The distance from the blue line to the boards behind the goal is 75 feet; from side-to-side, another 85 feet of ice. Managed properly in an attacking situation, the offensive zone can become a dangerous place to spend time for any team. But managed improperly, offensive possession -- even nearly 200 feet away from a team's own goal -- can create a dangerous turnover and a quick opportunity against.
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It's one thing to play conservative hockey. It's another entirely to play efficient hockey within a system that can mitigate the danger of making mistakes. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are two teams that can generate offense from their blue lines, but do so in a way that should they turn the puck over they're not at risk of becoming the victim of a quick counterpunch.
When the Blues play the Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN), it won't be safe hockey that limits odd-man opportunities in transition, simply structured hockey.
Taking advantage of the vertical space on an offensive zone possession is a good way to neutralize any potential threats against. When gaining the zone, by going low-to-high-to-low, it can distend the defending team's spacing, creating more open ice, and thus making it more difficult to counter-attack.
With puck-moving defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, David Rundblad, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, Chicago and St. Louis are able to use their blue lines as launching pads or firing posts when sustaining pressure in the offensive zone. How they go about doing it also ensures that, more often than not, those defensemen aren't caught on the wrong end of a turnover turned transition.
On this Alex Steen goal against the Anaheim Ducks earlier in the season, St. Louis turns an offensive zone faceoff win into a goal by recouping its attack through the point.
St. Louis wins the faceoff, and attempts a shot toward the goal. As the puck goes wide and rims around the boards, Carl Gunnarsson and Shattenkirk each hold his position at the point. It looks like Anaheim will get a chance to gain possession and clear, but forward Jori Lehtera wins a footrace to a loose puck. Part of properly spacing the zone and playing within this structure requires forwards to know when to make plays closer to the blue line that could be perceived as a defenseman's responsibility.
From there, Lehtera takes the puck into the teeth of the defense. That creates more space for him to pass back to Shattenkirk, who won't be immediately met by a Ducks skater.
With St. Louis having already been in Anaheim's zone for 13 seconds, the Ducks have left some space to operate by the blue line. Shattenkirk is able to complete a D-to-D pass, and puts enough pace on it to make sure he doesn't turn it over and trigger an opportunity against.
Now comes quite possibly the most important part of this sequence. The vertical distance between Gunnarsson and the closest Duck is going to force him to close that space. Gunnarsson though changes his angle, and makes sure that, first and foremost, the puck is getting deep and St. Louis isn't caught defending an odd-man rush. The play happens to result in a goal for the Blues.
The Blackhawks similarly excel at creating offense from the point without shooting themselves in the foot. On this Andrew Shaw goal, the puck ends up at the blue line twice before Chicago scores.
After Chicago gains the zone, Patrick Sharp takes a shot on goal. Immediately, Chicago is changing the field position of the play, getting the puck to the goal line and, at the very least, forcing the Nashville Predators to go 200 feet.
As the puck gets worked back up to Keith, he wastes no time sending it down low, identifying Nashville has a chance to go the other way should possession change above the circles.
Now Chicago can go back to work. With the puck moved low-to-high-to-low, the Predators are chasing. Their defensive posture is beginning to slump and passing lanes are being opened up. Shaw has the Predators' attention, and a pretty wide-open passing lane to hit Seabrook.
As Seabrook steps into this shot, it's much like what Gunnarsson did. Shooting the puck wide and escaping to live another day is better than attempting the perfect shot that gets blocked and turns into a goal against. With enough to worry about in front of him, Seabrook intentionally shoots wide, and Chicago ends up scoring seconds later.
There's something about this brand of hockey that may not come across as sexy. Sure, Seabrook or Gunnarsson could have attempted to stickhandle past a forward, walk in, and pick out a top corner of the goal. But playing within these finely tuned systems, the Blues and Blackhawks each get results from orchestrating play through their blue lines, and do so without setting themselves up to get scored against.