Vancouver’s playoff bid did not start the way the team had hoped. In what was this core’s first taste of high stakes hockey, the Canucks faced a seemingly impregnable defence that was the Minnesota Wild. Chalk it up to nerves, bad ice, rust, or simply being outplayed, the Canucks’ and their skilled top six were shutout. They could not crack the shell of Minnesota’s highly effective collapsing defensive strategy.
Fast forward to Friday, the day of Game 4, and the Canucks have a chance to advance to the playoffs for the first time in 5 seasons. In games 2 and 3, Vancouver’s top six adjusted and managed to generate offence and scoring chances at even strength, propelling them to a 2-1 series lead.
Following Game 2, Canucks’ coach Travis Green was asked to comment on the dissimilarities between the first two games his club played. His answer kept his cards close to his chest, “It’s a fine line between the two games, I don’t think you’d watch the video and see a huge difference.” However, when we dive into the microstats, there appears to be one key difference attributing to Vancouver’s offensive failure in the first game and their reverse of fortune in the next two.
Minnesota’s defensive structure made it extremely difficult for Vancouver in game 1. The Canucks struggled immensely to get pucks to the slot and take shots from the most dangerous area on the ice. This was not surprising given the Wild’s track record over the 2019-20 season as they were one of the leagues best at protecting the home-plate area in front of their net.
What makes the Wild so effective is their ability to play as a five-man unit and collapse towards the center of the ice making it difficult for attacking teams to attack the middle or send passes from wing to wing. On the rush, their defenders play strong gaps and their forwards make it a habit to support the defence by coming back hard and taking away trailers. If the puck is moved down into the corners, the Wild, as five, will collapse below the faceoff dots and protect the home-plate area while keeping pressure on the puck carrier. What makes this highly effective is the way in which they support each other, fluidly expanding and contracting as a group like a beating heart.
The zone entry and following defensive coverage below is a textbook example of the Wild’s shutdown defence.
VAN9 attacks the Wild blueline and is being played tightly by MIN9. VAN9 is forced to the right side where another stick is waiting for him. He drops the puck back for his defenceman, VAN57, and a backchecking Wild forward is in position to immediately challenge VAN57. VAN57 is forced to the outside as he tries to attack downhill looking for a passing or shooting lane. Notice how all five Wild players have collapsed below the dot in the faceoff circle.
They aren’t allowing a pass or a shot towards the home-plate area and VAN9 has to retreat to the opposite corner to free himself for a pass from VAN57. As the puck is moved to VAN9 and the strongside switches, Minnesota responds immediately, rotating positions and pressuring the strongside while also protecting the slot.
This fluidity and awareness is a staple to any effective defence and is especially needed in Minnesota’s collapsing, strongside overload strategy. If you want to read more about this strategy, I wrote about its strengths and weaknesses for The Coaches Site.
Vancouver’s top line is kept to the outside, unable to attack the middle and is ultimately forced out of the zone without a quality scoring chance.
A stat that I’ve been keeping track of is shots off of the rush. It’s been documented that creating controlled zone entries, passing, and shooting off of the rush have a strong effect on creating goals and shots. In Game 1 Vancouver broke the puck in with control at a very strong 42.86% rate. However, as shown in the broken down play above, they were hard-pressed to really take advantage of their possession time in the offensive zone. In fact, the Canucks only managee 13.8 shot attempts off the rush when averaged out to 60 minutes. To contrast, in Game 2 the Canucks successfully entered the zone with control 32.76% of the time but were able to generate many more shot attempts as they had 23.1 rush shot attempts per 60 minutes.
|Game||Controlled Zone Entries||Rush Shot Attempts per 60||Rush shots as % of Total shots|
This area, in my opinion, was a critical factor for the Vancouver Canucks going from being shutout in Game 1 to tallying three 5-on-5 goals in Game 2. They were able to generate more chances off of the rush because they made it harder for Minnesota to clog the middle of the ice.
Take JT Miller’s goal for example. The Canucks were fortunate to force a turnover at their blueline to create an odd-man rush but they key for Miller being able to drag the puck towards the middle was the space created by Elias Pettersson driving to the net. This forces MIN27 to follow, opening up the centre of the ice for Miller.
The Brock Boeser goal was another example of a controlled zone entry paired with effective movement making it difficult for Minnesota to set up their structure. Boeser fires a bounce pass to the opposite corner for an oncoming Stecher who then sends the puck the opposite way once more to Elias Pettersson. The puck has switched sides three times at this point and has caused the Wild to scramble in their own zone. This frees up the net-front as both VAN40 and VAN6 are there to deal with the VAN23 point shot with MIN46 outnumbered due to MIN20 being slow to react to the puck movement.
For the Canucks to continue scoring at 5-on-5, they need to find ways to enter the zone with control and use their speed on the rush to their advantage. If they can push the tempo and force the Wild to scramble, straying from their structure, more chances will materialize, especially in the home-plate area. What the Canucks do with the puck following their zone entries will be crucial if they want to close out this series.