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Coaches Room

Defense key for teams with Stanley Cup Playoff aspirations

Nachbaur says coaches will stress responsible hockey, locking down opponent in stretch drive

by Don Nachbaur / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. In this edition, Don Nachbaur, a former assistant with the Los Angeles Kings, discusses how teams trying to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and those hoping for a long postseason run turn their focus to refining defensive team play at this point in the regular season.

With teams closing in on the final three weeks of the regular season, some will be desperate to move up the standings to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while others that are comfortably in a postseason position will look to refine their games.  

Each scenario presents challenges for coaches who must keep their team's focus on philosophies they set out from the start of the season. 

For those trying to gain a playoff seeding, the challenges will increase every game with the pressure to win. They can't forget their foundation for success -- the process, details, structure, execution and discipline -- while dealing with the stress for results.

The teams that are in playoff spots must guard against bad habits entering their game. They must continue to focus on their overall play which brought them success and not get complacent.

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Coaches will preach playing the right way while sticking to their foundation. The bottom line is teams want to enter the postseason on a roll, confident and not trying to regain their game with areas to fix.  

It's no coincidence that the top teams in 5-on-5 play are among the top teams in the standings. The Tampa Bay Lightning (+45) lead the NHL in 5-on-5 goal differential followed by the Toronto Maple Leafs (+41) and the New York Islanders (+32). 

Each of those teams is solidly in a playoff position. In fact, the Lightning (52-13-4) lead the NHL with 110 points and have clinched a playoff berth.

The Montreal Canadiens (+20) are the only team in the top 10 in 5-on-5 goal differential that is not in a playoff spot. The Canadiens (37-26-7) are tied in points with the Columbus Blue Jackets (39-28-3) for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, but Columbus holds the tiebreaker because it has three more regulation and overtime wins (ROW).

The Anaheim Ducks, who are seventh in the League in 5-on-5 goals against with 129, are the only team in the top 10 in that category not in a playoff spot.

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So at this time of year, most coaches will preach playing responsible hockey, and this begins with locking down their team's defensive game.

That is an important part of winning because it limits scoring chances against, can frustrate the opposition and is the key link to offense. Teams that focus on those details can be very difficult to play against.

Defense does not begin in the defensive zone. It starts in every zone, including the offensive zone.

Coaches will look for responsibility and commitment throughout each zone. They will talk about being on the right side (defensive side) of men when leaving the offensive zone, playing over top of breakouts, not getting left behind when opposing defensemen activate, forward tracking details, defensemen holding tight gaps, preventing odd-man rushes, and neutral and defensive-zone responsibilities.  

Coaching staffs will also establish their offensive game plan as far as making responsible plays rather than risky plays. They will stress details off the breakout, rush, forecheck and in the offensive zone while simplifying their game and the importance of support from a forward when defensemen pinch down walls in the offensive zone.

All of this takes the gray area out of the game. It provides structure to enhance scoring and eliminate chances against.

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Teams approach this in two different ways.

Some will play a passive style offensively that is more geared toward making teams come through their numbers. They win by playing smart, patient, airtight hockey. They prey on forcing mistakes, such as turnovers, odd-man rushes, quick strikes or drawing penalties before capitalizing on the power play. 

These teams can frustrate an opponent because they don't give up Grade A scoring chances. The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 with a team that allowed 2.07 goals per game in the regular season and 1.50 per game in the playoffs. They won the Cup in 2014, allowing 2.05 goals per game in the regular season and 2.69 in the playoffs.  

They won tight games with opportunistic scoring while maintaining their defensive commitment. 

There are other teams that are aggressive offensively. They play fast, attack, transition quickly, forecheck and track back hard. The objective is to spend more time in the offensive zone wearing teams down, which can lead to tired opponents who are less effective offensively.  

This is another form of smart defense. The more time spent in the offensive zone, the less time spent in the defensive zone. 

The Lightning are one of the teams that play this way. Not only are they excellent off the rush, but they are one of the top teams creating off the forecheck.

By using their speed and numbers to the puck, they force the opposition into mistakes and strike quickly upon puck retrieval. Their game is not built on playing run-and-gun, but rather responsible hockey as they track and defend as well as any team. 

The Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks play a similar style but are not as explosive offensively. These teams are built with five-man offense and five-man defense philosophies. 

They surround the puck quickly with bodies by working hard to provide support. Whether on the forecheck or getting back into defensive-zone coverage, they outnumber and swarm the opposition. This is only possible when players work to the puck with speed.

The teams that have a commitment to the defensive side of the game understand how it translates to their offensive game. As much as fans, players and coaches love scoring and offense, they also love to win, and defense wins games. 

If you can't defend, you don't give yourself a chance to win. 

It's a process to win and players need to perform as reliable teammates while buying into the coach's game plan. Little things such as good decisions, finishing checks and blocking shots make a difference. Being committed to play without the puck will lead to increased puck possession and enhance offensive production.   

All of this is done in support of the goalie while eliminating chances against. Strong team defensive play, timely scoring and sound goaltending are the foundation for playoff-bound teams. 

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