It’s no secret that, in the early goings of this shortened NHL season, the New York Rangers have looked slow, disorganized, and largely unthreatening. After finishing the 2011-12 regular season perched atop the Eastern Conference standings while allowing the fewest goals in the conference, the notoriously stingy Blueshirt defense has allowed 14 goals in 4 games (a number underperformed in the conference only by winless Washington’s 17). Granted, a lack of training camp can be a detriment to the roster’s fitness, new players require time to gel, and the Rangers were given a tough early schedule to cope with, but the Rangers have been largely outplayed for extended chunks of every game thus far. Numerous shifts in games against Boston, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia have looked eerily similar in each opponent’s method and ability to keep the Rangers pinned in their own zone for extended periods of time, leading to icings, penalties and goals against the good guys.
I say these opponents’ strategies are alike, but in actuality they are identical. Each foe has adopted the same game-plan that Peter Deboer and his New Jersey Devils used to dispatch a more-talented New York team and move on to the Stanley Cup Finals last May. The scheme is simple – jump the Rangers’ breakout, and never allow them to carry the puck out of their own zone.
Ladies and Gentlemen, a breakout is more than simply a play that helps you alleviate pressure and exit the defensive zone; it is also a main source of building speed for an upcoming offensive rush (see: first goal against Boston on 1/23). Still, that was a play that began with time and space behind their own net. The Rangers have continuously struggled to handle the opposition’s forecheck and pressure on the puck deep within their own zone. Other teams have taken notice, and now choose to dump the puck into Henrik’s end with complete confidence of retrieving it. Coach John Tortorella has instructed his team on a set breakout, but while the Devils and other teams have caught on, the Blueshirt bench boss has neglected (refused?) to alter his strategies.
Torts’ D-zone Breakout:
Step 1) When puck is dumped into the corner (say, to Henrik’s right side), the near-side defenseman (note: d-man on the same side as the puck) retreats toward the dumped puck and whacks it as hard as he can around the net to the boards on the far side.
Step 2) As the defenseman recovers and slaps the dumped puck, the winger on the far side (i.e. the side to which the puck is being wrapped) hauls ass over to the HIGH WALL (near the top of the faceoff circle) in attempt to chip the puck past the opposing defenseman, and/or toward his Center, (who has gained speed while following the path of the puck around the boards) in order to start a rush into the offensive zone.
The Rangers had a lot of success with this breakout until the Eastern Conference Finals, where Devils Coach Peter Deboer picked up on Torts’ not-so-complicated scheme, and decided to counter it.
New Jersey’s Anti-Breakout Forecheck:
Step 1) When the puck is dumped into the Rangers zone and the Blueshirt d-man goes to whack it around the boards, have the forward who chipped the puck deep HIT THAT DEFENSEMAN AS HARD AS HE CAN. This hit not only establishes an intimidating physical presence every time the puck is dumped, but also prevents the defender (say, Dan Girardi) from getting full power behind his wrap.
Step 2) Have the Devils’ far winger read the play and crash the wall faster AND LOWER DOWN THE BOARDS than the Rangers’ forward. This allowed the New Jersey forwards to recover the puck in Hank’s territory, and keep the puck deep for sustained periods. The method was worked to perfection by Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, and Steve Bernier- the Devils 4th line last spring.
Step 3) Also pinch the far side defenseman down the wall in order to negate the Blueshirt forward, and help outnumber the good guys where the puck is. Should the puck get past the first Devils’ forechecker, the pinching defenseman’s presence hinders the Rangers’ time and space, and thus their ability to make a play and move the puck to a teammate to begin a rush the other way.
This counter measure by New York’s opponents leads to prolonged shifts of getting pinned in their own defensive zone. While the Rangers are well schooled defensively, and keep their puck-carrying foes to the perimeter, all the skating, chasing, and shot blocking takes its toll on weary bodies- the result of which is often an icing, a penalty, or a goal against.
Instead of making a quick, smart, precise play that can lead to an offensive break, the Rangers must worry more about simply chipping the puck out of the zone and changing lines. This allows the other teams to regain puck possession quickly in the neutral zone and re-dump the puck (or make a quick pass up-ice while the Rangers “trade places”), thus starting the process all over again. Other teams have picked up on this hole in Torts’ system. They have started consistently dumping the puck and having their wingers and d-men crash the walls ahead of the poorly positioned Blueshirts.
How To Adjust The Breakout:
Step 1) Bring the far side winger further down the wall (to the bottom of the faceoff circle), and have the center (who, again, follows the path of the puck during the breakout, keeping himself between it and the net) swing through the slot towards the winger, allowing for a one-touch pass and easier access out of the zone to start a rush.
Step 2) Have the second defenseman (who is not retrieving the puck, i.e. McDonagh) go to the far side of the net, below the goal line. Instead of instantly wrapping the puck around the boards, have the puck-retreiver (Girardi) make a hard pass to his newly positioned partner. This provides McDonagh with the options to hit his streaking center with a pass, knock the puck up the wall to his winger, or even reverse the puck back to Girardi.
The keys to this kind of breakout are positioning, timing, and trust. These quick passes are made with the assumption that each linemate will be in his proper position at the right moment- all five players working as one cohesive unit on the way out of the zone. However, if one player is a step slow, the breakout breaks down and the puck is turned over. Again, a solid breakout not only gets you out of your defensive zone smoothly, but also helps to create your own offensive pressure.
The secret is out. Whether Tortorella is willing to pull a new trick out of his sleeve remains to be seen.
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