June 02, 2010
There was a time in the NHL when an uncontested forward's job was to fire the puck into the opponents' zone, hop on his horse, and try to help his team win that puck back.
It was inevitable that this practice would die. I mean.... You just HAD the puck.
Chicago is the perfect example of a team whose last resort is dump-and-chase.
Coaches in the past have allowed their top-liners to take some chances at the blue lines (a crucial place on the ice), but have generally expected their secondary players to make the safe decision.
When your "secondary" guys are names like Kris Versteeg(notes) and Patrick Sharp(notes), it's pretty easy to offer up one gigantic green light. Think about Chicago's second goal in Game 2 — in what generation does a 260-pound forward slip the puck to a 230-pound forward for a rush chance instead of firing it into the zone the second he crosses the red line?
Philadelphia has plenty of players that offer the same threat. Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux(notes), and even a guy like James van Riemsdyk(notes) is far too talented to forfeit the puck without good reason.
Skill has evolved to the point where the odds of creating a chance outweigh the odds of making a turnover.
And, skill has evolved to the point where Duncan Keith(notes) isn't going to puke the puck right back to the opposing team when he retrieves it. In fact, he's just as likely to trap a couple forecheckers with a cute pass and start his team gunning the other way.
I'm aware that dump-and-chase has its value. But when you have any other option, the majority of players are learning to take that one.
(Let me rephrase that — coaches are learning to let the majority of players take that one.)
We've even seen the growing acceptance of the neutral zone curl-back. It used to be that teams would mount their charge, and if it was well defended, they'd say "well all right then. Well done, here it is. Your turn to take a crack at us."
Now, players will often recognize quality coverage, and loop all the way back through the neutral zone to take another run at it.
For NHL defensemen, a massive emphasis on stopping rushes and forcing the dump is having good gap control. If the distance between them and the oncoming forwards is too large, the forwards can crisscross inside the blue line and get creative. If they're too close to the rush, they can get beat wide.
So when an opposing forward heads back into his zone to ramp up for a second rush, it's a hugely difficult play to counter (while retrieving a dump-in and getting hit may be less fun, it certainly isn't as scoreboard threatening). The D-men have to stop, get up to nearly center, then pivot and head backwards again, all while keeping an eye on the other forwards.
Between the curl-back and forwards' improved ability to use tools like speed-changes (Ovy), short passes (Keith) and sharp changes in direction (Gomez), the majority of teams have relegated the dump-and-chase to a limited number of circumstances. These days, you pretty much only use it when you're: under intense pressure, up goals in the third, need a line change or have an average TOI of under five minutes.
The Stanley Cup Finals has been a battle of puck possession, and thus far, Chicago has controlled the play. Wednesday night, it's going to be crucial for Philadelphia to keep the puck out of the hands of their talented opponents.