Systems Analyst: Crosby, Weise, and the art of 'flying the zone'
The puck gets moved up to their right defenseman, and as the left winger, you know what comes next. You rush out and try to stay in his shooting lane, but he sneaks the shot by you. As you glance back to see where the puck went next, you see that the shot has been knocked down, and it looks like your teammate's about to gain possession.
Their flat-footed defenseman doesn’t have a chance to stay with you, so you blow by him, cut to the middle to get available, glance back…and see your team didn’t win the puck. Welp.
Now you’re out in the neutral zone, they have the puck, and “your guy” is unmarked. If that puck ends up in the ne-CRAAAP the puck ended up in the net.
That skate back to the bench is brutal, but not playing for the rest of the period or more is worse.
You never, ever fly the defensive zone unless you’re sure your team has possession…except for the times you do, it works and you get a breakaway, score, and you’re hailed as an offensively savvy god blessed with the gift of anticipation. But otherwise, y’know, it’s just stupid.
In all seriousness though, you do have to be selective when you chose to blow the zone. Naturally, the more sure you are that your team is going to get the puck the easier it is to decide, but that usually means the other team sees that too, so they’ll pull out of the offensive zone earlier. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.
The Penguins’ game-winning goal in Game 3 was a Sidney Crosby semi-breakaway in which he flew the zone and earned himself a good look on Henrik Lundqvist. The Canadiens’ game-winner in Game 3 was scored on a full breakaway by Dale Weise on Tuukka Rask (I know I’m confused too) after he flew the zone.
You’re usually told no-no-no, but here’s proof it’s occasionally smart to go-go-go.
Crosby’s goal starts with him in great position as a centerman, coming across low as Chris Kunitz tries to pick up the puck in the corner.
Kunitz misses the pick up, and the puck carries on around the boards. Crosby stays in a position of puck support, which also takes him into traffic.
Anton Stralman has read that he can probably pinch down and keep the puck in after it bypassed Kunitz so he goes for it, and Dominic Moore slides back to cover for him. Crosby turns around to evaluate the scene, because it’s probably time to throw on the breaks and head back on defense.
Stralman keeps the puck in with his skate, which kicks down to Kunitz, who sees that he’s got an open defenseman in the middle. He whacks at it, and gets the puck out of traffic and into the middle.
With Kunitz “stuck” Jesper Fast (that last name couldn’t hurt when scouts were looking at him, eh? “How would you describe him, Mr. Scout?” “Well, the first word that comes to mind is…”) moves in on the forecheck.
Meanwhile...hey, Crosby’s not in the picture anymore, what did he decide to...OHHHHHhhhh.
And this is where the gift of anticipation is so huge. In the third picture Crosby is looking back to see what happens with the puck. It hits Stralman’s skate, and goes to Kunitz. Sid finds himself behind the opposing D with his team in possession. As the puck goes across to Bortuzzo, he knows he’s clear to activate the afterburners.
He gets a step…
And that’s all you need.
The most impressive part of this play, aside from the read to take off by Crosby, is the shot. He didn’t shoot that on the ice. I know it looks like he did, but he actually got it airborne about an inch, and few shots in hockey are harder than the super-low-but-not-on-the-ice shot.
Dale Weise makes an even better read to score the Canadiens game winner.
It starts with a situation similar to the one described at the start of this post, only it goes a little better.
The puck gets rimmed up to Weise’s man.
He fronts the shot, but it gets by. Well, it gets by HIM. Mike Weaver goes full Bill Ranford, throws an arm up on his imaginary crossbar, and makes a skate save.
Weise sees this, and since he's already got some momentum going forward...
As soon as Weise sees who’s going to get next touch - NOT the Bruins - he decides to capitalize on a flat-footed set of d-men (as they usually are after just shooting) by flying the zone. Briere, with the hockey sense he’s always had, recognizes this.
And by the time the Bruins d-men drop it into panic gear, Weise is gonzo. And, again, excuse the surprise, but he buries on Tuukka Rask. Geez.
The trick with flying the zone is to know the situation.
* Are their defenders over-committed offensively? (Happens fairly often when your team is up.)
* Does your team need to play catch up? (Sometimes you have to take some risks to come from behind.)
* What are the odds our team is going to come up with the loose puck? (50/50, coaches want you to err on the side of defense. 60/40, you’ve got some thinking to do.)
Flying the zone is one of those judgement calls that offensive talents tend to make better reads on. And, as a general rule, skill guys are afforded a little more leeway to give it a go too.
When it works out, you’re a genius. When it doesn’t, you’re a liability. It's your call to make.