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Aggressive vs. Passive Forecheck: What will work best against the Leafs?

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Evaluating opportunities and potential weaknesses for the Bruins’ forecheck heading into the first round

NHL: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Where we Stand

In the first article of this series, we briefly covered the Maple Leafs breakout. If you’d like to read that article you can find it here. The Maple Leafs use aggressive forward routes, leading to a lower percentage of controlled exits, but also fewer failed exits as well. This is one of the reasons the Leafs are regarded as a “fast” team.

In the second article, we dove in much deeper detail. We poured through some data to find some interesting trends that occur when the Bruins and Maple Leafs meet. The Bruins keep the Maple Leafs low in the zone and close to the boards. This has led to great success for the Bruins. However, even though the Bruins deploy two or more forecheckers below the faceoff dots on 71% of forechecks following an entry against the Leafs, they are more successful when they only deploy one. In this article we will look into why that may be, and determine whether or not the Bruins should look to deploy the 1-2-2 forecheck more frequently.


Why a less aggressive forecheck may be more successful

Before we get to the answer of whether or not there is evidence that suggests the Bruins should use a more conservative forecheck, let’s dive into some reasons why that may be the case.

A forecheck in hockey is very similar to zone coverage in football. Teams split the offensive zones into sections, with players covering specific sections of ice.

The zonal structure of a 2-1-2 spread
Mike Pheil

In the image above, Connor Clifton is shoulder-checking on his way to retrieving a Maple Leaf dump-in. Based on the position of the forwards, Clifton reads a 2-1-2 spread. Patrick Marleau will cover zone 1. The F2, in this case Nazem Kadri, will cover zone 2. The F3, who is out of the picture, will cover in zone 3, but may jump up into zones 1 or 2 if the opportunity presents itself.

By deploying two forwards in the lower third of the zone, there is only one forward in the middle third, leaving less coverage up the ice. To stick to our football analogy, this is similar to a zone blitz. A 1-2-2 adds more coverage up ice, but also gives the puck carrier more time and space to make a play.

With this in mind, it is important to consider the routes, or strategy, the Leafs will take to exit the zone. The most frequent way the Leafs have looked to exit against the Bruins is the up, which they use about 28% of the time.

The basic up

The objective of the up is to move the puck up ice as quickly as possible. As you can see above, the up will consist of support from a winger along the boards, as well as a center swinging in. The weakside winger will take a route to push the opposing defensemen back and become a threat up ice. It should be noted that every team, including the Maple Leafs, will alter the basic up. For example, the Leafs are known for overloading the strong side of the ice.

Based on a zonal system, we’d probably prefer only one forechecker below the faceoff dots, one taking away the support along the boards, and one taking away the center of the ice which should deter the puck carrier from passing the puck to the center, or streaking winger.


The Verdict

After looking back on all of the times the Bruins only deployed one forechecker below the faceoff dots, I don’t feel that it would be advantageous for the Bruins to switch up their strategy against the Leafs. Some of these instances lacked context. For example, a dump-and-change when one or two of the forwards from the new line are on the ice. It’s strange that the Leafs struggle on these occasions, but meaningless when it comes to strategy.

However, I did find some great instances to prove the point of “structure follows strategy,” and how the Bruins apply it.

In the clip above, the puck doesn’t get very deep. This forces the Leafs into an awkward situation. Bergeron is the first forechecker in, and is looking to control the opposing defenseman. He does not want to allow his opponent to be able to play the puck cleanly up ice. Ideally, Bergeron would like to force the play behind the net where Pastrnak would then come in and support him. Instead, the puck carrier chooses to go up ice, but can’t complete a clean, quick pass thanks to Bergeron’s pressure. Reading the play, Marchand pressures the player who receives the puck along the boards, which is enough to force an uncontrolled exit.


Summary

This concludes the section of the Bruins forecheck. Let’s review the key points to take away:

  • The Maple Leafs use aggressive forward routes, pushing back opposing defensemen, and is one of the reasons they are regarded as a “fast” team. This causes them to control fewer exits, but also lowers their failure rate (think turnovers).
  • The Bruins have been very successful forechecking against the Maple Leafs this season, keeping them low in the zone and close to the boards.
  • Structure follows strategy. The Bruins are looking to shut down the boards and keep the play low in the zone. It doesn’t matter whether they are in a 1-2-2, 2-1-2, 2-3, etc. Many times, they will resemble two or more formations in one sequence. It’s about reading and reacting to the play.