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Penguins vs. Capitals - Pittsburgh's Breakout vs. Washington's Forecheck

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Part one of a four-part series breaking down some system reviews of what makes things tick for both the Penguins and the Capitals.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The stage has been set for the second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It will be the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. Everyone around the hockey world has been yearning for a rematch of the series in 2009 that led to the Penguins going on to win the Cup, and those wishes have been received.

Here to help us break it all down, resident smart guy from Winging it in Motown, Prashanth Iyer. He does some great work in terms of system breakdowns, and will be covering everything from the Washington angle, while I handle the Pittsburgh side.

Pittsburgh's Offense

So, the Penguins breakout. One thing I have tended to notice when the Penguins try and regroup and breakout is how they rely on one of the Penguins forwards to swoop back through the neutral zone, take the puck and then gain some steam to enter the offensive zone.

Breaking out to a Center

This example here, from Game 3 against the Rangers, early in the game, was an attempted breakout that didn't go perfectly.

Ben Lovejoy took the puck on the left side of the ice and dished it across to Kris Letang to start the breakout. He waited for Phil Kessel to swoop back in (He obviously isn't a center, but here, on the breakout, he acts as one, as he has been doing, leading the breakout, while paired with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin) for the puck, and gain some speed. Kessel didn't rush up the ice immediately, and his delay led to some issues, but in general, you can see what the Penguins are trying to do.

Breaking out to a Winger

Below is another slight variation of this breakout that the Penguins do. This wrinkle uses a winger at the center red line to hold and chip the puck to another streaking winger. This is from Game 1 vs. the Rangers.

In this example, Ian Cole played the puck behind the net to Justin Schultz, shortly before being taken out by an aggressive New York forechecker. Schultz skated with the puck long enough to draw another forechecker, then made a cross-ice pass to Conor Sheary at the near blue line. Sheary then crosses the puck to the side of the ice that it came from, stretching wide for Tom Kuhnhackl. Kuhnhackl made his way down the ice to get to the puck, that was shortly whistled dead because of a Ranger penalty.

This type of breakout, in my opinion, works so well for the Penguins, solely because of their speed. A player like Matt Cullen is smart enough to be the center lynchpin for the breakout and chip to quicker players like Conor Sheary or Bryan Rust to chase down the puck. An alternative method would be for a player like Evgeni Malkin to lead the breakout himself, and as he draws attention from defenders, can quickly pass to Phil Kessel or Carl Hagelin, who can fly on their own merits. Speed kills.

Washington's Defense

Washington's base forechecking setup is an aggressive 2-1-2 scheme. Shown below is forecheck's formation.

The basic idea of the 2-1-2 is to apply heavy pressure to the puck carrier while taking away all of the safe plays up the boards. The forward on the side where the puck is will aggressively pressure the puck carrier. The forward on the weak side of the ice will look to move up and take away the play along the boards. The two defensemen will look to pinch in and take away the outlet pass up the boards if the puck comes their way. Finally, the "1" forward in the 2-1-2 will cover the middle of the ice and be prepared to cover up for a pinching defenseman. Let's watch how the forecheck defends against a couple basic breakout plays.

Washington Forecheck Defending "Up"

Let's start with this still frame.

Here we see the Philadelphia Flyers' defenseman going to retrieve the puck from the corner. The far side Washington forward is the "puck-side" forward and will apply pressure to the puck carrier. The middle Capitals forward will look to take away the board pass to the near-side defenseman (Shayne Gostisbehere, #53). Finally, the "1" in this image in Jason Chimera (circled) and he's already looking to take away the reverse pass if it happens. The far side Washington defenseman is not pictured, but his role is to takeaway the pass up the left boards. Now that we have an understanding of the responsibilities, let's take a look at an animation to see how this should play out:

As you can see, the red right winger aggressively pressures the yellow retrieving defenseman and finishes his check against the boards. The red center drives the goal line to take away a potential pass to the weak side yellow defenseman. As the puck is thrown up the boards, the puck-side red defenseman applies heavy pressure to the yellow left winger to prevent the pass from being received cleanly. Watch how debilitating this pressure can be to a team's breakout.

Washington Forecheck Defending "Over"

Another breakout play that teams like to try is "Over", where the retrieving defenseman sends a pass to his defense partner who can then begin the breakout with his legs or with a pass. The play is shown to you below.

Washington does a superb job of defending this because their weak side forward is so good at closing off the initial passing lane. Washington will actually have their forwards shoot the gap between the defensemen to see if they can pick off the pass. Watch how Washington defends this attempted "over" breakout by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Before the Flyers defenseman even makes the pass, the second Washington forward is in the passing lane. This forces the Flyers defenseman to throw an indirect pass to the far boards which leads to a dump out. The Capitals are so good at this calculated pressure that it can be very frustrating to play against.

Series Key

How will Pittsburgh take advantage of Washington's aggressive forecheck? Well, the key to breaking Washington's pressure is utilization of the middle of the ice. Shown below is an example of the type of pass I'm talking about.

This isn't the greatest example of Washington's forecheck as they were in the middle of a line change, but the key is the low-zone pass to the forward below the faceoff dots. I'll draw out an animation for you to see exactly what I'm talking about.

We know that the left winger is going to apply pressure to the puck-carrying defenseman and that the center will try to shoot the gap to take away the "over" pass to the defenseman's partner. When this happens, there is no one left to cover the yellow center. Take a look at this screenshot to see exactly how open this player is.

If Andrew MacDonald was able to get that puck to Sean Couturier, the Flyers would have easily been able to break out of their own zone. For the Penguins, this play means getting the puck in the hands of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, and Matt Cullen to start the breakout which isn't a bad option at all.

If Pittsburgh is able to successfully execute their breakouts and take advantage of the middle of the ice, then Washington will spend a majority of this series on their heels defending.

Be sure to check back in with us tomorrow to see the other side of this situation, and how the Penguins forecheck needs to handle the Capitals breakout.