Using Player Skill Sets To Gain An Advantage: 1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck

The race to find a competitive advantage in hockey is reaching unprecedented heights. One of those advantages is finding a reliable way to identify a player’s unique skill set. Once you know what a player’s strengths and weaknesses are, you can more efficiently maximize his strengths and insulate his weaknesses.

Knowledge of a player’s skill set can help inform coaching decisions and lead to tangible results on the ice. The following discussion on the 1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck provides an example of how this information can be used.

A quick introduction for those who may not be as well-versed:

The Neutral Zone Forecheck is the name given to a variety of formations used to defend against the team’s opponent gaining the offensive zone. This is not to be confused with the Offensive Zone Forecheck, which is any number of formations used to regain possession of the puck after entering the offensive zone.

When the opponent has the puck and is regrouping or setting up a controlled breakout in their own defensive zone, the defending team has time to get their players set up to defend against the entry. The 1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck often looks like this initially:

T.B FORECHECK

1-3-1 NEUTRAL ZONE FORECHECK, INITIAL FORMATION

F1 is the first line of defense. This is usually a forward who is a very agile skater and skilled at creating turnovers. F2 and F3 set up in the wide lanes. D1 and D2 position themselves nearly parallel to the faceoff dots on the neutral side of their own blue line.

There are two options with the 1-3-1 for the D1 and D2 assignments. The first option allows the defensemen to make the decision as to which of them will move up to join the forwards thus creating the 1-3-1 formation. This is dependent upon which side of the ice the puck carrier is on. Obviously, exercising this option requires a lot of practice at reading the oncoming attack and clear communication between the defensemen.

The second option is to decide in advance which defenseman will play up and which will drop back. There’s less opportunity for miscommunication with this method since everyone knows his assignment to begin with.  F1’s responsibilities change a bit from many other NZ forecheck formations. F1 is often very limited in how far he is able to move around to pressure the breakout or regroup; however, in the 1-3-1 formation, F1 can pretty much do as he pleases so long as he is pressuring the puck carrier to make a poor or ill-advised pass.

Below is an example of the movement allowed. F1 chases the puck carrier out from behind the net. The puck carrier can try to skate higher up in the zone to make a shorter pass, but he will do so under heavy pressure from F1, thus increasing the likelihood of a turnover. The puck carrier could also pass to a waiting forward.

T.B FORECHECK 1 3 1

1-3-1 NEUTRAL ZONE FORECHECK

The illustration above shows the motion of the various players as the puck is moved higher up in the zone. The forward on the strong side, in our example, F3, moves up to pressure the puck carrier. D1 is the defenseman playing up in this formation. He will help pressure the entry by taking away any passes and taking up space in the middle of the ice. The forward on the other side, F2, will drop back a bit while continuing to take up space and disrupt the entry. D2 will read the play as it advances and essentially hold down the fort in the defensive zone. Anything that gets through the neutral zone is his responsibility, at least initially.

The point of this type of forecheck is to force the puck carrier to make a long pass since there is, ideally, no room to carry the puck through the neutral zone. Teams will often counter this by using a hard pass into the neutral zone that one of the waiting forwards will tip into the offensive zone. Essentially, this is a dump in type of zone entry, because the puck will shoot into the offensive zone will velocity and the attacking team will go into their forecheck formation to try to recover the puck.

If teams use the second option in the 1-3-1, i.e. determining in advance which defenseman will play up and which one will drop back, there is a good opportunity to maximize the skill set of each of the defensemen. The defenseman playing up should be the player who is more crafty in using his positioning, skating and/or his stick to create turnovers when defending the zone entry. This is an excellent time to knock the puck loose, because the defending team has at least three players in the neutral zone that can try to recover the puck and go on the attack.

The defenseman playing back should be the player who is the more skilled passer of the pairing. If the puck gets dumped into the offensive zone, he obviously has the first opportunity to get to it. Once he has the puck on his stick, he can read the coverage and make a good pass to targets high in his defensive zone or in the neutral zone. The more accurate his pass, the more likely his team will be able to go on the offensive attack.

Using the more fluid option of having the defensemen switch up who is playing where diminishes the ability to maximize the individual skill sets of the defensemen. Even at the NHL level, it is not likely that each defensive pairing is comprised of players equally skilled at breaking up entries by creating turnovers with their sticks, skating, reading coverage and passing. Defensemen are not in fact interchangeable in these roles if the goal is to get the most from each player’s unique talents.

Generating offense is heavily reliant upon the defense. The manner in which the team exits the defensive zone has a huge impact upon whether or not they gain the offensive zone. Using the better passing defenseman as the drop back defenseman in the 1-3-1 gives the team an edge in turning the play in the opposite direction.

Stanley Cup Final Systems Look: Defense

Hopefully you’ve had the chance to check out my Systems Looks on special teams and offense for the Stanley Cup Final. If not, the links are there for your viewing pleasure. This part of my exercise in looking at how each of the teams in the Stanley Cup Final operate will be focused on defense. To be honest, I could probably do ten posts on this topic because it is far more complex a topic than would fit here, but I am not sure that others are as obsessed with defensive systems as I am, so we’ll just hit some of the basics and highlights.

NEUTRAL ZONE FORECHECK

Think of what a castle looked like in Medieval times. The castle itself held the most important things to the realm. The monarchs lived there and kept their treasure there. The castle was filled with troops to fight off attackers, but the attackers had to get through some obstacles to even get inside. Outside of the castle was usually a big wall, a moat, outposts where troops were stationed to keep attackers away from the gate and even spies and assassins.

A team’s neutral zone forecheck is much the same as the outer defenses of a castle. Teams work to make it as difficult as possible to get inside the castle or, uh, the defensive zone. Once a team gets through the forecheck and into the defensive zone, the defensive system takes over to defend the castle’s treasure, the goal.

Tampa Bay and Chicago use different neutral zone forechecking formations depending upon the situation. When the opponent is organizing a controlled breakout, i.e. holding the puck behind the net and getting personnel set, both teams often go to a 1-3-1 formation. Because I can kill two birds with one stone here, I have illustrated some of the breakout plays used by Tampa Bay and Chicago versus the 1-3-1 forecheck so we can see how it make look when these teams face each other.

1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck

*blue lines = motion of blue players; red lines = motion of red players; yellow lines = passes; orange lines = shots*

T.B FORECHECK 1 3 1

1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck

This is the basic set up of a 1-3-1 neutral zone forecheck. Without the arrows, it may not immediately look like a 1-3-1, but it is the motion of the players that creates this formation. F1 pressures the puck carrier to flush him out from behind the net or to take away a passing lane. In the illustration above, the puck carrier passes to a teammate along the boards in his own zone and skates out to support the attack.  Continue reading

Stanley Cup Final Systems Look: Gaining the Offensive Zone

Zone entries are very important to the efficacy of a team’s offense. It is commonly held that carrying the puck into the zone leads to more shots than dumping the puck in and trying to recover possession. While I have tracked the zone entries for the Chicago Blackhawks as the season has worn on, I have not done so for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Because of that, I thought we could look at the systems each team uses to gain the offensive zone and discuss the players to keep an eye on in this part of the game instead of going too heavily into zone entry statistics.

BREAKOUTS

Breakouts are the plans a team uses to get the puck from the defensive zone into the offensive zone. This happens in two distinct situations. The first is when the opponent has been on the offensive attack and the defending team works to regain possession and quickly move the puck out of the zone. The second occurs when the defending team regains possession of the puck, but holds it behind the net to allow for line changes prior to starting out of the zone. This second situation is referred to as a “controlled breakout”.

Breakouts that happen on the fly (the first situation referenced above) have a fairly standard set of plays used by teams throughout not only the NHL, but hockey in general. When you hear the defenseman without the puck yelling “UP” or “WHEEL” (among others) to his defense partner, he is calling out the breakout play to be used. D2’s read of the pressure from the attacking team is vital to executing the breakout. D1 is often gathering the puck with an opposing player all over him or at least right on his heels so he does not have much time to look around.  Continue reading

Stanley Cup Final Systems Look: Special Teams

The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning are getting ready to face each other in the Stanley Cup Final. You can bet that the coaches are reviewing game film to find out what to expect from their opponent and make some adjustments to how they approach certain aspects of the game as a result. We can do something similar as we wait for the Final to start. In this first post, we’ll take a closer look at Special Teams.

TAMPA BAY PENALTY KILL VERSUS CHICAGO POWER PLAY

Many teams use a basic 4 player box as almost a home base formation during the penalty kill. The penalty kill units then morph into more specialized formations depending upon where the puck is and the formation used by the power play they are facing.

During the playoffs, Tampa Bay has used a Diamond Force formation as the go-to set up.

*Blue labels are used for Tampa Bay players. Blue lines indicate movement by Tampa Bay players. Red labels are used for Chicago players. Red lines indicate movement by Chicago players. Yellow lines indicate passes. Orange lines indicate shots on goal.*

PK T.B DIAMOND FORCE

Tampa Bay’s Diamond Force Penalty Killing Formation

 The Diamond Force penalty kill formation allows fairly static coverage by two players and dynamic coverage by the other two players. D2 covers the goal mouth and low slot while D1 plays the Strong Side and may move out to pressure the pass or the puck carrier. F2 covers the Backside options while F1 plays the Strong Side options higher in the zone and moves laterally with the movement of the puck high in the zone. Continue reading

Zone Entries, Exits, Targets CHI vs ANA

The following data was tracked from Game 5 of the Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks series. Given that Game 7 is also at Anaheim, this information may be useful for insights into how the matchups on Anaheim’s home ice affected the teams’ performances.

*All data herein was tracked by and is the work product of Jennifer Lute Costella.*

PLAYER ID GUIDE

ana chi g5 roster

ZONE ENTRIES – EVEN STRENGTH

The following data is for 5 on 5 play only during Game 5 in Anaheim. Dump ins include chip and chase entries as well as traditional dump ins from the neutral zone. Carry in entries include both entries accomplished by carrying the puck into the offensive zone on your stick as well as a short direct pass from the neutral zone to a player entering the offensive zone. The player making the pass is credited with the carry in for that situation.

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Clearing the Defensive Zone: The Dangers of Dumping the Puck Out

Over the course of the season, I and others have often talked about the importance of defensive zone exits. On numerous occasions, we have debated (on Twitter) the pros and cons of simply getting the puck out of the zone to relieve offensive pressure versus starting a proper breakout play. People often argue that because players are tired at the end of a shift, particularly one where they have been actively defending for an extended period, simply getting the puck out of the zone without icing helps the team.

Ways the puck leaves the defensive zone:

  • Happenstance: a pass from one offensive player to another misses and the puck ends up in the neutral zone causing the attacking team to regroup and restart their attack;
  • Controlled Exit:
    • Carry Out: One of the defending players gains control of the puck and skates it across the blue line;
    • Exit Pass: One of the defending players gains control of the puck and makes a tape to tape pass to a teammate in the neutral zone;
  • Uncontrolled Exit:
    • Dump Out: One of the defending players gains control of the puck and shoots it into the neutral zone:
      • Missing the intended target;
      • Without an intended target, i.e. simply to get the puck out of the defensive zone;
      • To execute a line change.

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Zone Exits & Breakouts: Chicago vs Nashville

Zone Exits and actions taken in the defensive zone are the most intriguing part of microstats to me. I am admittedly a bit obsessed with defensive systems and shot suppression so this is probably not surprising. Defensive zone microstats are key to evaluating players, systems and teams. They can help teams identify areas of weakness or strength in players. In turn, defensive zone microstats can be used to tweak systems to better exploit the strengths of the defensemen and insulate the risks associated with their weaknesses.

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Defensive Targets: CHI vs NSH

While tracking zone entries, I include the defenseman targeted on the entry. I also keep track of whether a forward assisted on defending against the zone entry. This data can help evaluate team and player performance as well as the efficacy of the systems used by the teams. This is particularly true of a team’s neutral zone forecheck, or the system they use to stop the attacking team from entering the zone. Zone targets are heavily dependent upon time on ice, so please keep that in mind while reviewing this information.

Tracking Information:

Targeted D: Defensive player responsible for the side of the ice through which the attacking player tries to enter the zone. This may also be the player pressuring the puck carrier at the blue line or the player filling in for the defensive player on an oddman rush or breakaway.

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Zone Entries: CHI vs NSH Player Breakdown

Now that the team breakdown is complete, we can move on to the player breakdown of the zone entries throughout the Chicago versus Nashville playoff series. Aside from telling you how each of the players fared during the series, I also want to show you some of the possibilities for using the information tracked through microstats (such as zone entries and exits) to evaluate players, line combinations and systems.

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Zone Entries: Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators

I initially wanted to put all of the data I tracked from the Chicago vs Nashville series in one post; however, that would be massive and lose a lot of meaning that way, so I am breaking it down. I plan to post 5 articles as of right now. If one of them gets too long, I’ll break it down further.

Zone Entries

Part 1: Team Statistics

Part 2: Player Statistics

Defensive Targets

Zone Exits

Special Teams & Goalies

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