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How Controlled Zone Entries Will Get the Bruins Back to the Playoffs

Breaking down how the Bruins use neutral zone transitions to generate scoring chances

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Remember the merlot line?

Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton provided a spark of energy on the fourth line, consistently wearing out opponents with their physical style of play. Rarely did they score, but these three provided a great deal of grit and tenacity. Their preferred method of entering the zone? Slapping the puck in and chasing after it, relying on a hard-nosed forecheck to retake control of the puck.

However, this Bruins roster is not the one that won Lord Stanley's Cup five short seasons ago. The physical forces, the likes of Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, have been replaced by more skilled skaters such as Frank Vatrano and David Pastrnak. Without the physicality, the dump and chase method is rather ineffective. In today's NHL, where speed and skill reign supreme and power forwards are a dying breed, a forecheck with speed and numbers generated from passing in the neutral zone is the most effective way to generate scoring chances entering the opponent's zone.

As visible in the above clip, the Bruins generate a scoring chance from a solid pass through the neutral zone and are able to create an odd man rush. Here is how the play breaks down in regards to the neutral zone:

Let's break this down step by step. The defenseman can interchange the puck at will in order to find a forward streaking up the ice. By exchanging the puck, the opposition's forechecker will be deterred and the other forwards in the neutral zone will have to adjust, leaving the defenseman with additional time and space to make a play. The forwards curling low through the zone are paramount because they can catch the puck with speed heading up the ice. it is important to cut low because it presents the defense with a better angle at which to deliver the puck. The forward roaming the opposing line stretches the defense and eliminates their ability to pinch down on the curling forwards and potentially pick off the pass.

In the video of the play, Matt Beleskey has time to shoot because both of the defenders have chosen to back off. One plays David Krejci, the puck carrier, and the other covers David Pastrnak, who is streaking down the weak side of the ice towards the net. Since their are only two defenders with no back-checkers in the play yet, time and space are created for Beleskey by the hard net drive, sucking both defensemen towards their own goaltender. The break-in creates an odd man attack, and by setting up the triangle, passing lanes open up the door for scoring chances.

Let's take a look at another how the Bruins recover through the neutral zone and are able to turn it into a scoring chance:

Following a turnover by the Flames in the neutral zone, the Bruins are able to quickly counter attack. John-Michael Liles quickly taps the puck back to Dennis Seidenberg, which draws two Flames' forwards to him. By backpedaling, Seidenberg further opens the ice to the two forwards cutting under one another above the Bruins' blue line. The forwards have regrouped, which provides them an opportunity to start an attack by pressing into the Flames' zone on a three on two with speed.

Often times penetrating the defense while their forwards are up the ice, it is imperative to use the speed gained from regrouping to create a scoring chance while the defense is trying to assess how to properly cover the incoming rush. It is in this time of that the defense is the most vulnerable: Jen LC tracked 7142 goals scored, and 57% of them occurred within seven seconds of entering the zone.

Plain and simple: being able to regroup and initiate an attack through the neutral zone is instrumental to shot generation and scoring goals.

Using the data and chart provided by Jen LC of the February 9 game where the Kings throttled the Bruins by a score of 9-2, it is remarkable the correlation of controlled zone entries and number of shots.

The Bruins only controlled 31% of their total zone entries, leading to 52 shot attempts. Note that in the first period, when their controlled zone entry rate was 50%, the Bruins amassed 18 shots in only 23 entries, which is an outstanding rate. As they regressed to more dump and chases, the amounts of shots attempted lowered as the zone entries grew. The same can be said for the Kings: in the periods where they had possession of the puck crossing the blue line, they attempted more shots per zone entry.

Sense a pattern?

While the days of the merlot line were fun, the NHL has drifted beyond the days of heavy hitters and enforcers punching each other until their hand breaks. The NHL is all about speed, skill, and puck position, and the way to generate scoring chances and goals is through controlled zone entries. The regroup provides time to build up the counter attack through the neutral zone and push forward on a rush. If the Bruins want to have more success in 2016-2017, the team will need to start to possess the puck entering the zone more.