Photo courtesy of Steven Christy Photography. All rights reserved.
When a team deals the leagues best record, most standing points, fewest goals allowed, and the two best goaltenders it’s hard to find things to complain about. But as Coach Todd Nelson has always said, the system is always a work in progress. For those unsure what the Barons system might be it’s really quite simple. Basic hockey, if you will. It begins with defense. The net needs to be strong, and the defenders around the crease must be relentless and smart. It then moves towards the neutral zone where the Barons need strong and protective puck movement. Finally, the offense is wide open. It’s strong on the boards, smart behind the net, and always pass friendly. That’s the perfect system for developing young talent. And for much of two seasons, it has worked to near perfection. But we’ve seen two cases in recent weeks that lead us to believe that there are some holes in the system.
For the Barons, sticking to that simple system is the bread and butter of winning. This is both a testament to the coaching staff and the dedication of the players, both young and old. However, for as simple as the scheme might be, beating it is equally as simple.
You hear a lot of talk these days about “zone to man” defense. Simply put, it’s the type of play that the Barons put forth almost nightly. It’s the quadrant protection that pushes offensive forwards out of the middle and onto the boards. It works because it requires each defender to be smart in his area thus keeping plays from materializing down the pipe. Ironically, the great antidote to beating the Barons is playing the same type of defense they themselves commit.
Great example. Last weekend’s three-in-three featured a strong defensive hockey team, the Milwaukee Admirals. As part of the Predators organization, they know a thing or two about defensive toughness. After letting in two goals in the first ten minutes, including one on the power play, the Admirals proceeded to own the Barons’ scoring box for the next 50 minutes. That little adjustment allowed for the Ads to capitalize on Barons turnovers and score four straight goals. The late goal by Hartikainen was a rush that caught Milwaukee off guard, but they quickly returned to the protective zone defense. The Ads also fore-checked their way to greatness at specific intervals in the game. Usually after time outs and defensive face-offs that were lost. Quite impressive.
Three games prior we saw the same thing, this time against the pesky and quick Charlotte Checkers. However, this time the Checkers made few mistakes from the get-go. The lone goal by Curtis Hamilton in the Barons eventual 3-1 defeat was semi-flukey which he dangled from behind the net and bounced off the goalies skates. The rest of the 60 minutes were all Charlotte playing stay-at-home defense, and occasional strong fore-checking.
These are only two recent examples of how this Barons squad gets beat. To recap, simple zone-to-man defense coupled with bursts of careful fore-checking leads to success against a wide open Barons offensive scheme. And remember, this is what the Barons have done to opponents that has earned them the right to be called one of the best teams in the American League.
So how do the Barons beat opponents who adopt their strong defensive scheme? Simple. Pass better, become patient, remember that the play begins in neutral ice, and always go towards the net. Taylor Chorney, Bryan Helmer, Kevin Mongtomery, and newcomer Bryan Rodney are all decent puck movers. They aren’t afraid to shoot, but they aren’t afraid to patiently ease the puck up the ice. All too often the Barons attempt a quick rush that leads to quite a few turnovers. Linus Omark and Teemu Hartikainen are the chiefest of sinners. Doing too much singularly can cost you. Those two have adjusted at times and it has worked in their favor. They get the scoring chances much quicker and with greater duration. It’s not flashy hockey, moving the puck patiently, but it’s how you win consistently.
Tonight the Barons host the Texas Stars, then they head out on the road for a two week, eight game tour of primarily Midwest and North Division opponents. It will be important to be smart, stay patient, and stick to the system. But realize at this point, other teams are doing the same thing.