Coach Luke Richardson teaching Blackhawks defensemen how to better defend two-on-one rushes

Not every defenseman slides, and that’s not necessarily the wrong approach. But if they do, Richardson wants them to do so a half-second later but more aggressively toward the puck-carrier.

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Blackhawks defensemen have struggled defending two-on-one rushes recently.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The science of defending a two-on-one rush in the NHL is complicated.

And with the Blackhawks not only conceding too many counterattacks lately but also struggling to defend them, coach Luke Richardson — who faced hundreds himself during his own playing career — has been working closely with his defensemen to break down that science.

In any two-on-one, there are a few key decisions the defenseman must make: where to position himself between the puck carrier and the puck carrier’s teammate, whether to slide and when to slide if he does.

The objective is to force the puck carrier to shoot rather than pass — and to shoot from an angle. Smothering the teammate and giving the carrier a pseudo-breakaway isn’t smart, either, as Hawks veteran defenseman Jack Johnson — who also has faced hundreds of rushes — explained Friday.

“You don’t want the goalie to move,” Johnson said. “You want to try to let the goalie get as set as much as you can. That’s why you try to take away the pass. They might make a pass or two early — by the blue line — but once you get to the top of the [faceoff] circles, you want to try to lock down one side.”

Richardson has suggested his defensemen start equidistant between the two attackers (or slightly closer to the puck carrier) as the rush crosses the blue line, then gradually shift toward the teammate as the rush approaches the net. But the talent of the two opposing players — and their tendencies toward shooting or passing — can factor in, too.

“If the guy on the other side is a 50-goal scorer, I’m going to really shade onto [him],” Johnson said.

And then there’s the question of sliding or not sliding. There’s no correct answer, only personal preference.

Sliding is probably more common league-wide, but Johnson, for example, was taught not to while growing up and has stuck with that approach.

“I tried sliding one time, and the guy just dragged it around me and scored,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘I’m never doing that again.’ ”

Richardson has been showing the Hawks examples of two-on-one rushes they defended poorly using both approaches.

Against the Oilers last week, Seth Jones slid twice in the third period but did so too passively and arguably too early, allowing the Oilers to connect their passes and score both times.

Against the Devils on Tuesday, Ian Mitchell didn’t slide during a rush in the first period, but he was too close to the puck carrier and too far from the teammate, allowing the Devils’ pass to connect and forcing goalie Arvid Soderblom to make a big save.

This is the area Richardson has harped on the most. One way or another, the Hawks need to allow fewer passes to get through. And if that’s by sliding, he’d like to see them do it a half-second later and more aggressively.

“If you’re going to slide, you have to slide at the guy, and your body has to be through the passing lane,” he said. “It can’t be your stick [in the lane]. Guys are too skilled in this league. If you have a 1-inch stick to stop a pass, they’re going to thread that through.

“You have to slide at a kind of 45-degree angle [toward] the player with the puck. If your body’s in the passing lane, that means they’ll have to lift the puck, saucer-pass it 2 feet high and land it within 4 feet. That’s pretty hard to do nowadays, especially if it’s later in the period and the ice is bad. As you’re going at the guy, usually the equipment is so big . . . the puck will touch something. It just throws the timing off, and maybe it doesn’t even get through.”

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