I love systems analysis. But let's get it clear from the beginning and first things first, that I am extremely far from any kind of expert in terms of systems. This is merely an observation I have made from watching the Penguins and Rangers this season.
The thing that I noticed specifically was with the Rangers breakout from their defensive zone and into the offensive zone. Being that I am far from an expert, I honestly have no idea if this is something that other teams do, if this is an Alain Vigneault wrinkle, or if it's specific to this Rangers team.
I've seen a lot of teams use a stretch pass before, some up the middle of the ice, some up the boards, but the Rangers operate a little differently.
It seems to start with the defensemen, especially when the Left D has the puck. It is then moved across to the Right D, trying to avoid the incoming forechecker, in this case, the Penguins Right wing.
Instead of sending it up the boards or trying to pass to the center who can distribute, as many do, they send a long stretch pass diagonally up to the left, aiming to hit the Left Wing in stride where the blue line meets the half wall.
The danger for the Penguins here, is that your defensemen must stay honest and be patient. If they opt to try and pinch and break the pass up themselves, there's a good chance that the LW taking the puck can quickly turn and chip it to center ice, where an incoming Center and Right Wing may have just created a 2-on-1 for themselves.
The one advantage that the Penguins have, should their defenseman get trigger happy and want to jump into play: good skaters. If your defensemen who jump to try and break it up and get caught are players like Kris Letang, Trevor Daley, or Justin Schultz, they are good enough skaters to possibly get back into position and prevent the 2-on-1.
This is not the exact type of breakout that I drew up, but here is a similar one that happened in Game 1.
Keith Yandle moved the puck left to right, giving Kevin Klein a chance to make the stretch pass with time and space.
Kevin Klein then sends the stretch pass forward to the blue line, (straight ahead, instead of diagonally, like I drew up.) hitting Mats Zuccarello in stride.
Olli Maatta played this well, coming far enough forward to not give Zuccarello a ton of space, and relying on Sidney Crosby coming back to force Zuccarello on the half wall.
Maatta stayed with an active stick in the passing lane, with Crosby staying with Zuccarello. Kris Letang shadowed back towards the goal, using his skating and speed to his advantage, covering the possibility of Zuccarello moving the puck to the center breaking towards the net.
This really shows Letang's closing speed. Maatta and Crosby stayed honest and patient to their man, and let Zatkoff cover his angle. Zuccarello ended up shooting from a bad angle, because it's all the Penguins gave him to take, and it ended up hitting off of the post, but in general, they covered the play very well.
So, the key to shutting down this type of stretch pass.
Hint: it runs down the center of the ice, and the Penguins are particularly strong at this position. That's right, the centers. Sidney Crosby. Nick Bonino. Matt Cullen. Oskar Sundqvist.
Sundqvist is not someone I worry about. Especially defensively. Guy is so responsible it's unreal.— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) April 14, 2016
Four centers who can play defensively responsible and manage this job. The Rangers might be in big trouble as is, and potentially even moreso if Evgeni Malkin takes the ice for the Penguins in this series, further bolstering their strength down the middle.
In this specific one that I screen grabbed, Sidney Crosby was the key to the whole entire defensive play. If he had not been forcing Zuccarello on the half-wall, he would've been able to push Maatta back away from time and space, and creating a wide open shooting lane or passing lane.
Over the course of a playoff series, adjustments can be the deciding factor, so I for one am curious to see if and how the Penguins handle this type of breakout play, and if they are able to, how the Rangers try and adapt.
As far as I can see it, the Penguins are constructed to handle it and handle it well.