To understand one team’s strengths, look at another team’s weaknesses.
By analyzing the Vancouver Canucks’ second goal versus the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night, in a game the home team won 6-2, you can learn a lot about what’s wrong with the Oilers — and in contrast, what is no longer wrong with the Canucks.
That second goal, scored by Pius Suter, was a display of defensive ineptitude by the Oilers that reminded many, quite rightly, of the Canucks’ own defensive struggles over the first half of the 2022-23 NHL season.
“You see how much space the Oilers gave up on the Suter goal? That’s way too easy,” former Canucks defenceman, now TSN hockey analyst, Frank Corrado told Postmedia.
“Last year, the Canucks also struggled when they were under pressure. This year, they don’t because they know where their support is.”
Everything the Oilers did, or rather didn’t do, on the Suter goal was the opposite of how the Canucks are trying to play.
The Oilers had a second forward come too deep, who didn’t work hard enough on the backcheck, and whose teammates set up in very ragged fashion behind him.
When you hear Rick Tocchet speak about his forwards getting too deep in the neutral zone, or not backchecking hard enough, or taking the wrong lane in the neutral zone, those are all things that the Oilers didn’t do well on the Suter goal.
On that goal, the Oilers allowed the Canucks to move through the neutral zone unfettered, then had two defenders move to the puck carrier, Dakota Joshua, as he entered the zone on the wing.
Suter simply glided up the middle of the ice, no one picking him up, before collecting the puck in the slot following a nice pass by Joshua. Suter wired the puck through Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner.
Neutral-zone defending is all about where your players start from and what they do as their opponents are launching their breakout, and then what they do as the puck moves up the ice.
In the Oilers’ case, they had Dylan Holloway as the high forechecker. He did his job well, standing on top of the Canucks’ crease, as Vancouver defenceman Ian Cole collected the puck behind the net and then looked up to survey the situation.
The first mistake by the Oilers was immediate — they were looking to set up a 1-1-3 defence, with the two defencemen and a forward setting up to defend their own blueline, and the second forward surfing high, up near the Vancouver blue line.
But instead of taking away the middle of the ice, Leon Draisaitl drifted way down into the Canucks’ zone, into the left faceoff dot, giving away the whole middle of the ice.
Cole moved the puck to his left, up to Suter, who then fired a hard-angled pass up the ice to Joshua, who was racing up the right wing. Joshua wasn’t Draisaitl’s man, but his backcheck was slow and he offered no back-pressure on Joshua’s zone entry.
The second huge error committed by the Oilers was the ragged line set by defencemen Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais, along with third forward Warren Foegele. Instead of setting themselves three abreast, Foegele sets up ahead of the two defenceman, sort of funnelling the rampaging Joshua toward the boards — but that’s what Joshua was trying to do anyway.
The purpose of neutral-zone defending is to send the other team in a direction they would rather not go, to force them to make a choice. This wasn’t that.
What’s worse, is Foegele tried to stay with Joshua — and so did Kulak. But their double-team defence only opened up the lane down the middle for Suter to skate into.
This sort of scene has not happened often for Vancouver, partly because the players have been much more disciplined in adhering to their roles, but also because of how they are setting up.
Unlike the Oilers, the Canucks have been defending the neutral zone in a 1-2-2 setup, where instead of having the third forward sitting at the back with the defencemen, he bumps up to work with the other high forward to disrupt the other team’s efforts to move through the neutral zone.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs video coach Jack Han explained to Postmedia that defenders in the neutral zone want to get the puck toward the boards, then apply pressure near the red line to force a dump-in — or even an icing — and third, it’s on the backchecking forwards to apply pressure from behind to help make the zone entry difficult, or even create a turnover.
The whole Canucks system, whether it is in the neutral zone or in the defensive zone, is designed to take away the middle of the ice.
“The Canucks play a fairly standard 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck, paired with a passive ‘box plus-1’ defensive-zone coverage system focused on protecting the slot at the expense of giving up outside shots. This is all very similar to John Tortorella’s Philadelphia Flyers of the past two seasons,” Han said. (In the box plus-1, the two defencemen and two forwards defend the slot area, with a third forward defending the puck at the two points.)
“These are all things that Edmonton is not able to do in their 1-1-3 neutral zone system, especially when it’s executed as badly it was against Vancouver last game,” he added.
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