On October 21, the Toronto Maple Leafs suffered a tough loss against the Ottawa Senators. They fell behind 3-0 after two periods, and a goal frenzy in the third led to a 6-3 final score. The major issue: the Leafs struggled mightily to beat the Senators' 1-3-1 forecheck.
It's been a big conversation topic around the league for a while, but in case you aren't familiar with it, here's a little refresher.
The 1-3-1 is a forechecking system that gained league-wide attention in the 2010-11 season, when the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers played what might be the most boring hockey game ever.
The idea is simple: The first forechecker (F1) tries to funnel the puck-carrying breakout player to one side, while closing down the centre lane. Once the puck-carrier drives down one side or plays an outlet pass, the line of three shifts to that side as well. The strong-side forechecker can then attack the puck-carrier aggressively, while the last defenceman covers for him.
Here's a quick video for illustration:
If the forechecking team sets up as high as they do in the video, the counter play is usually to chip/dump/pass the puck past the line of three and beat it with speed. If they set up farther back, however, like the 2017-18 Ottawa Senators do, it gets a little tricky.
Here are three ways to get it done.
Disclaimer 1: NHL head coaches, including Mike Babcock and especially Mike Babcock, are far more knowledgeable than myself. There is nothing I can tell you that he doesn't know, yet the Leafs struggled mightily against Ottawa. So, implementing one of these strategies is not a magic recipe for success, and no matter what you do, beating it is difficult.
Disclaimer 2: There are more than three ways to beat the 1-3-1. These are just a selection, and they are relatively simple.
1. Shift to weak side
The first option is the simplest and perhaps most obvious one. If the objective of the 1-3-1 is to funnel the puck to one side of the ice and the entire unit shifts to that side, the objective of the attacking team should be to get the puck to the weak side before the forecheckers can react.
Here's a clip from this season's Leafs-Senators game. William Nylander carries the puck up the ice, is forced to choose a side, goes to the right wing, and dumps the puck in – Ottawa's trap worked perfectly.
When Nylander crosses the red line, three of the Senators move toward him to pressure him at the boards. Meanwhile, Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT #44) is the only player left on the weak side, covering both Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman.
So, how can Nylander get the puck to the weak side?
Dotted line – Pass
Dashed line – Skating without the puck
Solid line – Skating with the puck
Nylander is getting support from Jake Gardiner. As all Ottawa players in the vicinity are moving toward their defensive zone, Nylander can easily play a drop pass with an extremely low chance of being intercepted. And since the puck travels faster than the Senators could react, Gardiner can quickly forward it to the left wing.
Hyman is already waiting at the blue line, so he's not an option. Matthews, on the other hand, swung back behind the red line and is now in a position that would allow him to receive the puck and accelerate. If he swings a little wider – between the face-off dot and the boards – he will have plenty of room to enter the zone.
A second way to shift to the weak side is to deke around the first forechecker after choosing a side to then skate the other way. This requires a highly skilled and speedy puck-carrier.
The clip above looks promising as Mitch Marner carries the puck up ice and manages to beat Ottawa's F1, Alex Burrows (#14). Unfortunately, the play fails anyway, as Marner ends up skating into traffic.
The goal here would be to get the puck to Andreas Borgman, who is moving up the ice from the back end. To do so, centre Dominic Moore should cut through the middle to the strong side and try to pull a forechecker with him. This would create space on the left wing, where Marner would have to play a pass before it's too late.
2. Carry all the way
Next up is a play the Leafs used successfully against Ottawa. The puck-carrier holds on to the puck long enough to not only draw F1 toward him, but also the strong-side player in the line of three. It is this player's job to attack the puck-carrier aggressively, but this also frees up space behind him.
So, if the attacking team gets someone behind the line of three quickly enough, the puck-carrier can then play a bank pass against the boards and to his open teammate.
Here's the play in action.
3. Through the middle with speed
Finally, the 1-3-1 can be beat with speed. Plain and simple.
Here's another failed entry attempt by the Leafs that could have been done differently.
As Gardiner skates the puck up ice, Connor Brown is able to block Kyle Turris, Ottawa's F1. Yet, Gardiner is forced to go down the left boards, and with two teammates taken out of the play behind/beside him and two near the blue line on the strong side, there isn't much he can do.
Now, in this clip, the Leafs didn't waste much time before heading on the breakout, due to Turris's pressure behind the net, and the Senators don't have much time to get set up properly. As a result, the play illustrated below won't quite make sense in this particular situation, but try to focus on the strategy rather than Brown falling back while the D-men jump on the attack. So, imagine the frame below is a controlled breakout, Brown is the second defender, and Nikita Zaitsev is one of the forwards.
Brown does an excellent job blocking Ottawa's F1, but once Turris gets past him, he keeps skating with average speed, neither covering for the puck-carrier nor being open as a passing option. Instead, he should slow down and make sure he's there in case of a turnover.
Meanwhile, Zaitsev just glides behind Gardiner and Brown, taking zero strides in the process. Instead, he should jump on the attack with speed – the chance would have been there – and present a passing option. He could then carry the puck straight into the offensive zone or pull to the outside.
If the 1-3-1 was unbeatable, every team would use it. But it's not. The reason why the Lightning were so successful with it in 2011 is that teams were unprepared. Today, coaches know the system, and they know it can be beat.
The problem is that it isn't easy, and with only one team using it prominently, there is no point in spending more than a couple of days before the game practicing special breakout plays.
When the Senators come to Toronto on January 20, it will be the Leafs' ninth game in 14 days. So, again, there won't be much time to practice anti-1-3-1 breakouts.
On the bright side, we know it's possible – and maybe a few video sessions will be enough to beat Ottawa this time around.