How the Stretch Pass Can Change the Math

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One of the spillover effects of hockey’s emphasis on analytics and two-way play has been that teams are getting really, really good defensively. A winger cannot just attain the zone and create a scoring chance; he also needs to be able to get his butt back and track well, find a man and stick with him.

It is popular to stress that all five skaters on the ice should be able to skate and attack, but inversely, teams need to be able to nullify the enemy salvo. If teams want to be aggressive and carry the puck in, the opposition needs to be able to thwart those efforts.

Bottling up an opponent in the neutral zone requires stepping up and confronting the puck-handler, sometimes with multiple skaters. It also means sealing off passing lanes with active sticks, and not only disrupting possession on the zone entry attempt but extracting the puck and passing it back to teammates at or below the blue line and resetting. The neutral zone should look like the Los Angeles freeway, not the bucolic setting of “The Road Not Taken.”

But there are little ways to expose the cracks in a team’s strong foundation over 200 feet. And therein lies the importance of changing the math. It is paramount to recognize and exploit situations where one can gain an odd-man rush or a scoring chance at less than five v. five. Teams do this, but less frequently than they should.

The stretch pass is a mechanism for creating offense. But the stretch pass is a tool, not a situation. Teams utilize it in nearly every game as a means of pushing the pace and spreading an opponent out. By nature, it advances possession from a less favorable part of the ice to a more advantageous quadrant. But stretch passes that change the math are hard to come by if a team is complacent. If an opponent is sitting back and attacking with one forechecker, this tool is hard to implement. But recognizing situations when the reward outweighs the risk allows teams to utilize the stretch pass more aggressively.

On this Chris Kreider breakway there is a broken play at the point with a scramble for the puck.

The St. Louis Blues, generally a shrewd defensive team, have overloaded one side. The New York Rangers’ Kreider swings around and recognizes the straight line opportunity if he flies the zone. He is hit with a pass in stride and charges down the ice on a breakaway and scores. By flying the zone to the weak side, Kreider forfeits his assignment and defensive puck support. But he also opens up the possibility for a far more advantageous play — a breakaway on the opposing goaltender.

In basketball, players leak out on rebound opportunities because they sense an easy chance for a transition point when the opposing defense is not rooted in their well-coached defensive set. Far fewer goals are scored in hockey, and Kreider has taken a smaller risk for a much bigger gain. The math here is simple – New York has a better chance withstanding a 4-on-5 than St. Louis has at a 0 vs. 1.

The Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty is one of the NHL’s greatest leak-out artists. This memorable flying-of-the-zone came in the playoffs against Boston last year.

What might be difficult to detect from first watch is that Pacioretty wisely anticipates that Montreal, a shot-blocking machine, will successfully foil Dougie Hamilton’s wrist shot with a shot block, and Pacioretty darts off into the open ice. Nathan Beaulieu collects the loose puck after the shot block and lobs a Hail Mary pass to Pacioretty, which the power forward grabs and scores with Future Hall of Famer Zdeno Chara breathing down his neck.

It is an awesome play that had playoff significance, and while the puck miraculously finds its way through two Bruins skaters, that is partially what makes flying the zone so effective in the first place. The opposing team is set up like they are on offense, then unexpectedly they are on their heels. It was lucky that the puck passed through two Bruins players, but players are more prone to error when they are unexpectedly backpedaling. Flying the zone is a smart gamble, an intelligent counter punch when the opponent thinks it has a team pinned down.

Even if a team gains the zone, success can be futile. For anyone who caught New Jersey-St. Louis on Tuesday night, blocking shots and packing the middle makes territorial advantage nice, but does not guarantee success every game. On the cycle, there was just nowhere to shoot and little room to maneuver for either team.

Teams have tight defensive structures that are difficult to penetrate. Players are so fast and powerful these days that they can eliminate time and space in an instant, making the half-wall and point less secure than they appear. This has made the one-timer an increasingly rare tool because opposing skaters can accost and challenge the puck-handler and shooter so quickly. For defenses, Newton’s Third Law lives on – every time the puck moves and players switch positions, the defensive machine recalibrates. What is so awe-inspiring about a strong defensive shell is that it can handle endless permutations regarding assignments and where to rotate.

Here’s another clever way to avoid endless one-and-done’s when trying to create at five v. five: Exploit an opponents’ overly aggressive forecheck. In this next video, Toronto defenseman Cody Franson finds himself with the puck off the faceoff in the defensive zone, circles around the net, sidesteps Chicago’s Patrick Kane who is trying to halt him straight on, then eludes Patrick Sharp who is trying to intercept the pass with a horizontal path that takes him through the crease.

Franson’s sharp move to the inside fakes out both Kane and Sharp, who are left below the circles on a rush leading the other way. This zone entry is a three-on-three, not an odd-man rush, but it is a Phil Kessel-led transition that leads to a goal because three-on-three is much harder to defend than five-on-five. And it is catalyzed by the Maple Leafs recognizing the opportunity in their own zone.

Toronto uses the overly aggressive forecheck against Chicago, hitting the weak side skater for a rush attempt in the open ice. It is a big-time gamble by Franson – he passes through the middle of the ice with two skaters attempting to enclose him — but it is a wager that gives his team an easy entry with Toronto’s best forward cradling the puck if Franson succeeds. Franson liked his odds, and the Maple Leafs profited from it.

This next goal is the result of similar circumstances: overly aggressive forecheck, recognition of the weak side skater skating into space up the perimeter, and a bad gap by the opponent. Aggression is a two-way street. What makes this play so noteworthy is how the Minnesota Wild tries to pressure the New York Rangers’ third-pair defensemen and got burned.

For Minnesota, there is a forechecker on the puck, a second man supporting (coming up the wall), and Mikael Granlund circling as the third man high. Rangers defenseman Matt Hunwick receives the pass from Kevin Klein, sees the big gap, and hits Anthony Duclair with a long, weak-side stretch pass that leads to a three-on-two goal because the Wild’s Ryan Suter is essentially matched against a two-on-one rush. Hunwick’s recognition of the far-side winger, Duclair, charging up the edge, and the overly ambitious, badly positioned Wild forecheck attempting to apply pressure on the third pair, allowed for this goal to happen. The prey became the predator. And what do you know? The math was in their favor.

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Posted in the Category of: Features


  1. Chris Abraham says:

    Theres also this great stretch pass from Lehtera to Tarasenko against Dallas.

  2. Arttu Poikolainen says:

    Continuing to appreciate your articles, good stuff.

    Thoughts on some teams/players overdoing this? Read complaints that Taylor Hall loves to fly out of the zone non-stopish. With eddie not having the best opening-game from D to start with, if their forwards fly out then it sure doesnt help finding basic outlets. Obv forwards should pick their spots and not just randomly shoot up the ice when team gains possession, just wondering if you had noticed some doing this a lot more often than what would be optimal?

  3. Great comments. Really enjoyed that Lehtera-to-Tarasenko GIF. Arttu, your point about Edmonton is a good one. Nothing from strategy standpoint happens in a vacuum. With the Oilers, it is important that the forwards pick their spots and understand what teammates and opponents are on the ice with them. Edmonton’s zone exits are a work in progress and their defensive group needs all the help they can get.

    Having said that, if Edmonton is against a Western Conference powerhouse, and Hall is on the ice versus a bottom-six forward group, and he senses the opposing offense stalling and an Oilers’ takeaway is imminent, then he should take off. I even like Hall doing it sporadically against better competition if he senses a turnover forthcoming, only because they need to take a more aggressive approach to beat a better opponent.

    As for your question about whether I see some players doing it more often than others, I’m not sure if I have noticed anyone leaking out routinely. I included Pacioretty and Kreider in the videos above because both have a propensity to fly the zone when they sense a chance at a breakaway. Also, certain guys on the Kings like Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli are skilled at determining when to leak out because a turnover is impending. But so far no player stands out this season. I’ll definitely mention it in an article going forward though if I notice a certain player doing it on a game-to-game basis. Love the feedback, thanks for reading!


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