There has been a lot of chatter out in the Canadiens ether about how to fix the broken Montreal powerplay. What was once the bread and butter of the team (and at times the sole redeeming quality) has since the Philadelphia playoff series of last season gone AWOL. There had been speculation that the most important missing piece was Andrei Markov who has typically been the driving force for the Canadiens’ man advantage for all of recent memory. Now that he has returned to the lineup, people are speculating that his rust after a lengthy absence is what is keeping the puck out of the opposition’s net. I’m here to tell them different.
Understanding the deficiencies in Montreal’s powerplay requires an elevation in perspective. Watch the penalty kill. Among the league’s very best since the beginning of the campaign, the Canadiens’ penalty kill is the model of efficiency. Why?
Jacques Martin deploys his talented penalty killers with a specific mission. Cause turnovers through the neutral zone and at the blue line with a strong forecheck, forcing teams to dump and chase to gain the offensive zone. If they are successful, opposing powerplays have great difficulty even getting set up before our penalty killers are able to clear the zone. Once a team has gained the offensive zone, Martin employs a high pressure, large box formation that attempts to pressure the man with the puck at the point and high slot positions. This is why you see so many turnovers created by guys like Tomas Plekanec and Tom Pyatt. Once a turnover is made, an easy clear or the odd breakaway is available to our penalty killers. This also leads to short shifts and quick line-changes which is why we are able to continually pressure the puck carrier so effectively.
But what happens when we are scored on? When the penalty kill breaks down, there are typically two main reasons.
First, teams that are effective against our penalty kill are the ones who are able to gain possession of the puck deep in our defensive zone. There offensive players have the luxury of the cycle which tires out defenders who are often larger, less mobile defenseman. Once the offense has our defense chasing the puck, they are able to get the puck back to the point for a shot on net, with forwards looking for a rebound since they are already down low on the cycle. If the pass back to the point is covered, a shot attempt or pass into the crease area is an effective alternative. Watch the goals that are scored on Carey Price. More often than not they are shots that come through traffic from the point, or cross-crease passes that he can not cover. I’m often amazed at how often opponents seem to score on open nets. Rebounds down low and passes while Price is in his butterfly stance are most often the culprits, because as a defense you play the percentages – which on the powerplay means the shooter.
So after that admittedly high level, generalized breakdown of our penalty kill what lessons can we learn?
1. The biggest problem for team’s against our powerplay is gaining possession of the puck in the offensive zone. We know that this is our biggest strength on the PK. Our high pressure fore check and active sticks at the blue line create easy turnovers. In addressing our weaknesses we have to start there. That means moving the puck with purpose. That means when Markov, Subban, Plekanec or Gomez have the puck and are trying to gain the zone they need to be supported by at least one other player in order not to cause an easy turnover at the opposition’s blue line, and a clearing which has a demoralizing effect on the team. If we cannot effectively gain the zone in this manner – we must have players entering th zone with speed in order to collect dump-ins before the opposition can retrieve the puck. What we have witnessed over the first 12 games is a lot of individual effort negated by the fact that there is no support for the puck carrier, and no speed entering the zone which means we are unable to use the man-advantage to collect loose pucks.
2. We keep teams to the outside on the point and in the high slot where turnovers are more likely, and shots are easier to see/ react to. A point shot is useless unless there are players in front of the net causing traffic and burying rebounds. With smaller forwards on the powerplay it is hard to park in front of the net, but not impossible. One thing is guaranteed: you’ll rarely score on point shots when 4 of 5 players are standing on the perimeter. We often complain about turning journeymen goalies into Brodeur. This is why. Montreal needs to focus more of its effort on movement of the low forwards to the front of the net to open up passing and shooting lanes. The bomb from the point is great. But a surprise shot/pass from the low slot is often more effective. If you float on the perimeter you do the job of the penalty kill for them.
3. We get in the most trouble, and give up the easiest goals when Carey is forced to move around in his crease. Carey is a “percentage” goalie. He gets his big body lined up to the shooter and more often than not – he makes the save. The trouble begins when teams employ a dynamic passing strategy that forces Price to move laterally in his crease. This opens up opportunities for very wide open nets on rebounds and passes. We desperately need this to be successful. Markov will help with this, but he cannot do this alone. It requires the use of speedy skating towards the net, and paying the price when you get there. So far players like Gionta, Pouliot, Kostitsyn and Gomez have opted to hang back on the perimeter looking for a pass. We cannot continue with a powerplay structure that requires a perfect alignment of circumstances to score. Create movement in the crease – score goals. Its that simple.