Playing-Card Five keeping hopes alive

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

BUFFALO -- Fans who like the new version of the National Hockey League are in a clear majority.

They say the game is faster and facilitates great play by great players.

But those who don't like it -- probably 20% or so -- say hockey now is too much of a power-play game and even though there is an increase in scoring, it's the result of more effective power plays, not five-on-five offence.

Both make valid points.

The crackdown on restraint was supposed to give the skilled players a chance to show their attributes, and it has done that.

But at the same time, it has given coaches a chance to create defensive modifications that take advantage of the same crackdown.

The system is called the Playing-Card Five. It could also be called a Dice Five because it alludes to the positioning of the five defensive players -- like the spots on a playing card.

But the playing card analogy is a bit more apt because if you consider the card laid horizontally, it makes a flatter pattern, and that's what the coaches like.

They drop back all five defenders -- often so deep they all are within the hashmarks -- and leave the opposing defencemen out there on the points all alone.

In theory, the system should concede a series of blasts from the point.

But in fact, it doesn't.

For one thing, there is so much swarming down low that it is difficult for an attacking forward to get the puck back to the point.

But the recent changes in the game also are a factor. In the earlier era, if you tried to us the Playing-Card Five, the winger who is supposed to cover the point would be held up on his way out there. But this is the no-restraint era.

So in today's defensive system, you have the defencemen in their traditional positions, a centre who reacts to the location of the puck and wingers who cover their side of the ice.

But at the first hint of the puck going back to the point, those wingers charge out there. Since the new approach not only places a premium on speed players, but also prevents them from being restrained, they get there so quickly that what had appeared to be a wide-open shot disappears faster than a Liberal stumbling upon an ethics convention.

The point man now has the puck on his stick, but a charging forward is bearing down. Right behind that forward, in line with the net, is a defenceman.

The point man has nowhere to shoot. He can try it if he wants to, and many do. That's why there were so many blocked shots this year.

But this is not the only situation in which shots are blocked. Even down low, it happens often. With three attackers and five defenders crammed into such a small area, there rarely is an open lane to the net. Again, the speed of today's game comes into play. The defenders close lanes quickly, and a shot that had appeared to be available bounces off a leg.

Both the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes use the Playing-Card Five. So do a lot of other teams whose seasons already are over.

It's the trendy pattern at the moment, because even though it's primarily defensive, it has a powerful offensive aspect.

When the puck goes to the point, both wingers go out at full force. After all, it doesn't do much good to cover only one point man and leave his partner wide open to receive a quick pass. At the same time, the defending centre is reacting to the puck and moving out. So if there's a turnover or a blocked shot, which is often the case, the defenders suddenly become the attackers and they have three forwards breaking out in line with plenty of speed.

Realizing this, the point man is likely to turn the puck back in along the boards and send the defenders back deep again.

And it's difficult to score in that crowd.

That's why they have to wait for the power play.

The Playing-card Four is nowhere near as effective.


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