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Ramsay: Fine line for Blues defending stretch passes

Friday, 04.18.2014 / 5:44 PM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, NHL.com has enlisted the help of former NHL coach Craig Ramsay to break down the action. Ramsay will be checking in throughout the series.

Ramsay played in more than 1,000 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres before going on to coach the Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. In the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he led the Flyers to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final. Ramsay was most recently an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers.

ST. LOUIS -- Patrick Kane's breakaway goal late in the first period Thursday fell 105 seconds short of being the winning goal for the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series.

Patrick Sharp's breakaway late in the second overtime would have ended the game had St. Louis Blues goalie Ryan Miller not stepped up with a big save.

Both breakaways were a result of well-executed stretch passes by the Blackhawks, who have had that play in their repertoire since becoming an annual Stanley Cup contender. They like to use it as a way to catch their opponent off guard to create a grade-A scoring chance, most often on a breakaway.

Longtime NHL coach Craig Ramsay said the Blues, despite holding a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series heading into Game 2 on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS), must figure out a way to better guard against the Blackhawks' stretch pass or they might be burned by it again.

"They're going to have to figure out who is going to pick up that stretch guy," Ramsay said.

Ramsay said the Blues can figure it out, but it requires a systematic shift by their defensemen and a quick read by their high forward in the attacking zone.

He said the Blues need to designate one defenseman to pick up the Blackhawks' high forward, the player who might blow the zone quickly in anticipation of the stretch pass. But in doing so, the Blues need one of their forwards to come up higher as a way to protect the defenseman who isn't guarding against the stretch pass, or else he'll be vulnerable to giving up an odd-man rush the other way.

"You don't want to get three guys down low because your third guy, if you run him high, allows the two guys to run a cycle and then they can find that third man for a shot, or they can use their defense and allow them to shoot," Ramsay said. "If Chicago tries to stretch and one 'D' leaves, you're always going to have a backup guy to help the second defenseman if he hangs in and tries to help with the cycle and forecheck.

"What it is, is one 'D' has to pick up the stretch and one forward has to be in good position to back up the other 'D' and help out on any other kind of rushes coming back."

Ramsay said too often in Game 1 he saw both Blues defensemen giving up position on the attacking blue line and dropping back into the neutral zone. He thought it was a result of the Blues panicking after Kane scored on his breakaway, which gave Chicago a 3-2 lead at 18:24 of the first period.

While sitting back may have reduced Chicago's chances of executing the stretch pass, it also reduced the Blues chances of sustaining pressure via the cycle because they were outnumbered three to four. Ramsay said playing safe like that will burn the Blues in the series, so instead they just need to have a safety net to guard against the stretch pass, but one that won't cancel their cycle game.

"If you play too safe and you back up with both defensemen, now you're playing three against four in the offensive zone and you're going to lose, especially against Chicago's defense because it's so good and quick," Ramsay said. "St. Louis has to walk a fine line, but if you're going to beat good teams, and Chicago is that, then you're going to have to try to win and not just play safe."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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