Ryan McDonagh saw Drew Doughty hammer the puck into the Rangers’ zone. With a fluid and powerful pivot to his right, New York’s best defenseman tracked the puck as it rimmed around the net and pushed toward the left wall where he knew it would travel.
McDonagh retrieved the puck. He bumped it forward to Brian Boyle. In turn, Boyle chipped it up to Carl Hagelin. Moments later, the speedy left wing scored a shorthanded goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. It took nine seconds to turn a defensive-zone event into Hagelin’s goal.
There are many reasons why Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Montreal advanced to their respective conference finals. The Kings had a 1-2 center punch from Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. Henrik Lundqvist was an ace. Patrick Kane submitted game-changing performances. Carey Price and P.K. Subban fulfilled their roles as the Canadiens’ best players.
The most important reason, however, was how rapidly the teams transitioned from defense to offense. It is a matter of common sense. Minimal time spent in the defensive zone reduces the possibility of bad things happening. Positive results occur with increased shifts in the offensive zone. You can cycle. You can force opponents to chase and take the hooking and holding and tripping penalties that sometimes follow. You can get a lucky bounce. You can tire out teams and keep them from making changes. You can score.
None of that takes place unless you can get there. The Blackhawks are the best in the business. Duncan Keith, who skates like he’s been slurping espressos instead of water, sprints back for pucks and triggers the breakout with a rush or a crisp pass. Keith has company. Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, and Nick Leddy are smart, mobile defensemen.
The Kings bested the Blackhawks and grabbed Games 1 and 2 against the Rangers because they were just as good at retrieving pucks and going the other way. They submitted a puck-retrieving masterpiece in the third period. LA allowed only three New York shots. That’s because the Rangers rarely had the puck.
Doughty is LA’s chief retriever. There is no better three-zone defenseman in the league. Doughty’s pivots are tight. His passes are sharp. He pushes the puck from his end into the offensive zone with power and a plan. But Doughty has help. Matt Greene is LA’s only stay-at-homer. The others (Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov, Willie Mitchell, Alec Martinez) move well. They’re swift to jump on pucks. Then they go.
“It’s just being quick in our zone,” said Muzzin, Doughty’s left-side partner. “Quick in our zone leads to us being quick in the transition through the neutral zone. It allows us to get pucks deep and create opportunities. If we’re slow in our zone, we’re slow in the rest. It goes from there. The big thing is being clean and quick in our zone.”
What the Kings do better than anybody else is support the retriever. Doughty is a one-man breakout. He doesn’t need much reinforcement. But the Kings come back to provide outlets to their other defensemen. They don’t look for home-run stretch passes like the Blackhawks, Rangers, or Canadiens. They prefer short passes and chips up the wall. Then they attack with numbers and speed.
This starts defensively. The Kings keep tight gaps. They gum up the neutral zone because their defensemen are up in the play and their forwards are committed to backchecking. The Rangers learned this the hard way in Game 1. When they approached the neutral zone, the Kings had roadblocks everywhere. This created two things: turnovers and ineffective dump-ins.
“We know it’s about getting through the neutral zone and not trying to be pretty when there’s nothing there,” McDonagh said after the Rangers’ 3-2 Game 1 overtime loss. “Maybe we were pressing and holding our sticks too tightly and looking for stuff that wasn’t there. We know that if we get pucks in deep and get our forecheck going, that’s where we can generate our offense. We were looking for a little bit too much on the rush. We were looking to carry it across and gain the zone a little bit too much. They had a great gap in the third. They really took away a lot of our options. They forced us to spend time in our zone. They forced us to change when we got pucks out as opposed to being able to go down on the forecheck and make them change.”
The Rangers should have recognized the Kings’ neutral-zone fortress. Had they placed their dumps efficiently, they could have chased them down and initiated their forecheck. But LA’s structure made the Rangers deposit pucks into easy areas for the Kings to retrieve. The Kings never gave the Rangers a breath.
“They play their game plan to a T, and they don’t deviate in any shape, way, or form,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “That makes it real challenging for the opposition.”
The Bruins have some back-end mobility. Dougie Hamilton projects to be a high-end puck-mover because of his skating and vision. Torey Krug can push the pace. Matt Bartkowski is good at carrying the puck out, especially when he wheels around the net.
But part of their second-round flameout was their plodding breakout tempo. It was station-to-station hockey. The Canadiens smothered their D-to-D setup. The Bruins couldn’t wind up their legs in the neutral zone. They couldn’t generate consistent speed over the offensive blue line to let their forwards go to work.
The NHL is about speed in the defensive zone. Namely, speed in getting to pucks and getting out of danger. The defensive zone is not where you want to be slow and predictable.
Los Angeles’s Kopitar a star in all three zones
Anze Kopitar is two years younger than Patrice Bergeron. He’s a left shot. He’s an inch taller than Bergeron and 30 pounds heavier.
Despite their differences, they could be twins.
Kopitar is LA’s version of Bergeron — and perhaps better. LA’s No. 1 center doesn’t just play in every situation. He excels in all of them.
Kopitar plays against the best players. According to www.extraskater.com, Kopitar started a team-high 30.7 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone, underscoring how coach Darryl Sutter deployed the center for difficult situations. In comparison, Bergeron started 33 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. Both are deservedly up for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. Kopitar’s heavy defensive lifting didn’t drag down his offense. During the regular season, the center led the Kings with 29 goals and 41 assists while averaging 20:53 of ice time. Kopitar averaged 2:00 of shorthanded ice time, second among LA forwards to No. 3 center Jarret Stoll (2:06).
“It seems like if possession time for the team is 30 minutes for us, he has the puck on his stick for 20 of it,” Willie Mitchell said. “When [former coach] Terry Murray was here, he taught him the defensive side of it. Then when Darryl came in, Darryl took the reins off him to be more creative as a hockey player. The biggest compliment I can give him is that the eight defensemen we’re carrying on our team right now, when they’re going out on the ice, they’re hoping they’re going out with Kopi. He’s that responsible down low. You know where he’s going to be. He’s going to be an easy outlet for you. He’s always going to make the right play. He makes everyone around him that much better.”
Loaded Blackhawks are staying the course
If not for an unfortunate Game 7 overtime bounce off Nick Leddy, the Blackhawks could be hunting their third Stanley Cup in five years. Chicago will bring back most of their armor next season to assemble another run.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be entering the final years of their deals. Their next layer of go-to players (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad) is under contract. They have young players pushing, such as Teuvo Teravainen, Matt Carey, and former Boston University defenseman Adam Clendening. If Kevin Hayes decides to sign instead of becoming a free agent in August, the Dorchester native could be in the NHL after some AHL prep work in Rockford.
General manager Stan Bowman’s first order of business isn’t even about 2014-15. It’s about making sure Toews and Kane will be in Chicago for seven years after that. Letting either of them walk is not under consideration.
“It’s the highest priority for us,” Bowman said during his end-of-season news conference. “We’ve made it clear. We’ve never wavered from that. There’s no doubting the importance of those two players. It’s really been in tandem with those two players. When Patrick and Jonathan came onto the scene, it really breathed life into the franchise and into our team.”
The post-CBA benchmarks are the seven-year extensions Anaheim gave to Corey Perry ($8.625 million annually) and Ryan Getzlaf ($8.25 million). Toews and Kane will land at least that much cash. Probably more. Saad will also be up for a new deal after 2014-15. It’s possible the Blackhawks extend Saad this summer. “He’s got a very bright future,” Bowman said. “We’re excited with what he’ll be able to accomplish. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg for him.”
Chicago’s stability and star power will only mean tweaks this summer. The Blackhawks would like to find a taker for Kris Versteeg, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6 of the conference finals against the Kings. Versteeg will earn $2.2 million annually for the next two seasons, according to www.capgeek.com. Chicago will also need a center to replace Michal Handzus, who will be unrestricted. Among their spare weaknesses is the dropoff at center after Toews. But they like the progress of Andrew Shaw. Bowman also doesn’t know if Kane, the puck-handling wizard, needs a traditional dishing pivot.
“The unique thing about Patrick is he’s actually like a center,” Bowman said. “He doesn’t take faceoffs. But other than that, I don’t know if there’s a player in the league who handles the puck more than Patrick does. He controls the game. He scores goals. He makes plays. You saw most recently, the last few games against LA, he had the puck on his stick all night. You can argue about what he needs at center. Another player who can make plays? A goal scorer? Somebody to get the puck to him and let him do his thing? I don’t know if there’s one answer as to the right player for Patrick. He can play with pretty much anybody.”
Benoit Pouliot was in Boston for one season, 2011-12. The duration of his stay is seemingly Pouliot’s lot in life. The ex-Bruin has been on one-year contracts for the last five seasons. This time, he might be in line for a multiyear extension. Pouliot has been a perfect fit on the Rangers’ third line alongside Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. Pouliot scored 15 goals and 21 assists during the regular season while averaging 13:26 of ice time. The left wing scored a breakaway goal in Game 1 of the Cup Final to open the scoring. It’s worked in New York because the Rangers have Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin serving as the top two left wings. Pouliot has played against third defensive pairings instead of top-four defensemen. One wrinkle will be whether the Rangers use a compliance buyout on Brad Richards. If so, Brassard would move up to second-line center behind Derek Stepan. The Rangers would have to find another center to play with Pouliot and Zuccarello. “I really hope I can stay,” Pouliot said.
The Islanders made a low-risk move by acquiring the rights to Dan Boyle on Thursday for a conditional 2015 fifth-round pick. If the Islanders sign Boyle, who’ll be unrestricted, the pick will become a 2015 fourth-rounder. The Sharks cut ties with Boyle partly because they’re moving Brent Burns back to defense from right wing. If the Islanders sign Boyle, the 37-year-old will give them some much-needed experience and offensive touch. The veteran put up a 12-24—36 line with San Jose this season. But Boyle is no guarantee to sign. The Red Wings are desperate for an experienced right-shot defenseman who can retrieve pucks and work the point on the power play. Boyle doesn’t have many years left. But he’d still command interest on the free market as a complementary defenseman.
More proof that a Rangers-Blackhawks Final would have been a better bonanza for NBC and the NHL: Game 1 of Rangers-Kings averaged 4.777 million viewers. That’s down more than 20 percent from last year’s Game 1 blockbuster between Boston and Chicago, which averaged 6.358 million. Also, Chicago recorded a mammoth 22.7 rating for Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. “We have some cities that do unbelievable numbers — what I refer to quietly as NFL-type numbers in their market. Chicago is one of them,” commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday. Bettman also noted Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo as strong American markets.
One metric the Rangers use to gauge their players is how often they’re on the ice for scoring chances at either end. According to coach Alain Vigneault, Rick Nash is the team leader at being on the ice for more chances for than against. However, that wasn’t good enough to get Nash on either power-play unit in Game 1 of the Cup Final. If the Rangers expect offense from Nash, they have to deploy him in the correct situations, such as the PP. He’s too quick, skilled, and strong on the puck to be on the bench . . . Two ex-Bruins received promotions in Pittsburgh on Friday. Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin will be assistant GMs under Jim Rutherford, the former Carolina executive. Fitzgerald’s previous title was assistant to the GM under Ray Shero. Guerin had been the organization’s player development coach. On the masthead, Fitzgerald and Guerin will be under associate GM Jason Botterill. Botterill, formerly Shero’s assistant GM, projects to be Rutherford’s successor, much like Ron Francis took over the job with the Hurricanes . . . When the NHL punished the Devils for their cap circumvention attempt in signing Ilya Kovalchuk, the team had to forfeit its first-round pick in 2011, 2012, 2013, or 2014. In hindsight, it was smart of the Devils to keep their picks the three previous seasons. They were scheduled to lose their first-rounder this year. But Bettman acknowledged on Wednesday that because of the ownership change — Josh Harris and David Blitzer acquired the club last August from Jeff Vanderbeek — he changed his mind and allowed the team to retain its pick . . . Former Providence College defenseman Jay Leach is looking to stay in the hockey business. Leach, who last played in 2012-13 for Albany, appeared in 70 NHL games between New Jersey, San Jose, Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Boston. Don’t think Leach will be considering the TV side. Wife Kathryn Tappen handles that area just fine.