens defencemen could bait them more effectively with fakes to connect with forwards in the middle.

Changing sides in the neutral zone

The Pens neutral-zone forecheck operates similarly as their offensive-zone forecheck. As the other team regroups, F1 pressures the opposing defencemen and stirs the rush to one half of the ice. F2 steps up on the wall of that strong side to block the wide lane, and F3 locks down the middle, further angling the opposing rush towards that strong side. He can also cover for his defenceman if he pinches.

When the Pens simply backcheck, or when they counter an immediate rush and not a regroup, contrary to many other teams who form a wall in the neutral zone and defend all three lanes (the two wide ones and the middle one), Pittsburgh prefers to collapse on the opposition on the side of the ice the opponents attack. In other words, just like in the neutral-zone forecheck, on a backcheck, F3 usually doesn’t move back to defend the weak side wide lane, but pressures the middle to force turnovers.

Like in their breakouts, the Habs will seek space to pierce through the formation. If Pittsburgh uses the same neutral-zone strategy, that space will be on the weak side of the ice or the half opposite to the puck. Montreal could break through by faking a rush to one side of the ice, attracting the formation, and then moving the puck to the opposite side.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. Reaching a teammate across the ice means making a pass through opponents. But rust might slow the Penguins just enough to create the necessary openings to transfer the puck across. Montreal could also change sides more easily by involving their defencemen in the attack. Blue-liners can often sneak away from coverage and weaponize the opposite wide lane to carry the team through the fortified neutral zone.

Here’s a few examples that illustrate the Pens neutral-zone forecheck and backcheck and how Montreal could best break through.

If the Habs are to move the puck from the defensive zone wall to the offensive zone in controlled ways and if they are to create scoring chances through rushes, they will need to attack pockets of space, and do so in timely ways. Coordination is key in this play-in series. The formation who can best structure their transitions could earn an insurmountable advantage over the other one.