How Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller have mastered the art of gap, angle, and challenge
DALLAS — Their principles, like those of their defensive teammates, are gap, angle, and challenge.
Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller have followed these rules better than anybody.
Separately, they are disparate puzzle pieces. The spindly 5-foot-9-inch, 174-pound Grzelcyk looks like a Jamaica Plain hipster. Miller, who stands 6-2 and 210 pounds, patrols the ice like a hungry grizzly bear. Given her father’s genes, Remi, Miller’s 3-month-old daughter, should soon stand tall enough to look Grzelcyk in the eye.
But when Grzelcyk and Miller hit the ice, they click into place to form, by one metric, the Bruins’ stingiest defensive pairing. According to coach Bruce Cassidy, their aggressiveness in stifling sorties in the neutral zone is why they’ve succeeded.
“They’ve read it — and this is where Kevan’s feet come in — very well at killing rushes. As well as any one of our pairs,” Cassidy said. “Any time there’s a potential rush, I think Grizz is really good at attacking it, using his stick, his acumen, his foot speed. And Kevan’s right there to support him. If they don’t work in tandem, you’re not on time. Even if the first guy’s a little bit late, it still forces the puck maybe up the wall. They’ve read off each other very well. It’s the best thing they’ve been able to do for one another — figure out each other’s tendencies quickly and be a tandem on every rush, every breakout, every situation.”
According to Corsica Hockey, when Grzelcyk and Miller have been on during five-on-five play, opponents are averaging 45.9 shot attempts per 60 minutes. It is the second-best shot-suppression performance of any twosome in the league that has played 400-plus minutes together. Only Vegas’s Brad Hunt and ex-Bruin Colin Miller (44.4) are allowing fewer attempts per 60.
They controlled the tempo for most of Friday’s 3-2 come-from-behind win against the Stars. Grzelcyk had a game-high six shots in 24:35 of ice time, the second-highest workload after Nick Holden (25:31). Miller played 23:33. Miller finished with a game-best 69.2 percent Corsi For rating during five-on-five action. Grzelcyk was second-highest (67.4 percent).
One reason for the Grzelcyk-Miller duo’s stinginess is quality of competition. At full health, Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy take on the big boys. Grzelcyk and Miller usually draw third- and fourth-line matchups. But their stoutness in the neutral zone discourages attackers from gaining clean entries and letting shots fly. It helps that Grzelcyk and Miller are two of the three best skaters on the Bruins’ blue line (McAvoy being the other).
When opponents approach the neutral zone, Cassidy and assistant coach Kevin Dean want their charges to keep tight gaps. Once that’s accomplished, the defensemen are taught to pursue the puck carrier at an angle instead of in a north-south trajectory. By angling, they can steer the puck carrier to the outside instead of allowing him an opening to the middle, which could initiate a higher-percentage scoring chance.
If they have carried out the gap and angle parts correctly, the defensemen are free to challenge. The theory is that layers of protection will be there even if something goes wrong. Forwards are backchecking furiously to get back into position. If Grzelcyk closes, Miller shifts toward the action to support his partner. So even if a breakdown takes place, reinforcements are in place to blunt the remainder of the attack.
But if the defensemen gap, angle, and challenge swiftly, it results in minimal danger. They can choke out the rush in the neutral zone and counterattack if they gain the puck. Even if the opponents retain possession, the defensemen have done their part. It is far less dangerous to engage the puck carrier in center ice than deep in the defensive zone, especially for Grzelcyk. Miller can handle the rough stuff down low. Danger-area muscling is not Grzelcyk’s strength.
“All the time,” Cassidy said of the green light the defensemen have to close in the neutral zone. “One hundred percent of the time.”
Grzelcyk has always been able to rev his feet rapidly to reach his preferred destinations. What has always come naturally for the Charlestown native was not so easy for his musclebound partner.
Miller was not drafted. When he played at the Berkshire School, Miller was not always certain his prep school career would lead to a college offer. Even after four seasons at the University of Vermont, Miller signed with the Bruins as a stay-at-home defenseman, one more comfortable at knocking heads in close quarters than skating swiftly to shut down attacks.
Miller, one of the few to challenge Chara’s supremacy on the chin-up bar during fitness testing, has evolved into a sleeker and more agile mover. His feet are quicker. He executes rapid crossovers and pivots. When Miller corrals the puck and hustles up the ice, he becomes a human bobsled, bombing down the ice with frightening pace and power.
“I think his feet are so much better,” said Cassidy, Miller’s coach in Providence during his first pro season in 2011-12. “He’s worked very hard. It started in development camp. His lateral mobility is what’s made him a pretty good defensive defenseman, able to play against big bodies and with speed. That’s where I see the biggest difference: his ability to defend against all types of players.”
During McAvoy’s 10-game absence, Miller has become the team’s best right-side defender. He has averaged a team-high 20:51 of ice time in this segment, up from the 18:47 he was logging before then. Assuming full health, Grzelcyk and Miller are guaranteed to remain the No. 3 pair in the playoffs. Holden, Brandon Carlo, and Adam McQuaid will fight for the final opening next to Torey Krug.
“He’s just really responsible,” Grzelcyk said of his on-ice bodyguard. “I know that if I’m trying to use my feet to close off plays, Kevan’s always there to back me up. I try to do the same for him. He’s a very defensively responsible defenseman. He skates very well, too. That’s something he’s done very well this year. I’m just trying to follow his lead.”
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.