Crashing the Crease: Crashing the Crease

Courtesy zimbio.com

No, that title is not a symptom of double vision or some colossal editorial mistake. There is an important element to any hockey team’s game plan, and that is the very act of crashing the crease.

Some broadcasters may refer to it as having good “net presence,” “going to the dirty areas to score,” or being in position to score a “garbage goal.” But net presence — and crashing the crease — is not a simple thing. Any team looking to crash the crease has a few major goals to accomplish, and each tactic demands a different response from the goaltender.

Screening the goaltender is one of the most important aspects of creating net presence. To put it simply, screening a goalie is the art of using one’s body to obscure the goaltender’s vision of the puck.

If a forward has established himself well in the goal mouth, he can also infringe on the goalie’s ability to be set for a shot in the first place. If the goaltender can’t see the puck being passed quickly from the half wall to the point, or between two defensemen at the point, he may not be able to react to the pass in perfect time, meaning he cannot be square to the shot. If the puck is one-timed well, the goaltender’s ability to make a save is going to be challenged not only by a failure to see the shot, but by the fact that he was never set in the first place.

Bonus points are awarded to the forward if they’re able to draw a defenseman into the screen as well, especially if that defender is unable to box them out of the goalie’s vision and/or prevent them from accessing a potential rebound.

Crashing the crease and having “net presence” is about making goalies’ lives difficult. Courtesy of bleacherreport.com

How does the goaltender combat this? Firstly, having the size of a guy like Ilya Bryzgalov or Michael Leighton helps tremendously when dealing with traffic in front of the net. When either drop into the butterfly, their 6-foot-3 frames allow them to cover a massive amount of space provided they are square to the shot and playing at the correct depth in the crease.

As long as their butterfly is tight without giving up the five-hole or room between their arms and body, they should be able to stop almost anything but a top-shelf shot just by playing to a block if they can’t see — especially since many shooters will attempt to shoot at the screening player in the hopes of getting a tip-in, which often lends the shot some predictability. Their height also provides the advantage of being able to look over or around most forwards without having to lean too far out of their crouch and getting off balance, so they have a natural benefit in being able to see more of most shots rather than playing the odds blindly.

A big goalie like Bryzgalov can look around most screens easily. Courtesy of bleacherreport.com

Compare either of the two to a guy like recently departed Sergei Bobrovsky, and drastic differences emerge. Bob is only an inch shorter than Bryz or Leighton, but because of his low crouch must react to screens differently, much like a shorter goaltender would. When faced with a screen or heavy traffic, Sergei ducks low and attempts to look around players at the midsection, rather than trying to see around their shoulders. The result can often be an off-balance crouch which leaves room to one side or the other, or up high.

Bobrovsky could combat this by hanging his hands a little higher and betting that people will shoot high if there’s room (which they frequently do against him), or by adapting his crouch in these situations to naturally be a bit higher. Since many shooters will fire at the screening player’s feet anyway, it is probably less essential for him to maintain his wide stance.

Bobrovsky tends to play small in traffic to peek around screens, but gives up room up top.

As mentioned, shooters will often fire close to a screening player’s feet, stick, or body. Deflections and tip-ins are another important part of net presence. If a player can establish positioning in the slot (whether screening effectively or not), they have the ability to redirect shots around the goaltender, with some slick hand-eye coordination and good timing. Contrary to popular belief, which often tells forwards to get as close to the goalie as possible, being tight to the goaltender actually plays into the goalie’s hands. While some goaltenders like Henrik Lundqvist who possess reflexes that are spectacular even by NHL standards, many more — like Bryzgalov and Leighton — have reaction times that are a tiny bit closer to normal.

For these goaltenders, the best way to combat a tip is by getting right up against the player who is redirecting the puck if they’re close to the crease. The reason is simple: if the puck is going low, and the player changes the angle so it will go high, it makes it very difficult to react fast enough to stop it. However, the closer the goalie is to the puck when it changes direction, the “bigger” they’ll be, severely increasing the change of angle needed to actually get the puck over them.

Being closer to the point of a deflection increases the angle required to beat a goaltender, improving the odds of a blocking save. Please pardon the exaggerated physics, this is a rough demonstration.

Lastly, a team forcing net presence is hoping for rebounds. Rebounds come up in practically every serious discussion about goaltending in game scenarios because rebound control really does play a role in every part of the game from the goaltender’s perspective.

A goalie has practically no control over the quality of the first shot they face, but rebounds are the one thing they really do control. As always, the goaltender’s best bet is just to make sure they have the puck after the initial shot. No matter how close a player is to the net for rebounds, they can’t score if the shot is simply held for a faceoff. However, if opponents are in close to a goaltender and the puck gets away from them, the best bet is still pushing it to the corners.

If that fails to be an option, players that are in too tight to the goalie may actually see the rebounds get kicked out past them. A hard point shot is likely to come off the pads with a little velocity, so a tight screen in close is actually one of the few scenarios in which kicking out a big rebound might actually not be such a terrible thing.

It’s certainly not preferable to controlling the puck or playing it away from the slot, but if players are crashing the net hard and the puck has to go somewhere other than a routine safe zone, it’s better to push it out behind crease crashers and hope that a friendly forward is in his proper defensive positioning. Leighton in particular has a tendency to kick out rebounds so big that players in too deep often fail to capitalize, but this requires alertness from his defensive help.

Screens, deflections, and rebounds are all big reasons why players crash the crease hard in the NHL. There are some big players in the Show capable of taking up a lot of real estate in front of the net, and a lot of them have some slick mitts to boot.

Fortunately, both Bryzgalov and Leighton are big individuals in their own right, and are given a natural leg-up on the business of crashing the crease. Hopefully they are able to make the most use of that size and deal with the occasional traffic jam, as it remains to be seen just how well the Flyers’ new defense will clear the porch and make the goalies’ lives just a little easier.