In the literal sense, the word convergence speaks to merger, unity, and a coming together. In the defensive zone, we can see this in the form of all five skaters coming together to take the middle of the ice away and protect the area in the slot and in front of the net.
In the 2010 playoffs, the Penguins were bit by a hot goaltender that had the luxury of 5 Montreal Canadiens filling up the front of the net and protecting the house in an uncanny fashion. Tight neutral zone play forced the Penguins into giving the puck away, and opportunistic forwards like the Canadiens Mike Cammalleri sprung into action and put the Penguins down. With early leads, beating a team practicing the art of convergence becomes even harder.
In a more recent note, we also saw Bob Errey of ROOT Sports highlight this on the telestrator several times over the course of the last two games.
So does convergence look like on the ice, and how do the Penguins beat it?
Like any good defensive zone system, everything starts in the Neutral zone. The defending team must first limit the puck carriers opportunities and funnel the play in one specific direction before they can collapse on their own goaltender. Allowing a skater free entrance into the zone simply because you want to protect the slot isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to start with a solid base.
In the diagram above, notice the position of the defense as deep into their own zone, with the F1 and F3 prohibiting the puck carriers options to a funnel that drives the puck carrier directly into 5 defensive player positions.
Notice that the F2 now has the option of heading down low on either side of the ice to support the defensive positions. It is pertinent in this system that the F3 and F1 do not abandon ship and chase the puck down low. The primary defensive responsibility for low play here falls on the F2, who must make a read as to which side of the ice to head to.
Once the puck has gained entry, the idea is to collapse on the puck carrier and funnel the play directly into a set of 5 sticks, legs, and other general traffic. Blocking shots is key in this system. For the Penguins, gaining entry into the zone wasn’t a real issue because their forecheck and puck retrieval is about as tenacious as it gets.
When an opposing team gains possession or confusion is created in the defensive zone, all players must retreat to the “house.” The house is, essentially, an imaginary area where all 5 players are to converge (hence the name!) on the goaltender and take away the major scoring areas of the ice. The side of the net goes away, there is no room in the slot, scoring forwards are out-manned in the defensive zone, and shots from the point deflect off of the mass of legs and sticks that are organized inside the house.
This presents a specific and unique problem for the Penguins. Bylsma’s system is predicated on using the corner of the net to work the puck into high percentage shooting areas, and to position forwards for prime rebound opportunities in key areas when shots are made from the point.
In this instance, the Penguins have gained control and have the puck in the corner of the ice, represented by the small yellow X.
Where are the Penguins to go with the puck? The option to pass to the front or carry in the front has been taken away. The point is open, but with a potential of 7 or 8 players clogging the middle of the ice, how many shots will find their way to the net? The side forward is open for a pass, but that’s a low percentage shot and, again, there is a ton of coverage in front of the Leafs goal.
This is where the issue is made with convergence. There is no room to operate, the shot and pass down low are gone, and unless you have the super-human effort that Evgeni Malkin had on Mikhail Grabovski last night, you’re pretty much stuck.
One option here is to reverse play. Throw the puck back behind the net, allow the D to pinch on the far side, and try to get the defensive zone in a state of confusion where they abandon their post in front. Joe Vitale found success with this on Tuesday night, as he was successfully able to reverse around the goal, get loose in front, and smack home a free puck in the crease. Toronto got caught chasing, Vitale made them pay.
Another is the option of a “walkout.” James Neal rang one off the pipe last night employing this strategy. By faking to the point or looking off the defender, you may find an opening to step into the middle of the house and get a shot on goal with a potential screen or player battling in front.
Convergence demands that you play from the perimeter. The onus is on the team to break out and find scoring chances elsewhere. That is the challenge presented to Dan Bylsma.
As you can see, it’s not as easy as it seems.