The Detroit Red Wings find themselves down two games to one in their first round series against the Nashville Predators. After outplaying the Predators in game 1 only to lose and then fighting back to take over home ice advantage in game 2, the Wings handed back that advantage on Sunday with an all-too-familiar script: stumble out of the gate and then push incredibly hard in the last 30 minutes in an attempt to overtake your competition.
While the Wings did enjoy a moderate level of success in the regular season via this tactic, the Nashville Predators are simply too good a hockey team to think that the Wings will be able to repeat the beginning of game 3 and find success with any regularity.
However, this series if far from over and these two teams are too evenly matched to think that game 3's mistakes are evidence that the Wings can't win this series. They're simply going to have to start working smarter to get the results they want.
Through my highly scientific methods, I have determined that it has been a "buttload" of time since the Red Wings last had a goal go into the net after being tipped off a stick in front. From watching the rest of the playoffs, I can confidently say that the amount of goals going in for other teams via this means is "some", which is objectively higher than "none".
Of course, this problem doesn't just lie in the simplicity of the usually-luck-driven practice of tipping a puck past a guy; the Wings have an ongoing problem with the "scoring box" portion of the ice surface. The obviously had no trouble getting pucks into that area on Sunday, which is a very good start, but when you have the assumption that the guy in net is going to stop approximately all of those pucks which come from the perimeter into the scoring area, then you need to rely more heavily on having bodies and sticks positioned in that area to pick up rebounds.
Now, I talked about this pretty heavily on WIIM Radio this week, but it bears repeating that the Predators have a very good defense and are also great at collapsing in on their goaltender and tying up their guy (legally). This means that any player within the 15-foot radius in front of the net who stands still for more than a second is going to have a guy covering him who is always going to have that player's stick pinned. What the defenders are doing in this situation is not only perfectly legal (as once they establish the body position, they're under no requirement to get out of anybody's way), but it's exactly what a good defensive team does. You'll notice the Red Wings defense do this too when they're not too busy being scored on from the rush.
The adjustment the Wings need to make is on their in-zone cycle. Currently, Detroit will often set a three-man cycle in either corner with two forwards trading off along the boards and a third to the interior if possible. Often, this ends up in passes going back to the points for shot attempts at traffic. This isn't necessarily a bad plan in itself. If there's a guy standing in the scoring area who tips the puck, then it's the same as getting a shot off from there. The real danger of that system is having shots blocked from the point (think Cory Emmerton's goal in game 2).
While the cycle to create point shots isn't exactly my favorite zone setup, it's common because Nashville's defense is incredibly good at keeping the play to the outside where this is the only place to cycle. The idea that they should just "take it to the middle" is technically right, but a lot more difficult in practice than in theory. There are two ways for Detroit's forwards to solve this problem of getting the puck to the middle:
1. Get to rebounds:
A simple and elegant solution for a complex game, doing this is as simple as keeping the guys that go to the front of the net moving. In short, anybody who goes within the black scoring box should just about always be skating. Very brief stops are allowable, but no more of the stop-and-step-around zone maneuvering we've seen from the team. You don't always have to be completely within that box, but most of a player's time in that area should be gliding-and-striding rather than stopping-and-stepping.
In a game where you're counting on rebounds and traffic, you're essentially counting on random happenstance to lead the puck to your stick at just the right time. Constant motion in the area where rebounds are most likely to appear increases the likelihood that you'll be able to get your stick on the rebound cleanly. It's often frustrating to watch a team forced to "play the odds" like this, but if you must be reduced to it, then the best you can do is to at least play them in your favor.
2. Add more players to the cycle in order to move it off the boards:
Notwithstanding an incredible pass from Johan Franzen to Pavel Datsyuk in Sunday's game, the low-boards cycle play is a constantly-evolving, defense-favoring chess game between offensive players trying to escape the narrow corridor along the boards and the defenders trying to patiently wait for an opportunity to trap the puck carrier against the glass and dig the puck out. The closer the skaters and puck are to the boards, the more opportunities the defenders have to earn their favored result. Offensive players will often set picks for one another to help create a bit of space, but the pressure on the edges of the defense needs to remain constant. you'll often read of people needing to "lean on" the defenders; well this is what this means. Skating hard and with purpose along the boards keeps defenders chasing, but a one-on-one battle in the low boards is a zero-sum game. The defender will almost always successfully complete his primary objective of preventing the puck carrier from gaining an unobstructed path to the net. The chances of a defender successfully doing this seem to increase exponentially as the puck carrier gets closer to the glass.
This is where more skaters (especially the defense) comes in: while an offensive player running a pick on a defender will temporarily open a little bit of space, the chess equivalent is for both sides to trade the exact same pieces. Both the forward and the defender are taken out of the play for a very brief period. This is sometimes enough to open up space, but more often than not, the player covering the pick-runner simply switches off to cover the puck-carrier. The holy grail of plays like these is to essentially get two defensive players to "pick" one another or otherwise get crossed up so that both end up behind the puck-carrier. The best (and riskiest) means of accomplishing this is to key in on the worst defensive players on the ice: the wingers. These players are responsible for covering the point-man on defense and are often capable of being lulled to sleep by a low-zone cycle to the point where a defenseman jumping into the play (with a forward, usually the puck-carrier himself) coming back to cover his point. This transition can be very risky, but the rewards can be fantastic. As a puck-carrier drags his coverage man high in the zone, the defender makes a cut to the inside to receive a pass behind the winger. When the pass connects, this will just about always lead to a shot from the scoring box. Unfortunately, when the pass doesn't connect, it can often lead to the defensive player already having his momentum traveling the right way for an odd-man rush the other way.
This isn't always the best play to try, but even in a tie game, the risk/reward will favor a team with good passing like the Red Wings have.
Overall, the Red Wings simply need to move their feet in the offensive zone more in order to create more scoring opportunities. On the other side, they need to move their feet more on the backcheck to prevent goals on the rush better. Basically, the Red Wings need to move their feet more in game 4 or they may find themselves in very serious trouble heading into game 5.