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Playing the System: 2-on-1 Defense

It's time to put an end to the age-old strategy of letting the goalie take the shooter on 2-on-1 rushes.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the oldest hockey proverbs deals with 2-on-1's and it states: "thou shalt giveth the shooter to the goalie". It's a guiding principle we Canadian kids heard from the likes of Don Cherry up in Canada, it's something I see at all levels of hockey today, it's even something we see at times in the NHL, and it's almost always praised by commentators and color analysts... when it works that is. The prevalence of this strategy is astounding, especially when you consider that it just does not work!

Want proof? These plays happened within five days of each other. Two different Wild defenseman employing an out-dated and ineffective strategy.

This is a league where guys have the accuracy to shoot drones out of the air, so with all due respect to the goalies, mayyyybe they should get a little help with the shooter. It's not that goalies aren't going to stop the shooter on some of these plays, it's that the best case scenario using this approach is that the goalie is forced to make a save on a high-danger scoring chance. Yes, you read that right, using this strategy we are rolling out the red carpet for some of the most talented shooters in the world and saying "here, have at it, I'm doing my job!"

Let's take a deeper look at the Ehlers goal to see how poorly this strategy can play out.

Ehlers, the definition of a shoot-first player, brings the puck into the zone at a decent pace. As he enters the zone there is a heavy back-check coming from Vanek (he is chugging!) and Spurgeon. It's pretty clear that neither Vanek or Spurgeon will get back in time to break up any passes, but their back pressure means that this would have to be a shot from Ehlers, or a quick pass and one-timer from Scheifele. Any delay or multiple pass play is eliminated by the back-check.

The delay play being eliminated matters because that means any danger of Suter sliding across to get in the shooting and passing lane is virtually eliminated. If Suter lays down with no back-check coming, Ehlers simply slows up, dances around him and walks in alone, a la Granlund vs. the Blues in overtime on Saturday. 

At this point, Scheifele opens up his hips in preparation for the one-timer. Ehlers does a great job in selling the one-time option by not taking his eyes off of Scheifele after crossing the blue line. Obviously a one-timer from where Scheifele is standing in the slot is a very high-danger shot, but if Ehlers is allowed to skate in 10 more feet, he's in a similarly tasty scoring location. This is the point where it would be optimal to see Suter start a slide across the ice to take away as much of the passing lane as he can, as well as taking away the bottom of the net as a shooting option for Ehlers. Worst case scenario with Suter sliding across is that Ehlers makes a great pass to Scheifele, who one-times it for a goal. Best case scenario is the play is broken up without a shot attempt.

Instead, Suter chooses to just shadow Scheifele leaving Ehlers to walk in unabated on Kuemper. Look where Ehlers gets to shoot this puck from! 

Offensive players- especially a natural shooter like Ehlers- love nothing more than a pressure-free, wide open look at the net like this. They're going to score from this position, like, a lot.

How should the 2-on-1 be defended? Well, it's a little more intricate than just laying down in the middle of the ice, but it's really not too complicated.

Note: No defense of a 2-on-1 is perfect. The defenseman is at a disadvantage from the start and so no matter how well the rush is played, there will still be goals scored.

To most effectively defend a 2-on-1, the defenseman has to diagnose multiple factors about the two players making the rush. Basically, by the blue line that defenseman needs to identify the following:

  • Tendencies of the player carrying the puck- is he a shooter or passer?
  • Handedness of both players- is the guy carrying it on his off-wing, giving him a better shooting angle, and is the non puck-carrier a one-time option?
  • Is their any back pressure coming from his teammates that could eliminate a pass across or a delay option by the puck-carrier?

Now this may seem like a lot to process, but most, if not all of these things are inherently processed by players at this level. From this diagnosis of the play, the defenseman decides whether to shade towards the puck-carrier or secondary option early in the rush. If there's a guy who loves to shoot off the rush, taking away his shot and forcing him to make a pass is the primary objective. Got a guy coming in who's not on his off-wing (naturally putting the puck in an outside position), well then taking away the pass becomes the primary objective.

What looks like a guy randomly diving to the ice in a last ditch effort to break up a rush should actually be a fairly calculated maneuver. Here's how the process should look:

Sliding across to take away the pass and shot on a 2-on-1 is not always going to break up the play. Sometimes the defenseman may look foolish as he miss-times his slide, or gets toe-dragged, but at least he will be forcing the puck-carrier to make a play. Defenseman are literally earning a living based on their instincts on defending plays, and so they should actually make an attempt at breaking up a scoring chance. It is time to stop allowing them to roll out the red carpet for oncoming rushers just because at some point in time it was decided that the goalie can take the shooter.