Thanks to The Gap, life is better these days for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
No, they have not landed new wardrobes thanks to a sponsorship deal with the clothing retailer, but they have, as Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock pointed out about the Leafs last week, "found the right balance between offence and defence." To mix coaching and transit metaphors, that is known as minding the gap.
Hockey coaches love to go on about the gap - the distance between the forwards and the defencemen. Keep the gap at the right distance at both ends of the ice, coaches say, and keep the distance constant as you move up and down the ice, and success will follow.
In the offensive zone, the idea is that the defencemen hold their positions on the blueline while two of the forwards fore-check deep in the zone, fighting hard to keep the puck or get it back quickly. The third forward stays high, at the top of either faceoff circle or even on the blueline between the two defencemen. Those three players can then aggressively cut off any counterattacks and keep pucks "alive," as coaches say, which means keep them from crossing the blueline.
All five players advance or retreat almost as a unit. This allows the forwards to break up attacks in the neutral zone and force turnovers at their own blueline. The forwards are also expected to come back far enough into the defensive zone to keep opposing forwards off the defencemen, allowing them to mount another attack.
The fly in the ointment is confidence. If the forwards are not doing their jobs in the offensive zone, the defencemen tend to fall back from the blueline quickly out of fear that the opposition will keep possession of the puck or quickly regain it.
This allows the opposition to hit the neutral zone with speed and creates more possibilities for odd-man rushes.
At the defensive end of the ice, if the forwards are not coming back far enough, getting the puck out of their own end becomes an onerous task as well.
In their last 10 games, the Leafs have a record of 6-2-2 for a couple of reasons. The forwards are finally getting some results for all the shots they've been taking, which gave them a boost in confidence and the willingness to fight hard in the offensive zone for the puck. In turn, that gives the defencemen the confidence to linger at the offensive blueline to create some extra scoring chances.
"That was the main difference in [Monday]night's game," Leaf defenceman François Beauchemin said yesterday of his team's 5-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers. "We didn't give [the Thrashers]any room to skate with the puck or any time with it. As soon as they had it on their stick, we were jumping right on them."
The key, Beauchemin said, is the third forward. As long as he remembers his job and stays high, "it's easier to go down [the boards]and get those pucks when they to the wings, just go down the wall and keep those pucks in, so we don't get caught on the odd-man rushes when they go by you."
One of the most improved forwards of late is second-year NHLer Nikolai Kulemin. He had a tepid rookie campaign and was underwhelming enough at training camp this year to find himself in the press box for the first two games of the season.
His numbers so far this season are not eye-catching, five goals and seven assists, but five of those points came in his last 10 games. The most noticeable difference in the 23-year-old Russian's game, though, is not scoring but fore-checking. Kulemin is now using his 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame to be a presence in the offensive zone.
"The game here is different than in Russia, more hits," he said. "It's my second year, I know what I need to do now."
Mike Komisarek, whose work on defence improved when he returned from a quadriceps injury, said the improved work by the forwards at both ends of the ice is paying dividends.
"They're working just as hard at coming back for us [to the defensive zone]" Komisarek said. "You don't see as many of those 3-on-2, 2-on-1 breaks.
"They're making the other team make plays before they get to our blueline, whether that is dumping it in or turning it over. It's a huge help for us as defencemen."