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Off the wall

Devils using end boards to create more scoring chances

Monday, 02.14.2011 / 9:05 AM / Features
By Eric Marin
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Off the wall
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It looked like a harmless play during the Devils’ win over Carolina on Feb. 8. Colin White fired a shot wide, safely away from a line of Hurricanes defenders protecting the middle of the ice.

The puck caromed off the end boards right to Jason Arnott, who quickly flipped a backhand pass to Mattias Tedenby alone in front for a goal.

A happy accident? Not at all. White shooting wide was all part of the plan.

Lively boards and a rise in shot-blocking forwards have made it tougher for defensemen to get pucks on net. More and more, they’re choosing to take a less direct path to scoring areas.

As a result, the tactic of rocketing shots off the end boards to generate chances has become a bigger part of teams’ offensive playbooks.

Lately, it’s also served the Devils well.

“Guys these days are so good at getting in shot lanes, getting in the way, and goalies are sometimes so aggressive that the best play is a little shot-pass off the boards,” Andy Greene explained.

It just keeps the puck deep for us. If we work hard cycling, get it back to the point and they don’t have anything, it just keeps us going. More and more goals are being scored off of it. - Jason Arnott
Instead of forcing a shot through a maze of sticks and shinguards, a defensemen sends it wide of the traffic. Forwards hope to be the first ones to the rebounds, controlling for either a shot that catches the goaltender straying from his net, or a pass to a teammate cashes in while the goalie’s on the move.

“You’re just basically trying to get it through,” White said. “Everybody tries to block so many shots nowadays. In the old days, not so many guys were willing to block shots. They’d let it go through to the goalie. But a lot of guys block shots nowadays, so you’re just trying to get it through.”

Probably no blueliner has mastered this better than Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom. The six-time Norris Trophy winner is notorious for angling shots off of the high-bounce end boards at Joe Louis Arena.

“We call it the ‘Lidstrom play’ because he does it time and time again,” Arnott said. “When he doesn’t have a lane he finds that open spot and their team knows it’s coming. They all get ready for it.”

Aside from his six seasons in New Jersey, Arnott’s career has been spent in the Western Conference. He’s faced Detroit 62 times, enough to know how the effective the strategy can be.

“It’s always something that you always have to be aware of when [Lidstrom’s] on the ice,” said Arnott “He’s such a smart player, he just positions it, puts it into place, and [at Joe Louis Arena] it comes out hot. It comes out into the slot, hot.”

It’s not just useful for the home team. Visitors to Detroit have learned to use the boards to their advantage, too.

“Even when we played them [on Jan. 26], we had a couple of good opportunities,” Greene said. “I tried twice, one of those came off and hit the post and almost hit the back of [JImmy] Howard’s leg and went in. The other one, I tried it, Trav [Zajac] got it, and that was the one where [Ilya Kovalchuk] tried to shove it in and we got the goal disallowed. It’s just something you try.”

Greene, a Michigan native, said the caroms at “The Joe” are unlike any others. With experience, defensemen figure out to they can exploit them.

“In Detroit, because you’ve played there, you know if you shoot a puck off there it’s like a golf ball; it almost comes off harder than it did going in,” he said. “It’s a good play because a lot of times, as a defenseman the forward will get on the other side of you and you’re thinking, ‘Why’s this guy shooting so far wide?’”

By now, the Lidstrom play is hardly a Motown exclusive. It gets results and it’s better than some of the alternatives.

“I’d rather have that a hundred times over than getting it blocked or ringing it around the boards,” said Arnott, who scored on Henrik Tallinder’s end-board ricochet against Florida on Feb. 4. “It gives us an opportunity, if we are standing in front and it goes off the end boards, it comes out quick; it’s one step and we’re there. It just keeps the puck deep for us. If we work hard cycling, get it back to the point and they don’t have anything, it just keeps us going.

“More and more goals are being scored off of it.”

Greene is in his fourth NHL season, and remembers testing out the boards whenever he played at an arena for the first time.

“Pregame skates or on road trips, you get in early, you have a practice,” he said. “You just take a couple of pucks and see what happens when you shoot straight on. Say if you’re trying to go D to D behind the net, you want to see if the puck comes off flat or if it jumps up. You just want to see how it reacts, really.”

Another part of the play’s appeal is its unpredictability. The shooter himself can’t always pinpoint where the puck will end up, the defenders even less so.

“You never know where it’s going to bounce,” White said. “The boards, they take some funny bounces sometimes.”

Johan Hedberg has been witness to his share of odd puck bounces this year at Prudential Center, though he classifies the boards at the Rock as consistent. Even a reputation for consistency can sometimes lull players into a false sense of security on dump-ins or shot-passes.

“You think it’s going to bounce a certain way and it takes a totally different one,” Hedberg said. “It’s probably worse than having crazy boards all the time. Then, you expect it. I guess it’s just never being too comfortable and expecting things to happen. You have to always be ready. I’ve learned that this year, too. Anything can happen. I try to stay really sharp when the puck’s up in the glass or on the boards.”

It can give goalies fits.

“It’s an underrated play that you may not think about that often, but it’s hard for the goaltender, it’s hard for the defensemen,” Hedberg said. “Everybody has to adjust as soon as he tees it up and tries to shoot, everybody tries to direct that shot. If it goes wide, sometimes you let up a little bit and it takes a wild bounce coming back.”

The end boards haven’t always been this much of an offensive ally. Arnott, who broke into the League in 1993, remembers pucks dropping with a thud when they missed the net.

“Before, it used to just hit and die,” Arnott said. “So a lot of teams wouldn’t do it, or you wouldn’t see it as much. But now, I don’t know if they’re using different material or they changed it or the new rinks have it now, but I know the old rinks, it would hit and you’d probably get that little layer of ice that goes along the bottom that we used to get. It’s a different time now.”

Just as shot-pass caroms have been an adjustment to livelier boards and better shot blockers, Greene said defenses will soon figure out how to neutralize them, too.

Strategies change, but evolution and sports are constant partners.

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