Adam McQuaid knew it was coming. In the third period of the Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Blackhawks on March 3, Chicago’s skilled line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, and Patrick Kane, with assistance from Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson, launched their offensive-zone cycle.
As much as the Bruins addressed the Blackhawks’ down-low game during their prescout meetings, it was another thing for McQuaid to see it in action.
“You’re somewhat aware that guys are going to play a certain way,” said McQuaid. “They’re really, really good at playing that way. I think a lot of teams want to get everyone involved. Chicago might be one of the teams that kind of started that movement with their D’s really being involved and guys moving a lot.”
What McQuaid, defense partner John-Michael Liles, and the No. 1 line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Lee Stempniak saw during a furious 33-second shift was the activation of one of the NHL’s most innovative weapons.
Under coach Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks initiated — and have seemingly perfected — the Rubik’s Cube offense. Every piece turns and clicks and rotates until everything lines up just right.
There is no center, wings, or defensemen. All five attackers are instructed to roam in the offensive zone with complete disregard of traditional positioning. It is the definition of a five-man unit.
General manager Stan Bowman has supplied Quenneville with players excelling in four characteristics: hockey sense, puck skills, speed, and competitiveness. In turn, Quenneville has devised a plan of attack that maximizes his players’ assets to a degree that has yet to be matched. The NHL is a copycat league. But no team has come close to replicating what the Blackhawks have done to revolutionize offensive-zone movement and scoring-chance creation.
Opponents that play man-to-man defense have a hard time sticking with their assignments or executing switches when the Blackhawks start to move. Teams such as the Bruins that play zone defense have soft spots the Blackhawks are smart and skilled enough to exploit.
“At some point, there’s going to be a miscue somewhere,” Bergeron said. “You try and avoid it as much as possible by taking the passing lanes away and giving them the outside shots. But they’re going to make some plays. They’re good players. That’s what they want you to do sometimes — jump at them too aggressively and take advantage of that. Sometimes it’s about being a little more passive.”
Against the Bruins, Chicago’s shift started with a regroup during a line change. As Panarin rolled over the boards, he swung deep in the defensive zone to pick up speed. Trevor van Riemsdyk recognized Panarin as an outlet going up the left side and hit him with a cross-ice pass. At the same time, Kane swung and exited the defxensive zone on the opposite side.
Bergeron tried to seal off Panarin at the red line. The fast-moving Panarin blew by the flat-footed Bergeron to gain the offensive zone. Like most successful flurries, a good entry launched the attack.
The Bruins recovered. When Kane went into the left corner and connected with Panarin behind Tuukka Rask, the Bruins had regrouped to form a tight cluster and keep Chicago to the perimeter. By the time Kane dished to Hjalmarsson at the point, the Bruins had all five Blackhawks in check.
The breakdown started when Hjalmarsson executed an unexpected play. Hjalmarsson is known as being an ace shutdown strongman. But he is just as effective in the offensive zone. After leaning toward Keith, his support man at the left circle, Hjalmarsson went against the grain and slipped a cross-body pass to Kane at the right circle.
Hjalmarsson’s pass triggered what makes the Blackhawks unique. Their point men regularly drift toward the net, even at the risk of vacating their positions. Even before Kane started to rotate from the right circle to the right point, Hjalmarsson and Panarin broke down low to execute a scissors play: Hjalmarsson sprinting toward the net and Panarin streaking to the left half-wall, criss-crossing en route to their destinations.
By then, the Blackhawks were in full flight, seemingly breaking in five different directions in a beautiful and coordinated parry.
“A lot of movement, a guy jumping into holes,” McQuaid said. “When you have those switches, having a D-man come down and having another guy come out, you’ve got to communicate with one another to make that switch. You’re not going to have your D chase their forward all the way outside the blue line and have your forward standing in front of the net. So it’s just communicating. You’ve got to be on your toes and see where guys are at.”
This kind of movement might have thrown off other teams. But the Bruins held their positions and forced the Blackhawks to make a low-percentage play. After passing to Panarin at the half-boards, Kane took a return dish and flung a long-distance puck on net. Liles, who had been fronting Anisimov, blocked the shot. Following several battles, Anisimov emerged from the net-front area with the puck and got it back out to Hjalmarsson at the point.
Once more, Hjalmarsson reset the attack with a pass through the middle to Panarin. Panarin started to carry the puck up to the right point, then curled back down the right side. By then, all five Bruins were trapped on Panarin’s half of the zone. Panarin slipped a cross-ice pass to Keith, who had drifted to the top of the left circle. Keith gunned a slap shot on goal that went wide left and bounced off the end boards.
Stempniak settled the rebound, chipped it off the glass, and started the exit. The Bruins had contained the attack because, for the most part, they remained compact. They communicated well. They executed switches. They took away the cross-seam passes. They didn’t chase. All the Blackhawks need is one player to vacate his position, which causes a chain reaction of breakdowns and usually leads to a goal.
“These guys are skilled. They can beat you one-on-one, so you’ve got to be prepared for that,” McQuaid said. “They’re top-scoring players in the league for a reason, right? Dangerous all the time. They’re aware of that when they’re out there. You’ve got to have a little bit of composure at times to not get running around and trying to do too much. Not an easy task. It’s just trying to be focused to find guys. Communication goes a long way.”
Goalie should be a passing option
I hope the rest of the league was watching the overtime winner in the Bruins-Hurricanes game on Thursday, if only so coaches will learn that passing the puck to the goalie should be encouraged, not stricken from the playbook. Noah Hanifin triggered the game-winning sequence by exiting the offensive zone during three-on-three play and passing the puck back to goalie Cam Ward. The unusual nature of the play prompted Patrice Bergeron, of all players, to go for a change instead of holding his ground.
But the element of surprise shouldn’t be the only factor in giving goalies more touches of the puck. It’s a sound maneuver, one that soccer teams employ all the time. There are a lot of athletic and smart goalies in the NHL, Ben Bishop being the standard-bearer. Bishop is very comfortable leaving his crease and serving as a puck mover. He should be in play more often.
Goalies such as Bishop can serve as an outlet for under-pressure defensemen. They can receive the puck from one side of the ice and distribute it to the other if the D-to-D pass isn’t available. They can sucker teams into going for changes, then hit teammates down the ice with a stretch pass.
Coaches are wary of involving goalies in the play because of risk. This is what coaches do — plan for the worst. They’re too busy worrying about the bad things that can happen instead of imagining the good.
’03 draft starting to show its age
Patrice Bergeron remains at the peak of his powers. The Bruins’ No. 1 center is on pace to set a career high in goals. His defensive game has few rivals. Unless Bergeron gets hurt, he should win his third straight Selke Trophy as top defensive forward.
What gives the Bruins concern, however, is how some of his classmates are reaching the end of the line — if they haven’t crossed it already.
Bergeron is a member of the generational 2003 NHL Draft. Some of Bergeron’s peers remain in his category of being game-breaking players: Marc-Andre Fleury, Jeff Carter, Brent Seabrook, Ryan Suter, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, Loui Eriksson, Shea Weber, Corey Crawford, Joe Pavelski, and Dustin Byfuglien.
But some of 2003’s stars are showing signs of wear. It’s a good bet that Eric Staal, Dion Phaneuf, Zach Parise, Mike Richards, and Jimmy Howard, once considered among the elites at their respective positions, have already played the best hockey of their careers. Regardless of skill, age slows everyone, even the stars of the game-changing 2003 crop. Even Bergeron will join the latter group as the games and years add to his already high mileage. It’s why drafting and developing the next generation of stars is critical for any team’s long-term success.
Will Senators pay the price?
Last summer, the Senators signed Mark Stone to a three-year, $10.5 million extension without going to arbitration. A new deal may not arrive so smoothly for Mike Hoffman this offseason. The 26-year-old Hoffman will be restricted on July 1. His numbers (25 goals through 64 games this season, 27 goals in 79 games last season) will work in his favor in arbitration. While most extensions get done via straight negotiations, a hearing may be in Hoffman’s future given the disagreement the organization may have about his worth. “We want to see Mike Hoffman play down the stretch. We want him to do what he did in the first half of the year,” GM Bryan Murray told TSN 1200 radio. “Before we make a real commitment, we want to see performance at this time of year when the game is harder and tougher.” Through 64 games, Hoffman was averaging 2.05 points per 60 minutes of play in five-on-five situations, a higher rate than fellow left wings Brad Marchand, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Max Pacioretty. If the small-market Senators can’t identify a good number, Hoffman could be on the move.
Running smoothly with Oilers
Bettman fires back at coaches
Several coaches, including John Tortorella, have not been shy about expressing their distaste for the coach’s challenge — for good reason. There is no consistency to anything regarding goaltender interference. As for the offside challenge, it is ludicrous at every turn. Yet commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday, described the coach’s challenge as something that should be used with more discretion. “It was really intended for that egregious situation, of which we think there are typically 20 a year,” Bettman said. “I think the coaches, some of them, may lose sight of that and have overused it saying, ‘Oh, I think that was goaltender interference.’ ” Bettman is right about the challenge’s overuse. But the league encouraged coaches to apply it to the current degree because of the gray area surrounding what is and what isn’t legal.
Kuznetsov’s price has been right
The Capitals will have one more season to enjoy Evgeny Kuznetsov’s bargain of a contract until the pivot hits the lottery. Kuznetsov is signed at $3 million annually through 2017, according War On Ice, a winning price to pay for the team’s top scorer. Kuznetsov wasn’t taken until 26th overall in 2010, partly because of the KHL threat. But the Capitals were willing to take the risk that drove others away because of the presence of Alex Ovechkin, as good a draw as there is for a young Russian player. Kuznetsov might even be more skilled and clever with the puck than Nicklas Backstrom, Washington’s No. 1 center. Kuznetsov has made it his trademark to wheel around the offensive zone while looking for opportunities to open up. He will be restricted after next season, but the Capitals will be sure to lock him up to an extension instead of pursuing another bridge deal. The Capitals have enough data to determine that Kuznetsov is legit.
Nurse’s attack may go unchecked
The NHL tagged Darnell Nurse with a three-game suspension following the Edmonton defenseman’s beatdown of San Jose’s Roman Polak on Tuesday. With his team trailing, 3-0, in the third, as the Oilers often are, Nurse gained retribution on Polak for an earlier accidental takeout of Matt Hendricks. As Polak finished serving his penalty and skated toward the bench, Nurse jumped the defenseman and delivered a one-sided beatdown. In the old days, Nurse would have been due for payback on March 24, when the Sharks host the Oilers. It would have been justified given the savage nature of Nurse’s hammering of an unsuspecting Polak. But San Jose does not have any heavyweights on its roster. Brenden Dillon, who has fought three times this season, is best qualified for the chore. But Dillon is no Mike Brown or John Scott, two of San Jose’s previous muscle flexers. Nurse is lucky for that.
Unless Cam Ward is willing to work for minimum wage, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner could be out of the league next season. The 32-year-old hasn’t been good for a long time. Ward’s time as a starter is over, and teams would prefer a younger and cheaper goalie with more potential than Ward as a backup . . . Ex-Canadien Tom Kostopoulos reached an important milestone last Sunday. Kostopoulos appeared in his 600th AHL game while playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He became the fourth player to dress for both 600 NHL and 600 AHL games. The others are Shawn Thornton, Dave Creighton, and Jim Morrison . . . It’s looking more certain that none of the seven Canadian teams will qualify for the playoffs. It will be the first time Canada is shut out since 1970, when only Montreal and Toronto were in the league. The NHL is worse off when the Canadian clubs are in a downturn, regardless of the lopsided exchange rate . . . Zdeno Chara is the father of 1-week-old twins Zach and Ben. Chara’s shifts against Daniel and Henrik Sedin in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final will be cupcakes compared to the ones he’ll take against his sons.
The initial rosters for the World Cup of Hockey — an eight-team tournament in September — feature 25 American-born players. Sixteen will play for the United States, with nine others representing Team North America, a collection of 23-and-younger stars from the United States and Canada. Thirteen states account for the 25 players’ hometowns, with Minnesota placing the most with five. Massachusetts has three. (*Team North America)