The New Jersey Devils lost Game 1, 1-5, on Wednesday night to the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a decisive loss. I can agree that the short turnaround after an emotional and grand 4-0 victory in Game 7 over a hated rival did not help the Devils. I absolutely agree that the Carolina Hurricanes played a great game. I am not arguing against either.
However, Game 2 and future games in this series will not necessarily go much better just because the New Jersey Devils have hopefully reset their mentality and the Hurricanes may not be so sharp. The Devils had a real issue with how the Hurricanes played in Game 1. They did not just lose by four. It took over 25 minutes for the Devils to register a second shot on game - a goal by Nathan Bastian - and they spent roughly the last ten minutes of regulation with one shot on Frederik Andersen. For a team to spend over half of the game with just two shots on target means something more is going on than just an emotional comedown against a rested team that executed very well. After thinking about it for a bit, I think the main issue starts with the aggressive forecheck of the Carolina Hurricanes. Let us discuss it.
What’s a Forecheck & A Refresher on the 1-2-2
Every team in the NHL - and pretty much any team in organized hockey - has some kind of gameplan or philosophy or tactic for forechecking the other team. Hockey is a fast-paced game where offense and defense can switch almost instantaneously at times. When a team loses the puck, they often put some kind of pressure on the other team. Someone actively going at the puck carrier is doing the actual forecheck. However, the rest of the team often sets up to be prepared for what happens after the forechecker does their job. It is a way for a team to prepare itself defensively even while actively trying to force the now puck carrying team to do something.
The New Jersey Devils under Jacques Lemaire became famous (infamous) for the neutral zone trap, or the 1-2-2 forecheck. This was a throwback to the halcyon 1970s Montreal teams that crushed opponents seemingly everywhere. If you remember the Devils of the mid-1990s, then you have seen this formation a lot. You have also seen every team in the NHL implement something like it and it is still used in these modern times. Such as by Our Hated Rivals in the first round. Here is a quick refresher of how it goes.
- The 1 is the actual forechecker. This is typically a forward (Forward 1) and their job is to go after the puck carrier, forcing the player to make some kind of decision. As they do this, the other four skaters get set up.
- The first ‘2’ in 1-2-2 are the other two forwards (Forward 2 and Forward 3). They cover the opponent’s blueline back to the neutral zone.
- The second ‘2’ are the defensemen. They play from the redline and back.
- The forechecker will try to apply pressure on the puck carrier. The best case scenario is that they win the puck back, and the other two forwards can rush up. The main goal is to influence which direction the puck carrier will go. The four players behind the forechecker will adjust accordingly. This is when the “trap” gets set.
- The two forwards will adjust first as to whichever direction the puck-carrying team goes. the forward on the left side will shift towards the wall, trying to force the opposition to the outside (dots to the boards) of the neutral zone. This will allow one defenseman to drop back to engage by their own blueline. The remaining forward and defenseman will cover the middle - picking up teammates without the puck.
- In the case of the 1990s Devils, they would employ this trap deeper such that a lot of work would be in the neutral zone as opposed to forechecking deep in their end of the rink. This forced a lot of teams playing New Jersey to dump the puck in at the risk of losing it right to them in the neutral zone. The red line “existed” as two-line passes were not allowed in the NHL so an opponent could not stretch the ice like teams do today. They had to go into the trap, for lack of a better term. With pressure from one (maybe two depending how the forechecker was going at the puck carrier) forwards and a defenseman ahead of the puck-carrying team and no support in the middle as they were covered by the other player, they would fire in. Which would often be intercepted by Martin Brodeur or picked up on the rim-around by the other defenseman - who already had an edge on the team making the dump in by being deeper. This was the trap itself and it led to the Devils winning a lot of pucks back to push forward and attack on offense once more. Had they more offensive talent then, the mid-1990s Devils would have been able to score more and be even more difficult to beat.
When it works, it forces teams to either play more methodically and into less space, or take risks to find space or catch them off-guard, which can lead to errors like turnovers or icings. That is the true purpose of the 1-2-2. While the best case scenario is to win the puck back in their end, the main goal of a forecheck is to allow the team without the puck to set up on defense and force the opposition into areas that they can better manage on defense. Then, they can win the puck back and look to respond on offense.
The removal of the two-line pass rule has defanged some of the of a 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck. Teams are now able to fire stretch passes up ice to hopefully beat the forechecker and at least one of the forwards behind the forechecker. Further, the forecheck requires a lot of discipline. A lapse in judgement, a hesitation to react, or just a mistake in reading the play can lead to a breakdown of this set-up and the puck-carrying team can punish it. Just like anything else in hockey.
Carolina’s Application or It Looks Like a 2-1-2 At Times
Former Toronto Marlies assistant coach and current hockey tactics writer Jack Han has written e-books about every team’s tactics for a few seasons now. I recommend it if you are into this sort of thing. His 2022 book confirmed what I have seen from Carolina in recent seasons and it dawned on me after Game 1 on Tuesday. The Canes do use a 1-2-2 - but a much more aggressive version. So much so that it looks like a 2-1-2 at times. What makes the Hurricanes’ forecheck different? Here are the main points from Han’s book about the 1-2-2 in the offensive zone, or the Devils’ defensive zone in this case.
- The forechecker goes hard at the puck carrier, even deep in their zone.
- A second forward can come in and put themselves on the strong side, or the side where the puck carrier is located.
- A third forward plays back a bit but is more focused on the weakside as well as the middle. This puts that player in a position to go after the middle but also deny attempts at reversing out of the defensive zone - either with a clearance or a player trying to move it up.
- The defensemen are at the blueline, ready to pinch or drop back as needed.
This is basically designed to go after teams that prefer to breakout on the strong side, or the side with the puck. The Devils are absolutely one of those teams under Lindy Ruff and Ryan McGill. However, when the Canes drop further into the neutral zone, the aggressive look can come about.
- Similar to the classic 1-2-2, the first forechecker goes at the puck carrier to pressure them into making a decision.
- But one of the forwards, usually on the weaker side, has the green light to jump up and pressure any stray teammate - the defenseman’s partner, a supporting forward, back to help the puck carrier. When this happens, the formation is more of a 2-1-2 as there is just one forward back and two defensemen. This takes away an option when the pressure from the first forechcker comes in.
- When this happens, the other forward goes towards the middle and the defensemen drop back. Even if the puck-possessing team beats the two forecheckers, there are three players waiting. Often in a way that only the outside lanes - from the faceoff dots to the boards - are open.
Two parts of Carolina’s team makes this approach especially effective. The first is that everyone on the team works their skates off. Their great-across-the-board 5-on-5 numbers are not just results of their work, they are evidence that everyone from Sebastian Aho to Shayne Gostisbehere puts in a strong effort. This is how the team can play up tempo so much and for a whole season plus playoffs. Even if the forecheckers do get beat, they backcheck hard to support the defense. And the deeper players in a 1-2-2 or 2-1-2 look react well to maintain their position. The second is that Carolina typically plays man-to-man on defense. Their defensemen are great as-is and, when the forecheck function, they are already in a position to defend the middle of the ice. And if the puck-possessing team takes their time - by choice or otherwise - then those two forecheckers come back to help out on defense. That eliminates even more space and makes it easier for the Canes to manage the situation in their own end. Without space to rush into or space to get the puck to for a dangerous shot, an offense even as talented as New Jersey’s struggles to create much of anything.
Ultimately, the Hurricanes’ use of their 1-2-2 forecheck and utilizing a 2-1-2 at times helped stifle the Devils from getting to a place where they can even attempt a shot on net. After all, firing super-low percentage shots from the half-wall is not going to get much going. And with the Canes already in positions to defend the middle, crashing the net for a potential rebound is often a challenge as a Devil can be easily out-numbered. When the Hurricanes are on their game, this is how they can force an up-tempo and offensively talented Devils team to just 19 shots on net in a game, 1 for a whole period, and 1 for the final ten minutes in a decisive loss. And they did this on Wednesday night.
What Can Be Done About It? Some Things to Consider
What makes this situation more difficult is that this is the playoffs. The New Jersey Devils are playing their 91st game and the Hurricanes are playing their 90th game of 2022-23 tonight. Both teams have been playing their ways with their philosophies, tendencies, and tactics throughout much of the season. Carolina is not going to stop forechecking as aggressively as they do. New Jersey is built for rush plays and attacking into spaces on offense. Neither team is going to throw out their playbook and try to do something totally different in the middle of a playoff series. This is why the ask and hope is for adjustments as opposed to a different way of playing hockey.
Additionally, the Devils cannot just ask and hope that the Hurricanes play worse. Sure, it would be great if their forecheck suffers from some hesitation or if a defenseman makes a wrong decision while dropping back or if the goalie just fills his pants on any puck coming his way. But that hope is not a plan. They cannot make 18 skaters feel like they got up from the wrong side of the bed. That said, I do think the Devils can throw off Carolina with some wrinkles to their own strategies. Including one from this past series.
- When possible, win pucks up high in the defensive zone. The Devils’ ideal in the defensive zone is to make quick exits. This would normally lead to the Devils hitting back on counter-attack rushes up ice or creating 2-on-2s or 1-on-1s toward the other team’s zone. This may not be able to be done with how Carolina forechecks on offense when the Devils win a puck deep in their zone. But if the Devils can win pucks from higher up in their own end of the rink - closer to their blueline - then these opportunities may happen. It is going to mean more work defensively for the likes of Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Ondrej Palat, Tomas Tatar, etc. And winning a puck from someone like Brent Burns is easier said than done, but the effort really needs to be made up high when possible. If successful, the Devils will not only have more space ahead of them to attack, but they may force Carolina to be more conservative in their play. Which is the ultimate goal.
- Fire away! What emboldens a forecheck and a defensive structure like Carolina’s is when the puck-carrying team fails to register a shot on target. Or takes a really low-percentage attempt from a not-so-dangerous part of the ice. This happened to the Devils, especially during those 35 combined minutes of two shots on net in Game 1. Rather than risking stretch passes to get behind the Hurricanes players or trying to rush through them, I think the Devils should make more of a point to fire away whenever they do get near the inside of the offensive zone. Even a shot from the faceoff dots or just behind them is better than working for something possibly better against a defense that is more than capable of denying that. Shooting more may bring out the Hurricanes defense, which can open up the middle of the ice a bit more for support (crashing the net for rebounds) or future entries. Plus, Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta are certainly not bad but they are not Igor Shesterkin on a heater either - some of those mid-dangerous or mid-to-low dangerous shots may actually provide value. Which would be a bonus.
- Go lateral when going up ice. The Hurricanes’ forecheck and 1-2-2s in general are meant to keep players to the outside when the go up-ice. One way to at least throw them off a bit is to go laterally when heading up ice. Think of how the Devils breakout on the power play. While that has not gone well at all in this postseason, teams do not stack four players on a blueline in 5-on-5 hockey. While a puck carrier going east-west a bit as they go north-south may allow the forecheckers to come back, it may also force the defending players in the neutral zone out of their normal spots. This can open up potential lanes for passes to head up ice and create spaces in the other team’s zone when they get there. Better to go at two players defending their end upon entry than three, after all. This is something the Devils did to great effect against Our Hated Rivals and it helped break down their more conservative 1-2-2.
- Consider dropping a third player into the defensive zone. The Canes forecheck hard with a 1-2-2 with one of those first two on the strong side on offense. They can occasionally look like a 2-1-2 with a second forechecker. Unless Carolina wants to dare use three forecheckers, the Devils may want to consider dropping back a player from the redline towards their own blueline or deeper as another option. While this would still give Carolina some time to adjust defensively, it could make them move out of their 1-2-2/2-1-2 set-up. An over aggressive response would open up spaces for that third player to get behind with a pass or a good move with the puck. A more passive response would at least give the Devils a little more time to work with and support behind them if things go wrong. This would be more just to get Carolina to act a bit differently than necessarily beating it - which can lead to some later confusion on how to set up that the Devils can exploit.
- Similarly, consider passing back as an option. The 1-2-2 forecheck presumes the puck-possessing team is going to keep going forward. It may not be the worst idea to, once in a while, pass or move the puck back a bit after leaving their zone rather than moving it into the trap of 3-4 Hurricanes back in the neutral zone. Similar to a soccer team in possession playing a ball backwards to a teammate, it can allow the Devils to survey the situation with a forechecker not immediately in their face and make a different decision. Again, this may not open things up right away but it would force Carolina to consider something else - something that the Devils could exploit.
- The answer is not personnel or match-ups. It is very tempting to write “Dress Luke Hughes” in response to Game 1. Asking someone to play in their third NHL game to be a key part in beating the Hurricanes forecheck is asking a lot. It is not all that fair to L. Hughes. Even if Luke Hughes has whatever people think he has that can somehow beat Carolina’s forecheck, he is not playing 60 minutes. The other Devils pairings and lines have to figure it out too. Likewise, as much as I agree that Jordan Staal was a Problem for The Big Deal in Game 1 (and he was!), somehow getting Hughes out there against, say, Sebastian Aho or Jesperi Kotkaniemi is not going to change how the Hurricanes play as a whole. The Devils have to adjust as a team to handle Carolina’s forecheck without falling into their trap.
It is not that I disagree that the Devils could execute better and generally work harder than they did in Game 1. I do not think it will go any better if all the Devils do is just work harder and hope their execution is enough to get by a Hurricanes team that has been ready for New Jersey just about all Wednesday night. It would be remarkably difficult for the Hurricanes to keep the Devils to one shot for a whole period again or even one shot for ten minutes. Yet, based on how Carolina’s forecheck, which sets up the rest of their defensive structure, the Hurricanes have shown how they can limit the Devils’ explosive offense. After all, they just had 17 shots on net in the other 25 minutes and let us not even get into how the Devils run their “power” play. Throw in some early goals and the Hurricanes demonstrated in Game 1 how they can lock down a game.
What this means to me is that whatever adjustments Lindy Ruff and his staff look for in tonight’s Game 2 and beyond need to address Carolina’s forecheck. If the Devils continue to struggle against it, then it is more likely they will struggle more in these games.
I will be the first to admit that I am still getting the hang of hockey tactics, much less writing about them. If there is something I got wrong or missed that is significant about how Carolina forechecks and defends, then please let me know and I will correct it. That said, this is the kind of thing that will help whether the Devils can be competitive in this series or get waxed by Carolina. I hope Lindy Ruff and his staff figured it out and communicates that to his players ahead of tonight’s game. That said, what is your take about Carolina’s forecheck? What can the Devils adjust in how they play to better handle it or at least force them to do something else? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Hurricanes’ forecheck and what the Devils should or should not do about it in the comments. Thank you for reading.