Forechecking and the Defensive Zone

Rob Carr - Getty Images

"There’s a lot about that team that’s scary. Today, especially in the second, the came at us hard, forechecked hard and were tough to handle that way. Very aggressive on the forecheck. That’s maybe something we hadn’t seen [before Dale Hunter]." - Pittsburgh Head Coach Dan Bylsma after last week's Caps/Pens game

Under Bruce Boudreau, the once high-flying Washington Capitals had all but abandoned an aggressive forecheck, instead often attempting to carry the puck into the opposing zone and sagging back to the neutral zone at the first sign of opposition possession.

Dale Hunter wants to be much more aggressive, it seems, and much more interested in dumping and chasing. And why not? He's got a slew of big wings who love to hit, including Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer on the top line and throughout the depth chart, and getting physical with opposing defenders can wear them out during the course of a game and especially within a playoff series (cue Jim Mora).

But a successful forecheck often starts at the other end of the ice. As Hunter himself put it after last week's Penguins game, "[W]e have to move the puck quicker out of our end. We spend too much time, and it wears out our offense."

It's similar to a point we made in our recap of that game:

The Caps had a better forecheck against the Penguins than they did against the Blues. Why? Because they were able to break out of their own zone better than on Tuesday night (though they certainly still need work in that aspect of the game). The result is that instead of going for line changes as soon as the puck comes to neutral, forwards could dump the puck in, chase it down and hammer Pittsburgh blueliners.

After the jump, two examples that hammer home the point.

Both of these clips show the hard work of Brooks Laich's line during the second period of Saturday night's game against Ottawa (there are better examples, no doubt, but these work to demonstrate the point). In the first clip, most of that work takes place in the defensive zone. Let's take a look:

The Caps spend most of the latter part of that shift hemmed in their own zone, so when they finally do get control of the puck and move it to neutral ice, Joel Ward has to dump it in and go for a change, handing the puck over to the Sens. Granted, that might have been their best option even if they'd cleared the zone quicker, given the time elapsed on that shift by that point, but by struggling to clear it sooner, the Caps were left with no choice in the matter.

This next clip shows what happens when the Caps get the puck out quickly and under control:

The Caps clear the puck and are in a position to carry it or dump it. Once they do (and perhaps Ward should've gone with the cross-corner dump-in, but that's neither here nor there), they can set up their forecheck, which forces a turnover and ultimately an icing. That's how it's supposed to work.

Dale Hunter's first order of business since taking the reins of the team he once captained has been to tighten up the defense. And while we didn't see it last night, the first three games of the new regime certainly were modest steps in the right direction. The obvious payoff there will be fewer goals allowed. But if the defense - and that means defensemen and forwards - can spend less time in its own zone and move the puck out of its own end better than they were able to under Boudreau, it's going to allow them to forecheck more aggressively and effectively and that's going to lead to more goals-for. (Fewer goals-against, more goals-for... what's not to like?)

So the next time you lament the lack of a Caps forecheck, take note of what's happening at the other end of the ice - it's the likeliest culprit.

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