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Closer Look: Blackhawks, Rangers like to play fast

by Evan Sporer

Pace and tempo are concepts talked about in hockey, but somewhat difficult to define. There are no statistics or metrics for pace like ones which exist in basketball, yet there are still teams that carry a reputation for wanting to play fast.

Two teams unafraid to play a quicker game are the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks. When they play Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1, TVA Sports), each team will rely on how it exits the defensive zone to push the pace.

At their best, the Rangers and Blackhawks don't spend much time between the blue lines. With good puck-moving defensemen, and systems preaching a quick, north-south game through the neutral zone, each team looks to go on the attack as soon as it wins the puck in its defensive zone.

It's hockey's version of a fast break, and it all hinges on a quick and clean defensive-zone exit, an area in which both the Rangers and Blackhawks excel.

When these two teams played March 8, neither team gave up much space in the neutral zone. But both teams can still get creative with their zone exits, like on this play by the Rangers, to kick start a quick transition play.

The sequence begins with the Rangers losing a defensive-zone faceoff. Chicago works the puck high-to-low, but Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi is able to regain possession.

With four Rangers below the dots, and three Blackhawks, Girardi is able to complete a pass to start the zone exit and start the rush. Chicago center Jonathan Toews is watching Girardi, who is on the puck, and looking in the direction of winger Mats Zuccarello.

Toews has his head up and is reading Girardi, who is selling the pass up the wall. By forcing Toews into shading in that direction, Girardi creates a pocket of space in the middle of the ice and is able to get the puck to Derick Brassard at the next level.

When Brassard takes the pass, he's already ahead of Toews. He's got Zuccarello to his right, and Rick Nash to his left. Even though Toews is right behind him, it's the horizontal width of the zone exit which opens up the play. Nash is far out, almost off-screen near the benches. The spacing the Rangers use creates a passing lane, while Girardi's quick pass to Brassard doesn't allow Chicago to adjust to the developing situation.

Now comes exactly what Chicago wants to prevent. Nash gets the puck in a 1-on-1 coming in off the rush. Because the Rangers were able to execute so quickly, Brent Seabrook is forced to turn and chase instead of skate backward. Nash gets a shot away, and the Rangers turned what was a lost defensive-zone faceoff into a 200-foot scoring chance.

Where Chicago and New York differ a bit in their exits and neutral-zone schemes is the Blackhawks use long passes at a much higher rate. While the Rangers leave the zone with quick, short passes to create space in which to skate and carry the puck, Chicago's defensemen, chiefly Seabrook, David Rundblad and Duncan Keith, excel at identifying passing lanes between the blue lines, and advancing the puck with more of a vertical game.

On this play, Chicago is able to use a stretch pass in the midst of a change by the Arizona Coyotes to exit the defensive zone and create a scoring chance at the same time.

As Keith retrieves this puck, he takes multiple looks up ice. He identifies the open space on the far side with Arizona in the middle of a line change and begins to orchestrate the play.

While Keith moves the puck to Rundblad, forward Andrew Shaw skates into the open space created by the line change. But with Arizona forward Kyle Chipchura pressing in the passing lane, there's no way for Rundblad to get the puck to Shaw. So Rundblad holds the puck and creates his own passing lane, taking Chipchura out of position.

Playing quick doesn't always mean making the first play. Rundblad's patience on the puck creates the lane for the stretch play, and he sends the two-line pass to Shaw. Arizona is still getting players back, and Shaw is able to skate into the offensive zone and get a shot off.

The Blackhawks and Rangers try to move quickly through the neutral zone. By expeditiously turning defense into offense, it makes it difficult for the opposition to align its defenders on the ice correctly, leading to scoring chances.

But before any of that can occur, each team needs to first start the play with a zone exit. Although their strategies are a bit different, New York and Chicago are very effective at getting out of their end, and using those sequences as a launching pad for transition offense.

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