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How Colorado’s forecheck frustrated Victor Hedman in Game 1

The Colorado “Avalanche” might lowkey have the best franchise name in professional sports. Natural disasters like the “Hurricanes” are in the same vein and similarly unstoppable – good luck to all your Bears and Tigers and Leafs out there – but “Avalanche” is exactly what you want your team to be. Moving by and large in one direction, all at once, stopping for nothing, burying everything and anyone who dares get in your path.

And boy, is that a fitting name for this year’s team out of Colorado, who in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final gave the Tampa Bay Lightning – another great name, of course – all they could handle, particularly on the forecheck. Once they started to roll, the Bolts had trouble digging out.

One of the storylines heading into this series was the play of the two elite defencemen Cale Makar and Victor Hedman, who are the two best D-men on planet earth, though don’t ask me to rank them. (If I had to pick one to start a team for next season, I’d grow old and grey deciding.)

With Makar having had the best performance of any defenceman in the NHL this post-season, all eyes were on him. Sportsnet’s own Kevin Bieksa did a wonderful job explaining how Game 1 had gone for Makar, which was fascinating because it wasn’t “he played great” or “he struggled,” it was: Makar looked great, had jump, and skated beautifully, but Tampa Bay did a sneaky good job sealing him off from completing any of his rushes.

Makar was able to slash through the middle and lug the puck into the zone, but often he was forced into a spot where his shot got blocked, and because of that, he started passing out of trouble to his teammates. If you’re Tampa, that’s great – just get the puck out of that guy’s hands.

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On numerous occasions he made great plays because he took what was given – very little – rather than forcing anything.

Here’s a great play to Nichushkin, which is also well-defended:

And here’s the play just moments before the Lightning scored to make it 3-2, in which Makar again finds Nichushkin after some great skating up through the neutral zone:

So Makar was good, but by and large contained with savvy team defending.

This “Avalanche” I referred to off the top though, led to the elite defenceman on the other side, Mr. Hedman, to never really find his game. It was the Colorado forecheck that seemed to get to him, and he was left with rushed passes, where he didn’t make the type of plays that we know he can make, and that make him special. These are the things that separate the greats from the goods – on quick reactionary plays, can you make a play that helps your team? It’s huge on zone exists with D-men, and on the Avs second goal by Nichushkin, Hedman twice failed to beat the forecheck with a good pass. In this first GIF, he hits his own teammate’s skate to keep the puck in the zone, then he gives it to a teammate who’s under duress, with no ability to make a play with the puck.

A good look at the Avs full, effective forecheck can be seen here:

On the Avs OT winner, it wasn’t like Hedman made an awful play, but he did yet again hit his own teammate with a breakout pass somewhere they couldn’t be expected to deal with it (Steven Stamkos’ heel, in this case), and it led to Colorado steamrolling back down the hill the other way.

These are the little plays that make all the difference, and the type Hedman usually pulls off. I say “makes all the difference,” because he’s almost in the exact same spot here in the GIF below, but getting it past the attack and out of harm’s way has a different outcome.

That play “made all the difference.” Mike Kelly of SportLogiq dialled in the stats on this breakout stuff even further here:

When Tampa broke the puck up and out of their end past the forecheck, good things happened. Here’s Ryan McDonagh after that Makar rush making a tape-to-tape pass so the Bolts could go play the other way:

(Oof, that Kucherov fake where he squares his shoulders to “shoot” – and make no mistake, he’s got a laser you have to honour – followed by the pull past Devon Toews, followed by the pinpoint backhand pass, mamma mia is that an elite play.)

This series does not boil down to one matchup, there are too many great players on both sides to devalue them with that oversimplification. The goalie matchup is huge, Anthony Cirelli versus Nathan MacKinnon is pivotal, and heck, the coaching match up matters.

But if Victor Hedman isn’t elite for Tampa, it limits their ability to play rush hockey and keeps them hemmed in more often, and swings things in the Avs favour.

After the Leafs beat Tampa in Game 1 of the first round, the verdict was that Hedman hadn’t been himself. He turned pucks over and looked human. In Game 2, he had a goal and three assists for four points in 24 minutes of ice time and looked like a force the Leafs just had no answer for. Hedman’s ability to replicate that bounce-back against an avalanche of a forecheck will dictate whether Tampa gets a jolt, or if they get smothered once and for all.

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Written by Sportsnet

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