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Breaking Down 3 on 2 Plays

This is the first in a series of posts I will be doing on different plays and systems in hockey. Everything we strive to identify and measure with statistics, which is usually my focus, is based on what the players are doing on the ice, yet much of what happens there is shrouded in mystery for many hockey fans. Some of the most experienced and insightful hockey analysts I know are still learning about the game all of the time. Hopefully, this series will help you and I learn a little more about the X’s and O’s (or F’s and D’s) of hockey and give us a better understanding and appreciation of the game. Just like different coaches and teams have different approaches to playing the game, my approach here may be a little different than what you learned or know. That’s okay. Discussion about the different ways to handle these situations will lead to more learning for everyone, me included.

The first thing I want to tackle is something that is usually pretty exciting during the game, a 3 on 2. For this article, we’ll focus mainly on the attacking players. The 3 on 2 happens when three players are attacking the offensive zone against 2 defending players. The attacking players should try to build up speed or continue with speed so that other players cannot catch up to the play and defend against them. Obviously, having an extra body on your side is an advantage so unless there is no other feasible option, slowing the play down is not what the attacking players want to do. There are several set plays that teams use in 3 on 2 situations, but of course, upon reading the coverage by the defensemen and pressure from the backcheckers, many times the attacking players need to improvise. So long as the play keeps moving forward to take advantage of the odd man rush situation, most of these improvisations work pretty well.

For the breakdowns below:

F1 = Puck carrier

F2 & F3 = Players joining the rush

D1 = Defending player initially covering F1

D2 = Defending player away from F1

Backcheckers = Defending players chasing the rush by F1, F2 & F3

The first 3 on 2 we’ll look at illustrates the main purpose of carrying speed into the attacking zone to take advantage of the odd man situation.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues 10/25/2014

F1 (Saad) carries the puck into the attacking zone wide while F2 (Hossa) and F3 (Toews) accelerate together and drive the net.

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D1 decides to cover F1 closely, which pulls him toward the boards and away from the net. F2 and F3 continue to drive to the net with speed forcing D2 to be isolated on the play. These actions essentially create a 2 on 1 situation (F2 & F3 vs. D2) in front of the net.

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F1 is well covered by D1 and is unable to cut back toward the middle of the ice to pass or shoot as he would normally prefer to do in a 3 on 2 Triple Drive.

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F1 shoots the puck toward the goalie’s far pad looking for either a deflection by or a rebound for F2 and F3. In this case, F3 is able to get his stick on the puck for a Shot On Goal (SOG) forcing the goalie to make a save. Because of the chaos created by this drive, the goalie was unable to avoid a rebound and possession by the attacking team continued.

Detroit Red Wings vs. Boston Bruins 11/27/2013

This is a good example of a 3 on 2 High Triangle.

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F1 (Frazen) carries the puck into the zone wide and with speed. F3 (Helm) matches F1’s position on the ice in the mid-seam. F2 (Abdelkader) trails behind  F1 and F3 forming a triangle as they drive toward the net.

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 F1 makes a move around D1 who is covering him closely. Because F3 is driving toward the net with speed, D2 must choose to either let the attack go unabated and cover F2 or try to stop F3’s net drive. D2 decides to try to tie up F3 to stop the net drive. This leaves F2 unmarked as he speeds toward the net with only a backchecker trailing him.

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F1 shoots the puck low on the ice at the goalie’s pads likely hoping to sneak the puck in 5 hole or for a rebound. F3 has managed to pull D2 with him on his rush and is preventing D1, who has not recovered his balance after F1’s rush, from rejoining the play. As such, when the puck rebounds off of the goalie’s pads to the low slot, F2 is free to one time the puck into the back of the net.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Philadelphia Flyers 10/21/2014

This is a good example of a 3 on 2 Midlane Drive and of the ability of a defenseman to join the rush and essentially act as a forward.

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F1 (Smith) carries the puck into the offensive zone with speed. F2 (van Riemsdyk) is actually a defenseman who happened to be in the middle of the defensive zone when the rush began. F2 is focused on building speed through the neutral zone and must be mindful, as must F3, to keep himself onside. F3 drives into the attacking zone wide.

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After gaining the zone, F2 drives the net between D1 and D2 drawing D2 with him in an attempt to stop the rush. F1 heads to the faceoff circle while reading: 1) the gap D1 is keeping on him, 2) D2’s decision to either cover F2 or F3 and 3) backchecking pressure on F3. F1’s read of the coverage should tell him that D1 is closing his gap to prevent him from making a pass or moving toward the inside, D1 has already positioned himself to make a pass to F2 very difficult, D2 is covering F2 as he drives to the net leaving F3 uncovered and finally, the backcheckers are close but not yet in position to prevent a pass to F3.

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While this coverage read is going on for F1, F3 is moving toward the middle of the ice and preparing to receive a pass and shoot. F1 passes to F3 prior to the backchecker gaining position to prevent the pass. F3 is free to shoot. It is also important to note here that the backchecker is unable to provide any other defensive support against F3’s shot because his attempt to break up the pass from F1 to F3 resulted in him lying on the ice.

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This view of the play is very helpful to show how the wide path on the rush by F1 and F2’s drive between the defending players on the same side as F1 have pulled both defensemen away from the eventual shooter, F3. Further, because of the speed carried by the players and their stick position (by their sides, ready to pass, receive a pass or shoot), the goalie has been pulled toward them as well. As F3 readies himself to receive the puck and shoot, he has no defensive coverage in front of him and is looking at an open net.

The New York Rangers successfully executed a nearly identical play to this against the Flyers on November 29, 2014.

There were a few small differences in the way the teams carried out the 3 on 2 Midlane Drive.

rangers 4 LABEL

F1 for the Rangers (Hayes) did not take as wide a path into the zone as Smith did for Chicago. F1’s pass to F3 (Brassard) came from the inside of the faceoff circle instead of the outside and as you can see in the picture above, F1’s path being less wide did not spread the defending players as much, nor did it pull them away from F3 as much.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Buffalo Sabres 10/11/2014

Because of the decisions made by the defending players during this 3 on 2, the attacking players improvised a bit.

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F1 carries the puck in wide with F2 near him. F3 enters the zone without any defensive pressure.

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D2 does not move closer to F3 coming in on the near boards but instead positions himself to try to cut off a pass from F1 to F3 or defend against either player as they draw closer to the net. D1 is covering the on rushing F2 who ties him up, taking him out of the play.

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F1 has read the coverage and decides to cut to the middle of the ice which gives him a clearer shot at the net or a lane to pass to F3, but also allows a backchecker to catch up to him and pressure him. F1 decides to shoot knowing that F2 and F3 are nearby for rebound chances and that his other teammates have arrived in the zone.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Montreal Canadiens 12/5/2014

This 3 on 2 is another modification from the set plays we often see. F1 (Shaw) carries the puck into the zone with speed and immediately passes to the closest wing, F2 (Bickell), who is skating along the boards.

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F2 must read the coverage of the defending players and the pressure of the backcheckers to decide what to do. The backcheckers are very close at this point. D1 is attempting to cover F2 but his gap is very large likely due to either anticipating a pass toward the middle of the ice or trying to get in position to block F2’s shot. D2 is defending mid-ice closer to F1 while F3 skates hard toward the net ready to accept a pass.

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F2 makes a quick, hard pass to F3 (defenseman Michal Rozsival) while F1 drives the net. Because of the speed of the play and the distance between F1 and F3, D2 is unable to get himself into position to defend very well against F3’s shot which finds the back of the net. D1 finishes the play much closer to F2, which looks to be a misplay by him given the large gap he allowed as the play started and F1’s position at his goalie’s back door. It is also interesting to note that the backchecking players are all drawn to F1 and F2 despite the fact that they are covered by D1 and D2. The final backchecker is near the attacking player holding the point in support of his teammates when F3 gets his shot off with none of the other backcheckers anywhere near him.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Calgary Flames 12/14/2014

This 3 on 2 is a fairly good example of a poorly executed odd man rush. It did produce a Shot on Goal and some offensive zone time, but it could have been done in a much more effective manner.

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F1 (Shaw) has caused and recovered a turnover in the defensive zone and heads up the middle of the ice with speed. F2 (Sharp) is on the near boards with him and F3 (Bickell) is building up speed wide. There are no backcheckers anywhere near the play at this point and the defending players are quickly retreating into their zone.

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F1 gains the zone with both D1 and D2 directly in front of him and drastically reduces his speed to turn and pass the puck on his forehand to F2, the nearest wing.

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F2 now has pressure from D2 and because the play has slowed down so much, the backcheckers are getting into position to block F2’s passing lane to F3. F1 is still skating with halted momentum, likely to allow a clearer lane for F2 to shoot.

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F2 lets a shot go that F1 tries to deflect on the way to the net which results in the goalie giving a rebound. All eyes on are F1 and F2 at this point so F3 continues to the front of the net.

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Grabbing the rebound off the endboards, F1 turns and again passes to F2 who has drawn all of the attention of the defending players and backcheckers.

While this play did generate a Shot On Goal, the advantage to having 3 players attacking against 2 players was completely negated. Often coaches stress that players should not make any “fancy” moves as they go through the neutral zone and instead should wait until they get into the offensive zone to get creative. This may have been what was going through Shaw’s head as he came up the ice; however, because the defensemen were quickly retreating, there was no backchecking pressure, and Sharp (F2) was closer to the blue line, Shaw could have passed to him in the neutral zone instead of waiting and slowing down the entire play in the offensive zone.

If he didn’t feel comfortable passing to Sharp in the neutral zone, he could have easily passed to Bickell (F3) on his forehand without having to turn once he gained the blue line. He could then have skated hard to the net on F3’s side of the ice and left room for F3 to shoot or pass to F2. As it was, the slow down allowed the backcheckers to catch up to the play and gave Sharp less time to make a decision based upon this read of the coverage.

Sharp was able to find a lane to shoot through, but he did have some options if that wasn’t available. Sometimes, the defensive coverage on an odd man rush is such that F1, or the player with the puck as the attack presses on, cannot shoot or make a pass. When this happens, the puck carrier may turn toward the boards, away from the defender and look for a late arriving attacker ready to receive a pass. If there is no convenient option for a play to a late attacker, the puck carrier can move back up in the zone to find another option. This delay tactic allows more help to arrive in the zone for a 5 man attack, but it also allows the backcheckers to catch up and get situated into their defensive formation. This option is not as advantageous as the odd man rush, but it does help the attacking team maintain possession of the puck.

Keys to a 3 on 2 Attack:

1. Build speed through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone

2. Carry the puck wide

3. Make quick coverage reads

4. Isolate one defending player to create a 2 on 1

5. Drive the net

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