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BTB BLOG: DEFENDING THE BIG THREE

by Brian Wheeler / Buffalo Sabres
Beyond the Boards is written by the Buffalo Sabres Website Manager, Brian Wheeler. Joining the Sabres prior to the 2003-04 season, Wheeler is the main contact and content editor for Sabres.com. He has worked in the NHL, NFL, AHL and NLL over the past 11 years.  Click here to send him an email.


 
Vincent Lecavalier (photo: Getty Images)
There's a basic outline that's employed by most teams when facing an "elite" NHL player. Ask a defenseman about their plan of attack and their response is nearly constant as time.  
"We want to take away time and space."

That's the standard response.  It's quick, easy and simple.  Of course as the old saying goes, it's easier said than done.  

The strategy can basically be broken down into two parts which sound very similar: 1) Play aggressive and force the issue to get the puck off said superstar's stick; 2) if said superstar does possess the puck don't give him the time to pick you apart.

Take the New York Rangers for example.  Any team facing the Blueshirts would much rather have Sean Avery shooting the puck than Jaromir Jagr.   

Just getting Jagr to pass doesn't mean you're holding him scoreless - Montreal found that out the hard way Tuesday night when he helped setup four of the Rangers five scores - but it does give you a better chance at limiting the amount of damage that superstar can do.

Of course, this philosophy isn't as clear cut when you play a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Don't let their last place standing in the Eastern Conference fool you, the Lightning possess one of the most dominating lines in the league.  

Vinny Lecavalier (59 GP, 32 + 44 = 76), Martin St. Louis (59 GP, 21 + 50 = 71) and Vaclav Prospal (59 GP, 27 + 28 = 55)  individually are extremely dangerous, together lethal.

So how do you attack a trio of offensively gifted players?  Well in the NHL it's not impossible to stop a one-line dominate team.  It just takes a little planning.

"In this case, this line even plays more than a lot of other lines," said head coach Lindy Ruff.  "They're typically a line that's going to be out there 23 or 24 minutes.  That adjustment comes where we'll play two or three lines against them and we'll have to be responsible."

That's it.  Gang up, wear down and frustrate three players by rolling fresher defensive-minded lines against them.

Jochen Hecht, Jason Pominville and whoever else is matched with them has often been the Sabres best set of defensive forwards.  Insert Daniel Paille into that combination and you've got three of the team's  best penalty killers on one line.  Penalty killers are always players who think responsibility first in their own zone.

So Hecht-Pominville-Paille will probably handle the majority of the burden - coupled with the defensive pairing that is playing best at that time - when facing one of these types of lines, but ultimately it comes down to a team attack.
 
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