Monday, October 14, 2013

Aggressive approach from 'D' has Blues thinking 'O'

Risk/reward style from defensemen
pinching in offensive zone helps fuel forecheck

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The days of the wide open style of the NHL in the 1980's have been long gone for quite some time. They were replaced by days of shutdown defense and being opportunistic when given the chance.

Out went the 6-5, 7-6 games. In came the 2-1 and 3-2 style of play.

So in today's game, the days of aggressive, pinching defensemen that help create more offense can be construed as dangerous and taking serious risks.

But for the Blues, who are off to a franchise-best 4-0-0 start, it's become part of their success. However, a number of aspects come into playing such an aggressive style.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is one not afraid to join in on the
rush when the Blues feel the need to apply pressure and create chances.
The Blues are able to allow their six defensemen (Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, Jordan Leopold, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak) to jump into the play offensively despite the fact that if something does go wrong, it could create an odd-man rush for the opposition.

But the Blues feel the rewards far outweigh the risks.

The Blues' defensemen haven't scored any of the team's 19 goals heading into a showdown with the also unbeaten San Jose Sharks (5-0-0), but they have contributed 10 assists and more importantly, playing this style in unison with the forwards creates more offensive zone time and more time to establish an aggressive forecheck.

"That's an area (the coaches) are really emphasizing this year," Shattenkirk said. "If we're going to try and create more offense, we have to be able to pinch, keep pucks in, keep pucks alive in the offensive zone. Me personally, I've been feeling it out a little more. I had a couple poor ones in the Chicago game early on that led to some 2-on-1's, but with a team like that, they stretch out so well that you really have to be careful. But for the most part, our forwards are doing a great job of getting back on top of their forwards so it allows us to pinch. Most of the time, even if they do make the play out of the zone, we have numbers back and are able to still smother them."

In other words, there's a tremendous trust factor between the Blues' defensemen and their forwards, who are some of the best in the league at backchecking.

"I think that's part of our game plan," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "We want to play as five-man units. When the 'D' are pinching and they're jumping in the play, it makes it a lot easier on the forwards. When we're back-checking and working hard, defensively that helps them out. ... So far I think we've done a pretty good job of that. We haven't given up too many odd-man rushes except for a little stretch against Chicago.

"You've got to read the play a little bit. You've got to realize if the forwards are coming back or if the 'D' is pinching, you've got to back him up. It's something you have to read, but a lot of that's trust and trust our systems and make sure the other guy's doing it."

It's a style coach Ken Hitchcock is quite comfortable with, and judging by the Blues' ability to average 4.75 goals per game, which is second in the league behind the Sharks' 4.80 (in one fewer game). It hasn't hurt the Blues defensively either, as they've allowed 1.75 goals per game, good for fourth best in the NHL.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
With forwards such as Jaden Schwartz (right) playing in unison with his
fellow teammates, Blues d-men feel comfortable pinching aggressively
in the offensive zone.
"We have automatic reads like everybody does because of the system we play and the way we play, we need our defensemen to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone," Hitchcock said. "But we also back them up with support.

"We just feel like when you've got highly intelligent players who know how to keep a puck in, you can use them that way. Some people think it's playing with a risk. We don't think it's that risky because sometimes, when you get careless, it does become risky. But for the most part, other than the Chicago game, we've had smart pinches with smart backup. That big part of our game is being able to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone. We play defense by staying on our toes. When we play on our toes, we're good. When we play on our heels, we're like anybody else and you can get beat by anybody when you're sitting on your heels. We're a team that really needs to have five guys involved in the forecheck, not three plus two. It's way different. When you've got three plus two, I don't believe you can be successful. There's too much separation between your forwards and defensemen, so we include everybody. There's certain reads that have got to be there for us to be successful."

The ability to play such an aggressive style takes precise, safe plays but also being able to for the defenseman to trust their partner as well as the forwards on the ice proves pivotal in  those situations.

"It's a huge trust factor," Shattenkirk said. "We never pinch on the strong side so as a strongside defenseman, you know that as the puck moves from one side to the other, you're moving and covering over. It's important to have that line of fire behind you.

"I think that's why we've chosen to do this more is because we know how responsible our forwards are and the amount of pressure they put on a team's defense to make those rim plays and keep pucks on the wall. There's no point in letting them get out easy."

From a coach's standpoint, Hitchcock's trusting that the defenseman makes the correct read.

"The trust is that when the guy pinches, he's going to keep the puck in and he's not going to pinch carelessly and allow the puck to go by him," Hitchcock said. "I don't expect him to knock the guy down, but I expect the puck to get punched back.

"We keep it alive in the o-zone. There are reads, and because of the way we play with our cycle game, our defensemen have to be important players here. They have to be active players for us."

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