Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Speed Kills: The Texas Stars' Transition Game

Derek Meech looks for the outlet pass. (Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
The Texas Stars and Grand Rapids Griffins alike have both commented that the Stars' transition game is a huge part of the early success they have had against the Griffins.

Forward Mitch Callahan told MLive.com before Game 3, "They’re a very quick transition team and so we have to do a better job to maintain puck possession."

Coach Jeff Blashill continued, "I think, they had us on our heels both games. They did that by getting pucks behind us, forechecking us hard and creating a lot of turnovers. We seemed to be playing uphill and they were playing downhill in both games."

So what is 'transition' and how does Texas do it so well?

In some ways, transition is just as simple as it sounds. Plainly defined, transition is the ability to advance the puck from your own defensive zone up to the neutral zone and into the other team's zone. Being able to do this quickly while maintaining control of the puck leads to positive things for any club. Many so-called fancy stats that have gained popularity recently use puck possession or more precise examples of it (Corsi and Fenwick) to determine how good players and teams are. Texas was the #1 possession team in the league this season, according to NHLnumbers.com, at 56.87%, in close situations.

There are many ways to get the puck out of your zone. Of course, if you can avoid icing it, you can clear the puck out directly without an intended target. Defensemen or forwards can also advance or 'carry' the puck out of their zone on their own. Where teams get the most benefit, however, is the pass. The first pass out of the defensive zone, often called an outlet pass, is deadly when executed properly. The defenseman can hit a forward in motion with a precision pass, giving him a head of steam heading toward the offensive zone. When executed, it also keeps the puck off the stick of the opposition instead of gaining the red line and dumping the puck in for a 'dump and chase' play.

As you can imagine, speed kills at the forward position in the transition game. When you combine forward speed with a set of defensemen (and centers) with good vision for the outlet pass, you get what the Stars have been able to do all year. It was really on display in Game 1 against the Griffins. Twice in the game, Texas scored by putting a speedy forward on a 'go' route (to mix metaphors) and looking for the nifty outlet pass for the goal. Brendan Ranford and Curtis McKenzie each managed to get one-on-one and score against Petr Mrazek after passes from Travis Morin and Jyrki Jokipakka, respectively.

Of course, the transition isn't a one-trick pony. It doesn't have to be a breakaway-type play to qualify as good transition. The Stars' combination of speedy forwards and accurately-passing defensemen works to put the puck on net a lot over the course of a game. Watch tonight how quickly Texas is able to move the puck from its own faceoff dots to the opposing blue line with deft passing.

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