Hockey TacticsPlayoffs

Systems preview: Mike Sullivan vs. Alain Vigneault

Photo: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Photo: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The table is set for another round of the Penguins and the Rangers, who seem to meet in the playoffs as often as the Caps and the Rangers. This time around, it will be old friend Mike Sullivan, who was an assistant with the Rangers during the John Tortorella days, behind the bench in Pittsburgh. The change in coach means a change in system from the last time they met in the first round (last year).

The biggest change for the Penguins is that they are run a more aggressive style of play compared to Mike Johnston last year. They are more like Dan Bylsma’s Penguins in this regard, even without half their roster, as Pat pointed out. But even without key players, the Penguins enter the playoffs red hot and have really adopted this new style of play effectively.

Breakouts and Forechecks

Even strength play for the Rangers revolves around creating high chance opportunities off the rush with a steady forecheck and set breakouts. Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked as planned this year, as teams are anticipating the breakout plays and cutting them off in the neutral zone. Compounding this is age, faster opponents, and general ineffective passing, and the Rangers are a predictable team that are easy to defend. The Rangers are skilled enough to score often, but being easy to defend is not a recipe for success in the playoffs.

The forecheck is an area where the Rangers need to commit in order to alleviate the issues of being predictable. They are still an effective forechecking team, but are also prone to predictability. the first man in will pressure the puck, and depending on puck location/play, the second will pressure the primary passing option, while the third will pressure the secondary passing option. This is generally an effective 1-2-2 forecheck.

Reverse breakout

Sullivan’s Penguins can counter this by anticipating the pressure and running a reverse breakout. In Kris Letang, they have a tremendous puck mover with great vision. The Penguins are skilled enough to break through the forecheck, and it’s something to watch for.

While the Rangers run a 1-2-2 to cut off options, Sullivan has switched his Penguins to a 2-1-2 in a more direct approach to causing turnovers. Their team speed is a great asset here, sending two guys after the puck carrier and forcing his hand. Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, if on their games, will be tenacious. You should be familiar with the 2-1-2 forecheck, as it’s what Torts used during his tenure here.

Defensive Zone

The Rangers’ defensive zone scheme is well known at this point. Or at least people think they know it. Folks will tell you that the Rangers play straight man coverage. But this is in fact, incorrect. The Rangers play an overload-man hybrid system, designed to overload the half-boards and create turnovers. Depending on puck location, certain players will switch to man coverage, specifically D1 and D2, to create more pressure. This is why you sometimes see defensemen pressuring a forward at the blue line.

This worked like a charm in 2013-2014. It worked last season, although was less effective. It has not worked this season, as age and deteriorating skill sets –along with, in my opinion, improper deployment– have rendered the hybrid ineffective. Effectiveness be damned, this is what the Rangers will run.

Zone Coverage

The Penguins are a much simpler team, running a standard overload and zone system. The zone will look like an overload, and naturally the look will change depending on puck location. If the puck winds up behind the net, you could see them shift to a box+1, pictured below.


Considering the injuries to the Penguins, sustained offensive pressure might be easier to come by. The Rangers have a skilled group of forwards who can exploit openings in the defensive zone. It’s a matter of capitalizing.

Special Teams
1-3-1 Powerplay

Special teams are a doozy for the Rangers. They actually have a pretty successful powerplay now that they are running it through Keith Yandle, but the potential absence of Ryan McDonagh throws a wrench into things. Regardless, they will be running a 1-3-1 or umbrella (more or less a 3-2) powerplay, depending on the unit and how the play is developing. Powerplays in the NHL aren’t creative anymore since the advent of the 1-3-1. Sullivan runs the same hybrid approach as AV. There’s not much else here.

Diamond force

As for the penalty kill, well the Rangers stink. They allow the lateral pass way too much, and it almost always ends up in the back of their net. In fact, they are so bad they allow the same play to happen twice:

Suit covered what the issues are quite extensively, and you should read up on that. It goes beyond allowing that lateral pass, as the Rangers are just soft on the penalty kill all around. The diamond force penalty kill simply doesn’t work anymore for the same reasons why the hybrid zone/man defensive zone schemes don’t work anymore. It’s a major problem for the Rangers.


Sully is a much simpler guy, preferring to run a straight zone with his team on the penalty kill. You’ll see them in your standard diamond or box formations, but Sully will also throw a wedge+1 –the system I want the Rangers to adopt– at you. This is similar to a diamond force, but simpler to execute as it is still just a zone strategy.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what system is run. It matters how the players execute these systems. The Rangers haven’t executed all year. The Penguins only recently started playing well over the last two months. Execution will be key. As clichéd as it sounds, the team that commits the fewest mistakes should come out on top.

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  • Bang up job, Dave.

    Keep the breakdowns coming….. it’ll be a long time until Wednesday night gets here.

    Any thoughts on running a BSB playoff bracket or fantasy playoff pool? The former may be easier and more low maintenance. Good way to keep reader interaction up if you have the resources to run it.

  • Great analysis Dave. I have to admit I like the 2-1-2 forecheck much more than the 1-2-2 because it’s more aggressive and disruptive, especially with slower D. The Rangers will have to get by those two first guys with a quick breakout pass to be sure. I think the key to this series is going to be the PK. The Rangers simply have to be more aggressive & stop the puck watching.

    • Both have strengths/weaknesses. In a 2-1-2, if F3 is out of position, it’s a quick transition for a 3 on 2. The 1-2-2 is safer in that regard, without taking too much away from the forecheck.

      • Outstanding analysis Dave!

        So much depends on whether McDonagh can play sooner rather than later. But the Pens have injuries too, so no excuses.

        I’ve said for as long as I’ve been on this blog….as Kreider goes, so go the Rangers. He was a passenger on the bus for most of this season. Recently, his game has picked up, and we know he’s been a good playoff performer. He MUST step up. Nash too. No more excuses for him either. Your best players have to be your best players. If that doesn’t happen, it makes no difference what AV does or what Hank does. Against this team, the way they are playing, we will be cooked. Our defense is not as effective as it was the last two Springs. We can’t expect to win games 2-1 on a regular basis anymore.

        I read Serby’s Q&A with Brassard on Sunday in the Post. He was asked, how would you describe yourself….he said “I’m a playmaker that can shoot the puck well.” I just shook my head, but hardly surprising. I’d rather his mindset (and the rest of the team for that matter) would be the reverse. I’ll bet if just about every Ranger forward were asked that, that’s what they’d all say. Pass first is the instinct. It drives me nuts with this group. It creates what we’ve seen in past playoffs….the No Margin for Error Rangers that has no “go to guy” the way most other SC teams have, that then have to play shutdown defense and rely on brilliant play from Hank to have any chance. That’s not going to work this year.

        In this playoff season, our mindset MUST change. We are an excellent 5×5 team. Referees tend to swallow their whistles more in post season. Stay out of the box…and please….I’m sending a prayer out on behalf of Hank….how about a novel idea…..the offense carries more of the load for a change!? Relentless forecheck….roll four lines…and please, if there is a hockey god looking over us….please, shoot the puck!!!! Especially if Fleury isn’t in there. And even if he is because he can give up those softies.

        By the way, my greatest fear is that Hags will be the one to beat us…if that happens, then it’s proof that the hockey gods hate us!!!! 🙂

        • I agree with your shoot the puck mantra, but only when a high percentage shot is there. Hayes will shoot from everywhere including from the goal line. True he’s scored a couple of goals that way but I see it as a low percentage shot. The X factor is what Fortunato referenced this morning abt an analysis that shows a high degree of luck plays a role in hockey. I recall Adam Graves saying post 94 Cup that a lot of bounces went the Rangers way through those playoffs. Even in 2014, Rangers were really unlucky, esp Kreider or it could have gone to seven games.

          • I 100% agree Paul. There have just been too many times down low where we pass up the quick shot to make that extra pass, and that drives me nuts. Whenever I listen to the radio broadcasts, Maloney mentions it all the time…..SHOOT! It’s a fine line to be sure.

            And I agree with Fortunato and Graves. Luck plays a huge roll. I remember how many lucky breaks we got in ’94….Richer on the door step right before Matteau. I’ve seen that replay a million times and I still don’t know how the Devils didn’t score there. Then, in the Cup Finals, Games 3 and 4 in Vancouver, there were weird bounces, and I think McLean made a huge stick handling error on one goal.

            No doubt, we were great team, but the hockey gods were smiling on us too.

          • Dave-

            If there was such a thing as a hockey-themed Chinese restaurant, that saying would be in every fortune cookie!

          • Eddie, speaking of fortune cookies my last one said.”Your first love has never forgotten you.” Damn, I can’t remember who my first love was!

      • Of course, which system one plays depends on how aggressively you want to play the game. F3 must be up around the blueline so if there is a successful avoidance of the forecheck by the D, it’s still going to be 3 on 3, in the 2-1-2 scheme. In my mind the 1-2-2 makes it easier for the D to exit the zone because it’s 2 of them vs. one forechecker. With two forecheckers you can hem them in the D-zone & get a cycle going more easily I think. Even on the 1-2-2 sometimes only one guy forechecks, but if he is on the D-man quickly the another forward will move in to forecheck as well so it transmutes in situ.

    • Paul….I just responded on the Game 82 page on the Keenan-Smith debate. Real good stuff. Thanks!

      • If you watched the reunion video, you will see that it was Gutkowski that approached Keenan abt whether the team could win the Cup. Keenan did not approach him or end run Smith as you suggest. Watch the video & you’ll hear Gutkowski say it live. No mistaking that at all. The day late scenario was concocted by Smith & Keenan together so Keenan wouldn’t be “fired”.
        Fron Internet:
        What was the hype around the Rangers before the 93-94 … › … › New York Rangers
        Jan 19, 2013 – 54 posts – ‎22 authors
        Yeah, Keenan and Smith fought fought fought. Smith didn’t want to hire Keenan, Stanley Jaffe who was the Garden boss back then made the …

        • You are making this very difficult….which I really like! :). I shall go back and review the video when I have some time.

          In the end of the day, after so many years, I think the real verdict is that there is a great deal of truth in all the perspectives. None of these guys were perfect. But it is fair to say that all of them are and will always be champions.

  • You guys hear about Ed Snider? Heard he was a bad guy, but never heard why. Regardless, he brought hockey to Philly, and while the Flyers are our big rival, this news is sad.

      • It is sad news. I think the issue with him that made him unpopular with some is he was one of the maverick owners, along with Jacobs, who were allegedly the svengalis behind the two lockouts over the past decade.

        Beyond that, I never heard anything bad about him.


  • Did you all hear about Don Maloney? Out in Arizona. Apparently a major front office shakeup. Somewhat surprising, given the draft picks and young players he’s accumulated. Seems like he made some great trades to build for the future, as we well know.

    Just a reminder…..this is a win now business. Anyone who is looking forward to our rebuild as we reinvent the 2007 Rangers need to realize that coaches and GMs often aren’t around anymore when the rebuild is complete, if it ever is.

    • Looks like he lost a power struggle. They are going to go for “win now” instead of the way Maloney was building it. It’s brutal, since whoever comes in will get credit for Maloney’s work.

      But then again, if they want to win now, they may be in the market for some bad contracts.

      • Wishful thinking, but I can almost guarantee that Girardi/Staal/Nash would turn down a trade to the desert.

    • All I know abt Don Maloney is that he made some of the worst draft picks in Ranger history. Never thought much of him to be truthful as a front office guy but I do like Dave Tippett as a coach & was really disappointed when Slats took Trottier over him.

        • So, checking Maloney’s bio, he was the Rangers Director of Player Personnel from 1996-2007.

          Some of the picks front that era….

          1996 #1 Jeff Brown….BUST

          1997 #1 Stefan Cherneski….got injured….BUST. They did draft Mike York in the 6th round. Solid player….do you know he’s still playing in Germany?!

          1998 #1 Manny Malhotra….had a nice enough career. Obviously never became the player the Rangers thought he would be. 3rd round got Jason LaBarbera. 5th round they got Pat Leahy, who would have been great on kickoffs if only the NHL had that. 🙂

          1999 #1 Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark….just typing the names makes me cringe….DOUBLE BUST!

          That was the end of the Neil Smith Era. Then Sather came on board and….

          2000 No number one. #2 Filip Novak….BUST. But they made a nice selection at number three with Dominic Moore. Then there was this goalie from Sweden at number 7, but I forget his name. 🙂

          2001 #1 Dan Blackburn. If he hadn’t gotten hurt, who knows? But end of day, the pick was a bust. Number 2 was a solid one in Fedor Tyutin. Number 6 also solid with Marek Zidlicky.

          2002 No number one….actually the whole draft was a bust for the Rangers…although there was the bizarre rise and fall of the famous Petr Prucha, whom the Rangers got at number 8.

          2003 #1 Hugh Jessiman…BUST. Also Nigel Dawes at number 5 was ok.

          2004 ..#1 Al Montoya….although he’s had a solid career as a backup, he’s a BUST. Also at number one….Lauri Korpikoski….solid role player, but not a number one. Semi-BUST. But in the second round they got Dubinsky and the 4th round Callahan. Good selections.

          2005…#1 Marc Staal….while not the star you might want with the #12 overall pick, hard to argue with the this one. Also selected Michael Sauer at #2 and who knows what might have been.

          2006..#1…..Bobby Sanguinetti….BUST. But, made a very good selection at number 2 with Artem Ansimov.

          After that, Gorton took over.

          Now, I’m not sure within the hierarchy of the organization who is ultimately responsible for the selections. But if it was Maloney who made most of these recommendations, then I’d say Paul is right. He failed epically in NY. But again, certainly seemed like the last few years, he’s made smart moves to rebuild in Arizona.

          I’m looking at that list and shuddering at the thought of how brutal a rebuild could be. For the most part, what a rogues gallery of failure!

          • Thanks Eddie, I’d forgotten most of them but you did a good job there. Maloney set the franchise back 20 years with his choices.

          • Eddie , the back in time nostalgia thing has me thinking, Go back, Rangers try to acquire ( at one time it was posted as a done deal) A rookie by the name of Eric Lindros, in exchange for John Vanbiesbrouck, Alex Kovalev, Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, Cash & Draft picks. I often wondered how a young and then in his prime Lindros would have produced in a Ranger Jersey??

          • I remember that very well. Would that trade, in hindsight, have made us better or worse? Really, really hard to say.

            Hard to imagine we would have had the depth to win the Cup, given who was dealt. No Kovalev. No Cup. No Weight? Then no trade for Tikkanen. No Amonte? No chance of getting Matteau and Noonan.

          • A few quick retorts:

            1999 – everyone except the Sedins were busts. That draft sucked.

            2003 – this was actually Renney, not Maloney. Renney pushed for Jessiman.

            2004 – yea that stunk.

            Clark took over, not Gorton.

          • Good corrections, Dave. I probably should have dove into this a little more thoroughly but didn’t have the time.

            I’m not sure we can say it was Maloney specifically that was responsible for any of this anyway. But I think it is fair to say that, in a collective sense, this ten year period was as bad an organizational failure drafting wise as any franchise has ever seen….especially given the favorable drafting position we had. In my view, it’s the primary reason why a very good but not elite level team hasn’t quite been able to kick down the door. If we had hit on just one standout star, we likely have at least one Cup by now.

  • Dave, I can’t usually watch the Rangers in the playoffs because of nerves, but it sounds like you are telling us we needn’t bother….? Unless we are quite lucky we’re goners?

    • Well, let’s just say the Penguins are favorites for a reason. The Rangers have to demonstrate an ability to play very differently than they have for large parts of the season.

      The question is, do we buy into the fact that the Rangers were coasting the whole season, and now that the playoffs are here, they can turn it on and play a different game? Who knows, but I typically don’t buy into those narratives.

      Lundqvist is going to have to be huge.

      • Nobody at CBS like ’em…Adam Gretz and Chris Peters have the Pens in 6 and 5 games, respectively.

        Time for the team to start adopting the “Nobody Believes in Us!” rallying cry.

    • All we can hope for is that it’s like the year we were last seed and knocked off the first seed Nordiques. That blown call on Kovie really helped too.

  • So being the lunatic that I am, I’m recording everything there is to record about the Stanley Cup and the Rangers. Watching the Michael Kay Show, and he and LaGreca interviewed AV. First of all, AV sounded very, very confident. Almost an edge to his voice that sounded like….just you wait all you doubters! What he did actually say is that this group is very focused. They know how to play at this time of year. He thinks his team is the best in the field. Confidence? Over confidence? Fooling himself? We shall see.

    More revealing was the discussion about defense. Assuming no McDonagh, and assuming Girardi plays, don’t necessarily assume Skjei plays. AV said that he has to decide between Skjei or McIlrath. As we all remember, when McDonagh was out with the concussion, Boyle slid over to the left side and McIlrath played. Don’t be surprised if that’s the way AV plays it. McIlrath has played well, and Skjei, even though he’s lefty, lacks NHL experience. By comparison, McIlrath is a grizzled veteran, and AV likes players with experience.

    But another twist is Raffy Diaz. Not for Game 1 obviously. But AV said once the Wolfpack’s season is done, and when and if Diaz is finally healthy, he likely will be one of the black aces and certainly would be in the mix to start if McDonagh isn’t back.

        • True, but just remember, call ups of this nature are organizational decisions, not solely coaching decisions. For example, AV didn’t have the final call as to whether to sign Glass, then waive Glass, then recall Glass. That’s a front office call. It would be the same with Diaz. If the Hartford people are saying that when Diaz is healthy, he’s been their best defenseman, then their may be validity to such a decision. I don’t think any of us know which player would indeed be best suited to fill in. We’re not in Hartford.

          Obviously, AV has input, probably a lot of input. But if they do go with Diaz at some point, that likely means the reports from Hartford say that’s the best way to go.

          • The organizational decisions are driven by what the coach says his needs are.

            If Vigneault says he needs a mobile left-handed defenseman, Hartford will advise as to who that is.

            If Vigneault says he needs a right-handed #7 who can back-up the power play, Hartford will advise as to who that is also.

            In short, Vigneault dictates the process; not the other way around.

            Diaz scored a few goals during pre-season and was an abomination on defense; always has been and his offensive stats have never matched apparent skills. Vigneault seems to think odds favor this coming through after 6-7 years as a journeyman. Good luck with that.

          • I think it’s a little more balanced than you say. The coach may want something, sure. But if the folks in Hartford, and/or the front office say, “AV, we’ve been watching this guy, and frankly, he’s not a better option than what you have”, it’s highly improbable that a move would be made. If it’s a wash, then sure, coach’s preference prevails.

            But if what you say is true, then I would say it means either AV’s opinion is so highly respected and regarded in the front office, that he will have a long leash in terms of his coaching lifespan within the organization. Or, in the reverse, he would be defying the scouting report within his own organization, and in that case, if the move backfires, it’s on him and could cost him his job. I doubt seriously Diaz is the hill he’d be willing to die on.

            Other than some clips, AV hasn’t likely had time to scout Diaz this season. If he’s recalled, it may be coach’s preference, but it’s highly improbable that the move could happen unless Hartford and the front office advise him that is the right move to make.

            And, for whatever it’s worth, I thought when Diaz had to fill in in the 2014 SCF run, he was solid. The guy has playoff experience, so that’s worth something.

          • I am not sure how a comment regarding Diaz translates into Vigneault’s tenure as Rangers coach but your acrobatic ability to promote Vigneault is impressive.

            Daniel Paille has NHL playoffs experience too. There is no value in that, and there is no value to Raph Diaz being on the Rangers, in my view. But Vigneault seems to like this player as an option for the playoffs matchup vs Pittsburgh. Again, good luck with that.

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