Neutral Zone Defense may be the death of the injured Islanders.

Quick little post here and before I begin, let me say that the game was a lot closer than the SOG total looked through 2 periods, with the key difference being the Isles missing the net constantly while the Caps got their unblocked shots on net.  So the following is not suggesting the Isles were dominated (they actually were in Game 2, by contrast).

Game 5 showcased a major problem with the loss of Lubomir Visnovsky (and then later Calvin de Haan), one which is talked about little when talking about Lubo’s skillset.  That problem is this:  without Visnovsky, the Isles’ ability to prevent opponents from entering the zone with speed, via carry-in instead of dump-in, was greatly diminished.

Why was this?  Well, part of this is a failure of coaching – players are often taught to be conservative – when facing a rushing opponent with even numbers, they are taught to back off and try to prevent them from getting a shot off in the Defensive Zone, or to block any shots they take.  The issue is that this is a flawed strategy – it allows the opponent into your own zone in the first place!  A more effective strategy is to actually try to challenge at or before the line and prevent the carry-in.  Alex Ovechkin’s release is so fast that backing up likely gives him the very room he needs to get a shot off, even if it’s not the best shot he can get.  But if you prevent Ovechkin from getting INTO the zone, he can’t shoot at all.

Better players are more willing to challenge – they know their skill can cover for them if they fail and trust themselves to accomplish their goal.  Lesser players are less willing – hence Brian Strait or Andrew MacDonald’s tendency to back up.  (Travis Hamonic does this as well, take of that what you will).  Visnovsky, Leddy and to a lesser extent Boychuk all are strong at this skill, as has been Calvin de Haan at times (although less so in these playoffs).

Without Visnovsky and without de Haan, you suddenly have two pairs who are scared to challenge and let the Caps come in on the rush.  As you saw, that is incredibly dangerous.

Can this be fixed?  Well, back in the WHL Final last year, Griffin Reinhart was the best on his team at breaking up opposing carry-ins.  He hasn’t been good at it in the limited sample so far, but maybe he can regain that skill at the NHL level.  Ryan Pulock’s style would seem to possibly be like that of Visnovsky (at least from descriptions) so maybe he can do it.  Regardless, if the team doesn’t do that, they’re going to need some good shooting and poor goaltending from Holtby to carry through.  Not what I want to bet on at this point.

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