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How the Bruins exploit the Leafs on breakouts

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Analyzing what the Bruins do well to beat the Leafs’ forecheck

NHL: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Introduction

In the last article, we discovered that the Bruins are far more successful at exiting the zone when the Leafs only deploy one forechecker below the faceoff dots. In this article, we will look to address why that may be.


How the Bruins Breakout Against Conservative Forechecks

Before we look at the film to determine why the Bruins are more successful against conservative forechecks, it’s important to note the strategies that they deploy in order to try to exit the zone.

Bruins Exit Strategy Against One Forechecker

event_type CEX_Percentage SEX_Percentage wSEX_Percentage Usage
event_type CEX_Percentage SEX_Percentage wSEX_Percentage Usage
Controlled 100% 100% 88% 2%
Goalie 31% 63% 33% 30%
Misc 100% 100% 88% 2%
Over 50% 50% 44% 4%
Reverse 67% 100% 65% 6%
Rim 33% 75% 37% 22%
Up 70% 100% 67% 19%
Wheel 33% 78% 38% 17%

The most used exit “strategy” is an exit that starts with the goalie playing the puck. Surprisingly, the Bruins do quite well here, but this isn’t really a strategy as much as a circumstance. The most used strategy after that is a rim. The Bruins control a third of their exits and don’t turn over the puck too often in this circumstance. However, these exits look more like the one below.

In this case, the Bruins are really facing a dump-and-change, with Matthews performing a fly-by on Carlo. Still, I think it’s important to understand the Carlo is using the boards to speed up the play in this case. He could have wheeled around the net, but he can pass the puck faster than he can skate. By using the boards, he prevents a third forward from coming into the play.

This theme also continues with up plays. Without pressure, the Bruins puck carriers take the extra second to find passing lanes.

Because of a line change, the Leafs are missing a presence in the slot. Anders Bjork recognizes this and takes a tight turn up the ice. Matt Grzelcyk also does a good job of reading and reacting to the play as opposed to rimming the puck around the boards. This gives the Bruins a chance to march through the neutral zone with speed.

Believe it or not, the play above did not stem off of a dump-and-change. Either the Maple Leafs were confused, of they chose to concede the offensive blue line in order to try to stop the Bruins in the neutral zone. Either way, it doesn’t work. Because of this, the Bruins run what looks like a set play. When Marchand receives the stretch pass in the neutral zone, he has support to make another pass.

As I was reviewing these clips, I became curious as to whether or not the Bruins were able to complete longer passes, or even skate longer distances, when facing a less aggressive forecheck.

There are rarely three forecheckers sent below the faceoff dots on entries, so the sample is very limited there. While I think there may be a higher ceiling for long passes leading to exits under conservative forechecks, I don’t see this as a major factor. Furthermore, I found the skating distances to be rather random.

The Bruins aren’t afraid to push the pace when the Leafs don’t challenge them. This is reflected in their usage of rim plays as well as up plays. While some of these occur when the Leafs are changing one or two forwards, their willingness to push the pace helps them avoid pressure and get through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone.


Against the Grain

We know the Bruins are successful at exiting the zone when the Maple Leafs don’t pressure them aggressively, but what do the Bruins do well when the Leafs do bring a lot of pressure?

Ryan Stimson wrote about how powerful reversing the breakout and going against the grain of the forecheck back in 2016. He found that the rate of over and reverse plays could explain about 70% of possession breakouts. While the Bruins don’t deploy an over strategy all that much, they do reverse the puck frequently.

When the Bruins reversed the puck against aggressive forechecks (2 or more forcheckers below the faceoff dots), they were able to control nearly half of their exit attempts, and successfully exit the zone on two-thirds of these attempts. The Bruins aren’t very successful against aggressive Leaf forechecks as a whole, controlling only around 21% of their exit attempts, so this success is shocking.

Being able to reverse the play is tough, but if you can execute it properly, it can work wonders.

I hate how broadcasts will change the camera on dump-ins. It makes this brilliant play a lot harder to digest. Moore receives hard, but rather reckless forechecking pressure from Nazem Kadri. Rather than rimming the play up the boards, he makes a hard pivot and reverses the play. The second Maple Leafs forechecker, who is in an awkward spot below the faceoff dots but away from the boards, looks silly. Moore is able to push the play up the boards to Heinen. Following his pass, Moore is able to join the rush and control the exit.

I would refer to this as magic from John Moore. The Maple Leafs are in a 2-1-2, and the first two forwards are executing the play properly. The F3, in this case Connor Brown, is expecting the play to continue to the weakside. His skates are pointed in that direction prior to Moore reversing. This causes him to loop around rather than being able to take a direct route to shut down the passing lane. The result is a controlled exit.

Reversing the breakout is much easier said than done. It’s also contextual. If there is no need to reverse the play based on what the forecheck throws at you, don’t reverse the play. What these reverse plays stem from is a philosophy of possessing the puck. While every team aims to do this, some teams don’t have a high enough tolerance for the potential turnover.


Summary

The Bruins push the pace against conservative forechecks. This increases their controlled exit percentage as well as setting them up for success in the neutral zone. The Bruins can also combat aggressive forechecks by reversing the play if they have the option.