Any time Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby goes over the boards, everyone in the arena is watching and waiting for something special to happen.
From the opposing bench, tireless efforts have gone into preventing that.
Nothing gets more attention in the Stanley Cup playoffs than a superstar, from the likes of McDavid, Ovechkin and Crosby to rookie of the year front-runner Auston Matthews and game-changing defensemen Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. Slowing them down takes days of preparation and scouting, the right strategy and a village on the ice to keep top players from taking over a game or a series.
“Those guys are difference-makers in the game,” said coach Peter DeBoer, whose San Jose Sharks have held McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers to two points in four games. “When you look at the analytics and the percentage of the offense he’s involved with with their team, it’s something you’d be crazy not to pay attention to.”
There’s a reason lesser-known players Zack Kassian, Bobby Ryan, Jaden Schwartz and Jake Guentzel lead the playoffs in game-winning goals with so much attention devoted to bottling up and frustrating the stars.
“Everybody probably more focused in the D-zone and everywhere and try to be smart all three zones. Nobody wants to lose,” Washington Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov said. “Just kind of simple things defensively, but it’s not always easy to do.”
Hockey is considered the ultimate team sport because it’s more difficult for a single player to make a significant impact than in other sports, but the process of stopping him is more complex. Columbus coach John Tortorella said “you can’t map it out like football where you have a 3-4 defense” and Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said it’s not realistic to try something like a box and one in basketball.
Taking away a player’s “time and space” is a time-honored hockey cliche, but it’s also the best way to contain a star.
“Good players, if they have space, they’re going to pick you part,” Niskanen said. “The quicker you can get on him and force him to make good plays under heavy pressure, I think that’s your best chance of negating his creativity and his ability to operate.”
In Game 1 of Washington’s series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jay Beagle seemed at times almost glued to Matthews. Sharks center Logan Couture, an elite talent in his own right, is meanwhile always trying to stay in front of McDavid in the neutral zone to negate the team captain’s speed. Couture also knows he has to take part in battles on the boards and mind the transition attack from Edmonton, even when he’s on offense.
“You’re putting yourself in defensive spots first,” Couture said. “Even if it’s in the O-zone, you want to be above him because he is so quick and he’s got that extra step. If you can get above him and try to slow him down it only helps us.”
Maple Leafs forward Eric Fehr, who played a shutdown role during the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ Stanley Cup run last spring, said defending an elite talent means being laser focused no matter where the puck is.
“It’s a game inside the game,” he said. “When you’re playing against the same guy the whole series, every game, you start to get a little 1-on-1 rivalry. You just try to do your best to wear him out and make sure that every shift is difficult for him.”
It’s also a team effort, as the Predators have shown in holding Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to one point apiece through three games, all Chicago losses. Coach Peter Laviolette’s game plan, Nashville’s structure and Pekka Rinne’s goaltending have combined to do the trick.
Toronto center Brian Boyle, tasked with defending opponents’ top lines during deep playoff runs with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, said teams plan for every player. As coach Mike Babcock pointed out, Ovechkin only needs one shot to make an impact, so the key is keeping the puck off his stick as much as possible.
“Everybody has to do their job that way (so that) when you get close on a guy and you have the close support, you can outnumber and put him in situations where you can get the puck back,” Boyle said. “It’s not 1-on-1 for 200 feet of the ice. It takes five guys.”
Sometimes it takes six, and when the last line of defense falters it can be the difference in the series. Evgeni Malkin has eight points and Crosby six for the Penguins, who have taken it to the Blue Jackets and struggling goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in going up 3-1.
But the work to stop a star begins well before he takes a shot on net. Like the Sharks with McDavid, Maple Leafs defenseman Matt Hunwick said, slowing down top players in the neutral zone is essential because once they cross the blue line they can crisscross, change lanes and become dangerous — evading even the best-designed coverages.
“Just be cognizant of where they’re at,” Hunwick said. “You have to know exactly where those guys are because the top goal-scorers in the league, somehow they seem to get lost sometimes.”
AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, and Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, contributed.