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

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Part two of a four-part series, in which we break down some of the system nuances specific to each team, as we prepare for their playoff series to start.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Hello friends, we meet again. We're here to talk systems, again joined by Prashanth Iyer from Winging it in Motown.

Yesterday, we broke down what the Penguins do breaking out of their own zone vs. what the Capitals do on the forecheck.

Today, we're going to see the other side of the coin.

Washington's Breakout

There are two types of breakouts we will consider - controlled breakouts and regroups. Let's start with the Washington Capitals' controlled breakouts.

Strong Side Slant

Washington's preferred controlled breakout play is called the strong-side slant. Below is an animation showing how the play is supposed to run.

The right winger and center will both regroup and then accelerate up ice while the left winger waits at center ice. Depending on what the left winger sees in the defense, he can either remain where he is, cut back towards his own zone, or cut to the middle of the ice for a stretch pass. Washington generally has their puck-carrying defenseman make the first pass to his defense partner who then can make a pass to any of the three forwards. From video review, it appears as if Washington really likes to vary where this pass goes. Check out an example of this play below.



With Washington's speed, one defensive lapse can result in an odd-man rush. In the clip above, the Flyers' forechecker hesitates on the cross-ice pass, allowing it to be completed to the streaking Jason Chimera. Had Chimera not fumbled the pass, there's a good chance that he forces a 3-on-2. Essentially, Washington's breakout is two quick passes that take advantage of their speed and makes forecheckers hesitate.

Washington's Regroups

Washington does a great job of utilizing both motion and lane regroups. In simple terms, a regroup is the breakout play used by teams when they want to quickly get back on offense. A motion regroup differs from a lane regroup in that the center no longer remains in the center of the ice and will actually switch "lanes" with one of his wingers to try and create confusion.

Lane Regroup

Motion Regroup

Within each type of regroup, there are a subset of plays that can be run. From a lane regroup, Washington likes to use a D-to-D stretch pass which looks like this:



The goal of this play is to spread out the forecheckers using quick lateral puck movement. This leads to the creation of passing lanes which the receiving defenseman can take advantage of. A majority of Washington's regroups are based off of a set lane regroup. However, when Washington has their skill players on the ice, you'll sometimes see a creative motion regroup like the one shown below.


Let's walk through this one via an animation to understand what happened here.



In the above graphic, #9 is Dmitry Orlov (D), #74 is John Carlson (D), #14 is Justin Williams (RW), #65 is Andre Burakovsky (LW), and #92 is Evgeny Kuznetsov (C). When the play starts out, Burakovsky, the left winger, is all the way on the right side of the ice. Williams is on the far left side and Kuznetsov is still in the middle. As this regroup develops, Williams jumps back to the right side of the ice while Kuznetsov cuts behind Burakovsky to follow Williams up the right boards. In the meantime, Burakovsky is cutting back across the ice to the left boards. All of this motion makes it very difficult for the defense to set up in appropriate coverage. Washington tends to utilize these more creative regroups when guys like Kuznetsov, Williams, Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom are on the ice for good reason.

Pittsburgh's Forecheck

Since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, they seemingly have a much more relentless and aggressive forecheck. This seems to be more noticeable among the depth lines, which is great. Media and fans alike seem to refer to 3rd or 4th lines as a 'checking line' and if the Penguins depth lines are doing that kind of forechecking work in the offensive zone, it's going to bode well.

Two examples of the Penguins aggressive forecheck paying dividends, both from Game 5 against the Rangers, both featuring the Penguins line that consists of Bryan Rust, Matt Cullen, and Tom Kuhnhackl.

The Go-Ahead Goal

After tying the game at 2, the Penguins were looking to gain the lead and try and close out the series, This goal was the first of many death blows to the Rangers.

It starts with the Penguins trying to get the puck deep into the Rangers zone after an attempted shot on net that went wide. Ryan McDonagh attempts to play the puck up the boards, where the receiver is tied up by Matt Cullen.

Here is where the aggressive nature comes in. Kuhnhackl and Rust, acting in Congress, work to move the puck into the offensive zone and then follow the puck with support.

Kuhnhackl, Cullen, and Rust all were able to win a 50/50 puck and keep a stick in front of a Ranger making a play. These small 50/50 plays add up and eventually led to the Penguins keeping the puck in the zone and make passes that lead to scoring a goal.

The Dagger

This is another example of winning a race or a battle, and following it with support.

The puck is chipped deep by the man on the half-wall, with both Rangers defensemen back. Bryan Rust enters the zone with speed, blocking the Rangers from playing it or clearing it, and simultaneously ties up both players from covering his support, Matt Cullen. Cullen is left by himself to shoot on net and he beat Lundqvist clean.

More than anything, the Penguins seem keen on occupying time and space and operating as a unit that support one another, than having a specific location or position that each need to be covering.

Series Key

The Capitals breakouts aren't anything spectacular, but they are incredibly effective. They want to quickly get the puck back into the offensive zone where their offensive playmakers can do damage. When it comes to loose pucks, they rely heavily on their forecheck to force turnovers in the offensive zone as a means to generate offense. We detailed yesterday how aggressive their forecheck can be and Pittsburgh's is really no different.

It's very interesting to see the differences in a breakout like the Capitals use compared to the kind of breakout the Penguins use that we noted yesterday. A quick look at the two show the vast differences. Washington use a system that tends to regroup a lot, focusing on players occupying lanes or weaving through similar spots on a repeated manner. It seems like Sullivan has Pittsburgh in the mindset that it doesn't matter who does what, as long as the first thing the defensemen need to do is to get the puck to a forward to carry the puck in. With players like Letang, Maatta, Daley, Dumoulin, etc...it makes perfect sense to implement that kind of play. Play to your strengths.

The key to this series will be if Pittsburgh is able to maintain their aggressive forecheck against Washington's excellent puck-movers. Guys like Carlson, Orlov, and Matt Niskanen are outstanding puck movers, making it very difficult to consistently apply pressure. If Pittsburgh is able to get in quickly on Washington's defensemen, they might be able to generate some unforced turnovers in the middle of the offensive zone, a potentially dangerous situation for the Capitals. If Washington is able to consistently break out with ease, then I expect Pittsburgh to be in for a long series, as Washington's offensive zone pressure coupled with their quick breakouts can make a team feel like they are drowning defensively.

Be sure to check back in with us tomorrow when we will jump into the special teams matchups and how those can and likely will impact how this series plays out.