It's one thing to examine how tactics should work on whiteboards or even in five-second clips of plays. It's entirely another to try and read how they play out in the course of a real hockey game, where things can and do sometimes get a little crazy.
So in order to expand upon what I wrote about the tactics wingers use in defensive zone coverage, I decided to take a look at a Dallas Stars play from last year that didn't end up in a goal against and follow it through for a bit longer, highlighting some of the tactical shifts and decisions that happen in the defensive zone.
Like I wrote Thursday, highlights of plays where a cycle gets established in the Stars zone but it's played well and nothing really happens are pretty few and far between. So I turned to one of my favorite shifts from last year (mostly because I knew it involved a cycle and it was online), the shift in the game against the Minnesota Wild where Erik Cole handed his stick off to Brenden Dillon and proceeded to become a human wrecking ball.
This play is also notable because it highlights a player where a full-time winger (Cole) took over the F1/center role in the set zone defense from two guys who can and do play center (Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley). Jordie Benn rounds out the five Stars skaters on the ice.
Here's the play in it's full, awesome glory:
And here's the breakdown in stills.
We start with the point things start to go a little crazy. Cole, knowing that Dillon has no stick, has sunk down low to pass his off, as he should. Seguin, noticing this, reads a switch and that he needs to be the strong-side winger, so he comes up from the low corner to pressure the puck carrier on the half-wall.
Benn is responsible for the Wild player just in front of Kari Lehtonen, and while Peverley is a little further out wide than you'd like to see, he's also looking at Dillon as if he was on the way to give him the stick as well. In all, this is how things read mid forward switch.
Now you can really see how Seguin has come up into the winger role. The Wild are doing something interesting here - the puck carrier has brought the puck up high, and they have overloaded the top half of the zone. This is going to force the Stars into some decisions shortly. Right now, the two Stars wingers are taking away the lanes from the outside point men with Seguin cheating a little to the middle in case he needs to dive into the slot (look how his feet are angled).
Cole, meanwhile, is starting to recover out high.
The Wild have really overloaded things now, with a guy in front of the net and four up high. The Stars, to their credit, are playing positionally well. Seguin has pressured his player into making the least dangerous pass, Peverley is keeping an eye on both the lane and his player, Cole has the angle between the new puck carrier and the goal, Dillon is watching the low slot and Benn is locking up with the Wild in front.
I know it doesn't seem like the Stars have bodies on bodies, and they kind of don't. But this becomes about recognizing what and who is dangerous. At the moment, the Wild have the puck in a relatively low percentage area and all their numbers pulled out high. They are obviously trying to create via player movement, to cause confusion with switches and crossing patterns. The best thing the Stars can do is not play into it. Still, there is a lot of space developing - sometimes when a team has solid possession and starts to move things around, the decisions become between a rock and a hard place.
The Wild are now trying to take advantage of that space they created by attempting to drop the puck into the space in the slot and having someone walk into it. Dillon has clearly seen him and is going to come out and cut down the angle. Erik Cole, who can't do too much without his stick, will do the correct thing and try to put a body on someone, and he ends up blocking the shot.
Seguin has gotten slightly pulled out of position because of the non-traditional positioning of the Wild defensemen (this is more akin to an umbrella power play formation at this point), but that's not a criticism. He's done the right thing to this point but is going to have to make a decision about the most dangerous man here shortly. Peverley is still sticking pretty close to his defender, which makes sense because it's Ryan Suter, a player the Stars want covered as soon as the puck is on his stick (or better yet, deny him the puck entirely). Sometimes particular players call for particular types of coverage. Suter is also trying to sneak down the wall for a cross-ice pass, and Peverley has that angle defended.
The puck has moved to the wall, the Wild are trying to reset. Cole still has body position on his player and is doing all the can to keep the WIld player on the wall without a stick. Seguin is cheating a bit here, reading that since Cole doesn't have a stick, it's as good as a pass to a Wild player if it pops out. It's a risk, but you can argue it's the right one.
Peverley's defensive route has taken him low in the zone, but he still has a decent angle on his man. Given how overloaded the right side is, you'd like to see him cheat a little more toward the middle, and he is headed back that way.
The Wild player, pursued by Cole the whole way, took the puck to the corner and will try to pop it out here. Seguin has turned that player over to Jordie Benn (as Benn's former check is behind the net and cutting around - you can't score from there, and the Stars are willing to let him hang out there given the situation) and is heading back up to keep an eye on his point. Peverley is in textbook perfect position.
This is about as good as you can hope for if you're defending a cycle and one of your players has a broken stick.
The puck came out to Seguin's point, but Seguin was in good enough position to prevent a quick one-timer, so it's moved over to the weak side. Peverley has quite a large gap between him and the Wild defenseman, but he has a great angle that makes a shot less than appealing, and he's charging out. This is a good example of how good weak-side winger positioning can be taken advantage off with quick puck movement though, even if only to create a little space.
The good positoining has forced the Wild to stay outside for the moment, though they are trying to take advantage of another overload. Because he was chasing without a stick, Cole has followed someone into the corner, and the wingers haven't finished shifting yet so Seguin hasn't had time to get into the slot, exactly where the Wild want to go.
It's a neat little play, and I would bet it's one they've practiced a bit. The advantage Dallas has, though, is the defensemen will recognize that the low triangle players are really responsible for Zach Parise there in the middle of the soft spot and get over.
Now things are getting a little panicky because of the good puck movement from the Wild. Seguin is trying to get a handle on Parise, but Parise has positioned himself brilliantly - a good angle to shoot but shifted over to the now-near side so that the far-side winger has to make a heck of a run over to get him (and leave his pointman at that). Dillon is on the case, though, and is coming out to cut down the angle.
Dillon doesn't end up blocking the shot - it hits the Wild player in front and bounces behind the net. Suter had followed the shot down and picked it up, knocking it into open space for a teammate. Cole, still playing the wrecking ball of a low forward, has put a body on him while Seguin is chasing the intended puck carrier to the corner.
Something to note here is all five Stars are below the faceoff dots, which seems quite low. But three of the four Wild players are down there as well, and a fourth is in a fairly low percentage shooting area with no teammate traffic in front. The Wild have done a pretty good job here of causing chaos, but the Stars are still pretty well spaced.
This is also where, though, you'd like to see Peverley make a different read. The Wild have rotated a player back up into Suter's former spot, and Dillon is coming back out so that he can take care of the low areas of the ice. But Peverley doesn't read that Dillon is picking up the man he had during the low chaos and sticks with him. This is probably a lack of communication thing.
As you can see here, Peverley is also getting a little bit puck-staring. Cole is still trying to tackle Suter while Seguin is trying to prevent the player on the half-wall from having a clear angle to the point or to walk out to the top of the circle for a shot. Peverley sees the guy in the middle of the slot (again, the Wild have pulled everyone back up high, so only Suter is below the circles), and even though that's really Dillon's man at this point, knows that's his area.
Head on a swivel is a phrase that comes up a lot with defense, and Peverley needs a little bit of a bigger one here because while he spies a dangerous open man, he's also not keeping an eye on the space off his left shoulder.
There's that point man, and just like in Thursday's post, he's got a whole bunch of space in front of him. Peverley is still locked on to the guy in the slot, but Dillon recognizes the play is actually going cross-ice and is turning into that lane. It's a good read by Dillon on another nice passing play by the Wild.
And it's Parise coming down that off-wing with speed as well. One of the things great players do really well is get lost in the shuffle and then pop out in dangerous areas with the puck. Jamie Benn does it really well (especially for such a big guy), and Parise has done it here. He brought himself up high in the zone and realized when there was a little coverage chaos that left him space to walk in to.
Dillon, though, has got this thing read. The shot deflects off his leg, wide of Lehtonen, and the Stars end up clearing the zone after Cole makes another good hit behind the net to jar the puck loose.
So the lessons here - communication about coverage is really important when teams start to cycle, especially when your coverage is a little weird because a player does not have a stick. Offensive teams can force wingers into difficult decisions by pulling players up high and causing overloads even in not-dangerous areas of the ice. Understanding which player is responsible for which is much more difficult than first appears, especially at game speed.
In all, though, the Stars played this rather well. There was only one real coverage breakdown off a whole lot of cycling and smart passing from the Wild. There was almost no puck chasing and only one instance of puck starting. Gold stars all around.