The Rangers are undecided about which of their three stellar goaltenders will start Game One of their upcoming play-in series against the Carolina Hurricanes. At least, that’s what they are asserting publicly.
“You can make a case for all three guys,” Rangers Head Coach David Quinn told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen in an article published on July 1st. “This is such an uncertain time that that will play out over the course of the two and a half weeks that we’re going to have before we drop the puck,”
Quinn is almost certainly being genuine. Goaltender is a position that is incredibly reliant on repetitions and mindset. This is an unprecedented situation where goaltenders will have a pseudo-offseason and a high-pressure, unforgiving playoff setting following a short training camp. There are no guarantees regarding how each player will respond to the circumstances, and a team with options in net such as the Rangers would be wise to keep an open mind.
Still, Igor Shesterkin is presumed to be the heavy favorite for the job. Quinn had effectively named him the team’s number-one goaltender in February and it’s likely still his position to lose.
There is even further incentive to put Shesterkin in the crease: the Rangers’ play-in opponent.
Per tracking data published by Corey Sznajder, the Hurricanes carry the puck across the blue-line for zone entries just 44.8 percent of the time, ranking them 27th among the NHL’s 31 teams, making them a squad that relies heavily on the dump-and-chase.
While the argument could be made that they have the best defensive corps in the entire league, head coach Rod Brind’Amour does not typically have them carry the puck through the neutral zone. Beyond forwards Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, a dynamic duo who do pretty much everything at an elite level, the Hurricanes possess few above-average puck carriers.
What they do possess, however, is a group of determined, intelligent, organized, and athletic players. They win their fair share of races to the puck, with Jordan Staal in particular being among the league’s best at puck retrievals.
While it’s a strength of theirs, the Hurricanes are more than fine if they lose a puck battle. How they set up on the forecheck will depend on a myriad of factors; what’s the score, what kind of dump was just executed, who is the opponent, what players are on the ice, how fresh is their forward line, and so on. Generally speaking, though, the Hurricanes deploy an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck with two main looks.
The first is to send two forwards (F1 and F2 in hockey lingo) to the strong side and attack the puck with the goal to overwhelm the puck carrier with a numbers mismatch and either win back possession or force a bad decision.
The other main tactic is similar, sending the two forwards aggressively towards the goal line. Except only one forward attacks the strong side while the other forward is tight on the weak side defensive outlet. In this setup, they’re looking to take away the passing outlet a defensive partner offers.
In both setups, the third forward (F3) hovers around the circles to occupy the middle lane and scoop up any pucks that come loose. And the Hurricanes will even push a defenseman aggressively to the half-wall to mark a winger waiting for an outlet and keep pucks in the zone.
At risk of oversimplifying, Carolina’s strategy is to force the puck deep into the offensive zone, make the space as claustrophobic as possible, and dare the opposition to find a way out. It’s an aggressive strategy that’s made possible because Brind’Amour has his team incredibly well organized and trusts his defensemen’s cognitive ability to make the right reads as a second layer of support and knows they have the skating ability to bail his team if there is a breakdown.
The downside of dumping the puck is that the attacking team gives up immediate possession. But that initial victory for the defending team is immediately followed up by a series of problems. Defenders have to quickly pivot and turn 180 degrees and then build up speed once again to chase the puck, surrendering ground to a group of forecheckers who are at maximum forward stride. Even if the defenseman gains possession first, he or she is now facing away from the action and doesn’t have a firm grasp on what options are available.
Kevin Weekes, a current NHL Network analyst who previously played goaltender for both the Hurricanes and Rangers, spoke with Blueshirt Banter and said that a well-executed dump-and-chase system like the Hurricanes deploy creates problems for the team defending it, and particularly for the goaltender.
“It can become a little bit more chaotic. If it’s more of a conventional attacking team, for the most part your D are there and maybe your center is there and at least you can sort out your coverage,” Weekes told Blueshirt Banter. “But if it’s a forecheck off of a hard rim, or a soft dump, or even a slapshot at the goalie, now it’s giving you more things to think about. With the controlled entries, at least your feet are underneath you and you can see all in front of you. It’s less chaotic. You can make some cleaner reads because you can see exactly what’s happening.”
Chaos is a friend of the attacker. If and when the Hurricanes win back possession, the opposition is vulnerable. Players who were positioned to aid in a zone exit now have to scramble into a defensive position, and because their backs were turned, they’re not immediately aware of where the threats may be.
Although not the best example of the Hurricanes’ forecheck setup, you can see the resulting chaos from a forced turnover on the forecheck. When Martin Necas (88) creates a turnover, the Stars don’t have the time and awareness to recognize the full oncoming threat and assign duties. Three Stars stack the middle lane, unaware that an approaching Vincent Trocheck (16) has all the space in the world on the far side to skate into for a pass that puts him in a prime scoring opportunity. In a fraction of a second, the forecheck turned a Dallas possession into a Hurricanes shot on goal.
Here’s another example.
Nashville gets to the puck first, but Carolina’s numbers are overwhelming. They win possession back and work it back to the point. Nashville now has to defend somewhat blindly, and in the chaos of turning around and getting into position they lose Erik Haula (56) at the right circle. The goal post is all that stood between him and a deflection goal.
This is why a goaltender’s ability to direct traffic and call out instructions can be vital. Upon a dump into a team’s defensive zone, he or she is the one person on the defending team who is facing forward at that moment and can therefore see what’s unfolding. How many forecheckers are coming? How close are they in pursuit? Is their weak-side coverage set up? Is your defenseman on the puck Tony DeAngelo, who can skate his way out of pressure, or Ryan Lindgren, who can hold his ground against F1 and wait for support from his partner? Is the approaching forechecker someone like Jordan Eberle or Anthony Cirelli, who will get his stick in passing lanes and dig the puck out from under the puck carrier? Or is it someone like Matt Martin or Zack Kassian, who will plaster the D to the boards with heavy contact?
All of that is part of the mental math the goaltender has to figure out before translating it into a quick instruction to his teammate on what to do once he gets to the puck. The defenseman has trust that his or her goaltender is seeing what he or she can’t and acting in his or her best interest.
“You have to have situational awareness. Your goalie can be a second set of eyes for the ‘D.’ There are things you can see because you’re facing up ice,” Weekes said. “I try to simplify the game for my teammates as much as possible by letting them know as much as possible verbally. If you can be clear and concise as possible you take away the guess work from them.”
There is another role a goaltender can play in countering the Hurricanes’ forecheck: playing the puck himself.
First, let’s look at this clip in which the goaltender chooses not to play the puck against the Hurricanes.
Goalie Antti Raanta hesitates before opting to leave the puck for his defender, Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Regardless of whether that was the right or wrong decision, Ekman-Larsson is in a bad spot. The puck is deep behind the goal line and he’s approaching on his backhand. The Hurricanes have a forechecker on each side leaving him with little space to maneuver. His only real option is to shovel the puck weakly up the wall to Carl Soderberg (34), who is facing the Coyotes’ net. Jake Gardiner aggressively pushes onto his backside, leaving Soderberg nowhere to go with the puck. The Coyotes are trapped and Carolina wins back the puck. Here’s another play from the same game where the Hurricanes trap the Coyotes under similar circumstances.
Now compare those two instances to a similar Hurricanes forecheck against the New Jersey Devils.
It’s not exactly the same situation, as Carolina’s defense is changing. Still, there are similar characteristics on the initial setup. Damon Severson (28) is approaching the puck on his backhand and the Hurricanes have two forecheckers approaching to take away both his space and his partner as a passing option across from him. However, goaltender Louis Domingue comes out to play the puck. This puts the Devils in a much better spot for a few reasons. Let’s look at a still image from right when he gathers the puck.
First, Domingue has bought the Devils time and space. If Severson has to chase that puck behind the net then it’s going to give the Hurricanes time they need. Their two front forecheckers will get to the goal line and the changing Hurricanes’ defensemen will have time to get into the zone. Instead, with Domingue getting there early, the Hurricanes’ five skaters aren’t yet in position to execute their forecheck. It’s no longer a 50/50 battle from the onset.
Second, rather than Severson having to chase behind the net to collect the puck, he is instead free to peel away as a passing outlet. Now the Devils have the numbers advantage and the Hurricanes forecheckers, unable to cover everything, have to make choices. The initial forechecker, Svechnikov (37) decides to pressure Domingue on the puck. That leaves Will Butcher (8) wide open on the weak side. Domingue wisely reverses to him and now Butcher has all the time in the world to make a play. The Hurricanes’ forecheck is broken. Now Severson, who didn’t have to collect behind the goal line, is moving up ice with Greene.
The Hurricanes’ forecheck is incredibly aggressive and the longer it takes the defending team to collect the puck and set up, the more difficult it will be to navigate through the constricted space. But the downside for Carolina is that, if you can set up your zone exit early, before their forecheckers get in position to apply meaningful pressure and take away options, then they’re going to be exposed in the neutral zone. The Devils got out early and as a result were hardly impeded in their rush into the offensive zone.
“If (the Hurricanes) don’t get the retrievals off the dump, now you’re killing plays and you’re setting your team on the offense. So you’re disrupting the way they play and generate offense,” Weekes explained. “If you can nullify their ability to forecheck… if your goalie can handle it and make a play, then you kill a lot of the momentum and you can dominate more possession.”
Here’s a similar example involving the Winnipeg Jets and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
Of course, the extent to which this works only go as far as a goaltender’s ability to play the puck. A weak puckhandler is going to feel the pressure of a forecheck much like a defenseman. It could mean that the goaltender is more conservative and only plays the puck in low-risk situations. Or, the goaltender could create problems where he himself gives the puck away, flings it into the crowd for a delay of game penalty, or ices it.
But a goaltender with particularly strong ability to play the puck creates a number of opportunities.
“(With) a goalie that’s so adept at handling it, your D don’t necessarily have to come all the way back. Your wingers may be able to fly the zone,” Weekes remarked.
Igor Shesterkin is one of the best puckhandling goaltenders the NHL has seen in a long time. If he is indeed the Rangers’ starter against Carolina, it could give the Rangers a huge advantage. Especially with an arsenal of breakout and transition weapons.
He can allow both defensemen to peel off as passing outlets.
He can expedite play directly to the Rangers wingers who trust him and don’t have to come back too deep for support.
Or, he can create the zone exit himself, throwing the puck over everyone’s heads to forwards cheating up the ice.
The Hurricanes’ objective is to shrink the ice as much as possible and beat you with strength, intuition, and organization. For them, it’s a territory battle. The Rangers want to stretch the ice as much as possible and create room for their skill-heavy roster — Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox, and so on — to make plays. Shesterkin can be a secret weapon who tilts play in the Rangers’ favor. His eagerness to leave the crease and play pucks will cut the time the Hurricanes have to suffocate the Rangers with their forechecking prowess, and his ability to play the puck like a pseudo defenseman will allow the Rangers to get through the neutral zone with possession much easier than most goalies would allow.
The most important job for whichever goaltender the Rangers deploy will be to stop shots from entering the net. But Shesterkin’s expertise in negating a forecheck and creating quick transitions out of the zone could end up being the difference in a tight, best-of-five play-in series.