Back in the USSR

Larionov's RUS U20: Buildup Play

From Gillian Kemmerer’s outstanding Caviar Diplomat newsletter (a must-subscribe if you’re a fan of Russian hockey):

When Igor Larionov was first named head coach of Russia’s U20s, he gathered his prospects on the shores of the Black Sea ahead of the Sochi Hockey Open. He sat the players in a meeting room and rolled a five-minute compilation of Soviet hockey classics—the notorious showdowns against Canada, the devastating Green Unit in its prime…

The message Larionov intended to send was registered loud and clear:

“I want you to play like this.”

What is this exactly?

While most NHL and KHL teams look to break out (i.e. shoot) the puck up-ice quickly, Soviet-trained grandmasters such as the Green Unit’s Larionov, Makarov, Krutov, Fetisov and Kasatonov looked to build up plays from deep in their zone.

The vast majority of North American and Russian pros are taught from a young age to play like frisky teenagers: skip the preliminaries; proceed to the business end of the rink and just “get it in.”

In contrast Larionov’s team is a throwback to the Soviet sides of the 70s, 80s and 90s, where delicate foreplay is quasi-mandatory.

Buildup Play 1: Reverse

“Partners. I need partners!” Larionov exclaimed in his 1990 autobiography.

And at no other moments in the game are the presence of reliable partners as important as on a defensive-zone retrieval against strong forecheck pressure.

In the first minute of play on December 23 (RUS vs CAN exhibition), CAN deploys an aggressive 1-2-2 OZ forecheck, which aims to seal off the boards and bait opponents into a risky pass into the middle of the ice.

At 19:14 on the clock, RUS11 could give up on the play and punt the puck off the glass and out. Or he could panic and throw the puck blindly into the middle. But instead he finds his partner and reverses to LD RUS2, who then makes a quick exchange with RD RUS5.

CAN’s forecheckers need to course-correct three times in seven seconds. CAN10 makes the mistake of wrapping his loose arm around RUS28, drawing the game's first penalty.

Buildup Play 2: Swing back

On an opposition line change, dump-and-chase teams such as CBJ or PHI would look to make a long pass to a winger stationed at the far blue line (preferably on the opposite side of the benches), who would then deflect the puck into the offensive zone.

RUS U20 circles back into its own zone and builds speed for a possession-based counter-attack instead.

Both RUS defensemen regroup while RUS22 swings. The forward fakes a drop pass to his linemate coming off the bench, but holds the puck to beat CAN’s first forechecker.

Unfortunately he runs into a 1v3 at the blue line and turns the puck over. He needed to bring another partner into the play. Maybe he should’ve passed?

Buildup Play 3: Controlled breakout

In hockey lexicon a controlled exit implies any type of buildup play which results in a successful pass or carry across the defensive blue line.

A controlled (or set) breakout on the other hand means that the offensive team’s puck carrier (usually a D) stops behind his net, wait for his teammates to run their set routes, then makes an attempt to exit the zone.

Here RUS runs a controlled/set breakout:

The D makes an exit pass to a RUS8 swinging into the middle of the ice. Near the center faceoff circle RUS8 has a split second to make a play to the right ice of the side, but CAN’s 1-2-2 set forecheck forces him wide and chokes out the play.

That’s the problem with set breakouts - you’re set, but so are your opponents.

Usually it’s best not to stop behind the net.

Buildup Play 4: Change(s) of side

Larionov may have suggested the same, because on RUS’s next possession they indeed keep going instead of stopping, nearly resulting in a brilliant combination.

RUS changes sides once, twice, three times between their goal line and the red line, fooling CAN’s 1-2-2. Only a poor touch by RUS20 ruins a sure zone entry.

Buildup Play 5: Swing middle

RUS regroups deep in their zone. The forwards swing back, then build speed out of the zone. RUS25 makes an incisive move into the middle, where his partner finds him. RUS21 barely misses converting on the ensuing 2v1.

All this is eerily similar to the sequence of events leading up to a classic Soviet hockey moment - Valeri Kharlamov’s goal on December 31st 1975 against MTL. (Read more: Secret to Soviet Transition)

What is modern hockey?

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