Two days ago I was having a discussion with someone about the Rangers and defending two-on-ones. Sure enough, later at night the Rangers would face two of them against the Islanders; one defended well by Dylan McIlrath and the other sub-optimally by Marc Staal. It made me want to take a closer look at how the Rangers perform in these situations.
On two-on-one opportunities, the defenseman takes the pass and the goalie takes the shot. It's one of the basic principles of defending in hockey. It is the first thing I remember learning about playing defense when I was still using rubber stoppers on the back of my roller blades as a child. The logic is that by taking away the passing option, the goaltender knows exactly what to expect the puck carrier to do; shoot. And with the goaltender afforded ample time to frame himself to the puck carrier, it's much easier to prevent a goal than if he was forced to move across his crease, get set, and react in the time that a one-timer (or close to) occurs on a pass.
One of the benefits of all of the new statistics that are being established is that they can put conventional hockey wisdom to the test. Sometimes, they completely blow it out of the water. In the case of defending the two-on-one, the numbers on the Rangers so far this season confirm it.
As of today, Henrik Lundqvist has been in net for 26 situations in which two opposing players entered the zone with the puck against one Ranger skater. The data becomes interesting when broken down by shot type, however. The two main shot types that Lundqvist has faced on two-on-ones are "clear sight" shots and shots from passes across the slot. Here are examples of the clear sight shots.
In these examples, Lundqvist has complete sight of the shot's release. He has plenty of time to square himself to the puck. And for a good goaltender like Henrik Lundqvist, that means he has the distinct advantage. In fact, this season Lundqvist has saved all fifteen of these kinds of shots that he has faced on two-on-one zone entries.
On the other hand, Lundqvist has faced six slot line shots in these situations, such as these examples.
In these examples, Lundqvist has to completely change his angle. He has to move laterally while at the same time track the puck and the stick blade of the player receiving the pass. And then he has to make a save with almost no time to set himself. It's no wonder that Lundqvist has saved just two of the six shots like this so far this season.
The goal here should be to use this information and figure out how to minimize passes across the slot on these rushes. Here's a slowed down look at Dan Boyle successfully defending one against the Devils.
Dan Boyle has this defended perfectly, more or less. His spacing between the puck carrier (Stempniak) and the far-side forward is calibrated correctly so that he is covering the potential pass receiver while still ensuring that Stempniak doesn't have the room to cut inside. His stick is in the way of the passing lane that Stempniak would love to take. Maybe a handful of elite playmakers - Pavel Datsyuk, Mats Zuccarello, Nicklas Backstrom, etc. - find a way to thread the needle or pull off a tape-to-tape saucer, but for most players completing a pass in this situation is extremely unlikely. Stempniak opted to take the shot from the top of the circle, which Lundqvist was of course in position for and had no problem saving.
Now, let's take a closer look at the goal that Tampa Bay scored, highlighted above.
Nobody wants to give up a two-on-one. Nobody wants to give up a two-on-one especially after turning the puck over in the last couple of minutes of a 1-1 hockey game, like McDonagh did on this play. But all things considered, this isn't THAT terrible of a situation. McDonagh has taken a good angle here and, at this point, Filppula (51) is not really a passing option. Puck carrier J.T. Brown being on his off-wing and potentially shooting from the top of the slot makes this a slightly better scoring chance than Stempniak's, but it's still one that Lundqvist handles most of the time. However, here is what the play looks like a split-second later.
McDonagh decided he was going to try to prevent Brown's shot. He closed down on him and reached his stick into the shooting lane, and Brown definitely doesn't have much room to get a good shot off. Mission accomplished in that regard. In the process, however, he completely exposed the passing lane. Look how much space there is between McDonagh's stick and his body. Brown wisely pulls the puck to his backhand and easily slides the puck over to a Filppula. With Lundqvist taking an aggressive angle against Brown, Filppula had a wide open net to shoot into.
In my soccer playing days, we were warned against "trying to be a hero." Trying to make the super ambitious, heroic play rather than the pragmatic, responsible play. In this case, McDonagh tries to "be a hero" by preventing a shot altogether. Instead, he ended up giving Tampa Bay an much better scoring chance than the one he was trying to prevent in the first place. This is something that I've noticed McDonagh is particular doing often in these situations, where he'll leave the passing option exposed in favor of trying to immediately shut down the puck carrier. It does work every so often, but it's not worth the trade off of giving up high-percentage shots like these.
Worst of all, though, is the dreaded "snow angel." The play where the defenseman leaves his feet and is sprawled across the ice.
It's a similar concept to the previous McDonagh play. Marc Staal had decent spacing between the puck carrier, Nate Schmidt, and the weak-side forward, Ovechkin. Schmidt has a path to the net, sure, but with all due respect to him it would take the shot of a lifetime for a player like him to backhand a puck passed Lundqvist from that angle. But Staal chose to take steps towards Schmidt instead of continuing his path backwards. He then decides to dive at Schmidt and try to prevent a pass that way.
The only problem is that Schmidt recognized the situation and delayed, shielding the puck on his backhand and changing the angle. In McDonagh's situation, he at the very least limited Brown's shooting opportunity. But look at this situation that Staal has left for Lundqvist. Because of Schmidt's delay, he still had the backhand shooting opportunity, which Lundqvist is forced to honor. So Lundqvist moves with Schmidt. When Schmidt releases the pass, Lundqvist is moving against the grain. And now Alexander Ovechkin has half of the net to shoot at. Not the best situation, to put it mildly.
The best way to prevent a two-on-one from ending up in the back of your net is to not let one happen in the first place. Over the course of an 82-game season, however, it's going to happen no matter how structurally sound your team is. Clearly, we're not working with huge sample sizes here... yet. Six slot passes and 15 clear sight shots aren't going to move the barometer in a meaningful way. Eventually we'll have league-wide data across multiple seasons and really learn some things. Nonetheless, for now the Rangers have no reason to deviate from the basics when it comes to defending two-on-ones. Prioritize defending the passing option while still keeping the puck carrier honest, and trust that Lundqvist is going to do his job. It's a strategy that has literally worked every time so far this season, and one that should work almost every time going forward. Just as old-school hockey coaches drew it up.