Tabs on Tactics: Against Boston, Dallas Generated Good Offense From Good Luck

Dallas destroyed the Boston Bruins in January. Scoreboards can be misleading though.

One of Dallas’ best wins all season took place this year, where it usually does: at American Airlines Center. It came against a struggling, but still-solid Boston Bruins group. The Stars scored six goals, and allowed only one. “Why can’t they play like all the time?”

How teams play and how they win are not mutually inclusive. Defensively, a team may allow too many shots, or turn the puck over too much, but if their goalie is a brick wall, then it’s unfair to call what the team did “good defense.”

Offense is the same way. There’s offense intended — the forecheck, the cycle, the rush, uncontrolled entries versus controlled entries, etc — and offense manifested — goals, assists, and however awesome it looks on the highlight reel. If you’re not following Jack Han on Twitter or reading his work, then fix it. Here’s his outline on Dallas’ strategy in the offensive zone.

Granted, I’ve been writing about the same thing, and talking about the same thing for years.  Most of you know this already, but it’s worth reemphasizing because it’s better to hear from someone who used to be employed by an actual NHL team. When it comes to offense, there’s nothing quite like Dallas’ score tactics: they might be the only team in the league who plays in the offensive zone with the counterattack in mind. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I have strong opinions about it, but no. Why did this not matter against Boston?

Offense intended

A few notes on the offense Dallas intends to create:

  • 0:00-0:20: This entry relies on a good read by Alexander Radulov, and nothing more. Joel Hanley pinches to keep the puck alive. He gets it to Joel Kiviranta who is now at the point. Jani Hakanpaa pinches to keep the play alive too, but Jacob Peterson takes his place. Nothing happens, but this is pretty standard for the shots Dallas likes to generate; gets pucks down low, then high, and shoot from the point. For all the activating Dallas’ d-men do, they don’t create many odd man situations. To that point, Darryl Belfry made a great point about the problem with this kind of movement on the PDO Podcast: (paraphrasing) if a player activates just for another player to take their place, then that’s not positionless hockey, but positional interchangeability — the former being harder to defend than the latter.
  • 0:20-0:32: What’s worth noting is how this play ends. Just as Jack Han points out, Dallas focuses on making sure the F3 (in this case Luke Glendening) is tracking the return breakout, which allows Dallas to have numbers on Boston exiting the zone. Good for defense, less so for offense.
  • 0:32-0:41: Ryan Suter feints the icing by sending it down knowing Roope Hintz is already in a full sprint towards the opposite end of the ice. Hintz rims it around the boards back to Miro Heiskanen. This play sounds great on the surface: all of their best players are touching the puck here. Except because Boston already knows how Dallas likes to attack, Heiskanen’s pass back to F1 (Hintz) happens under pressure. What’s frustrating is that Heiskanen gets the puck back to the corner but because Dallas’ forwards are already flying the zone, Boston gains possession with Hintz all alone to pressure the Bruins D.    /

Offense Manifested

(Focusing on the first four goals because they happened at even strength, where Dallas’ tactics are more dominant)

0:00-0:09: Charlie McAvoy puts the puck into Jamie Benn’s skates (admittedly a clever move by Benn who clicks his skates together to block the shot). Denis Gurianov sprints to get the beat on Urho Vaakanainen. It kind of looks like Tyler Seguin interferes with McAvoy to get the jump on him. Four Bruins eventually converge toward the two-on-one, helping create a few lucky bounces for the eventual Seguin goal. I wouldn’t say this goal originated from an unforced error, but a lot of sequences came together to help the Stars here.

0:09-0:20: Boston blueliner Derek Forbort makes a really loose, and lazy play that should have been an easy chip in. Instead Radulov reads the play, and darts for the other end for the eventual breakaway goal after a Boston unforced error.

0:20-0:36: A really loose, and lazy exchange from Brad Marchand to David Pastrnak allows Heiskanen to enter through the neutral zone. The Hintz line does what it usually does, but the play is fifty percent Heiskanen using his wheels to enter the zone, and finish what Hintz and Joe Pavelski added after another Boston unforced error.

0:36-0:48: This is actually a well executed dump-in by Dallas. Seguin immediately snaps the puck along the wall to catch Gurianov on a connecting flight from the opposite wall. Gurianov shovels the puck forward to catch an open Seguin, who has all the time in the world to catch Benn right in between the dots. It’s awful coverage by Boston, but not an unforced error.

Takeaways: If this looks or feels like nitpicking, it’s because it is. Games like this happen all the time. In some ways, part of these highlights lend credence to Rick Bowness’ philosophy: in the modern NHL, even the slightest mistakes can have big consequences. The flipside is that Dallas experiences the downside to these tactics more than the upside. Count how many of Dallas’ goals relied on single-man pursuits, and unforced errors. They scored a lot that game. But they didn’t intend to score a lot. There were no well-executed cycles, or premium rushes (only one team creates less off the rush than Dallas), as seen below:.

In some ways, that’s reassuring; Dallas can score off an opponent’s mistake (the Nashville game was a showcase too, with the Predators being undisciplined all night), and it’s great that Dallas caught the right breaks too. The real question moving forward is whether or not this formula can help them score consistently.