Nearly every shift for Ryan Poehling was noteworthy last night, a radical change from his first stint in the NHL this season. In his first four games, he couldn’t create scoring chances, and didn’t really look like himself. On Wednesday, Poehling looked like Poehling, the smart, two-way player who pressures hard, fights for the puck, and anticipates the play at a high level.
It seems that his short return to the AHL put him in the right mindset for a recall. We can talk in length about which player deserved this call-up the most, but in the end the reasoning for it is quite simple: no other remaining player in Laval is as effective as Poehling at the top of their game. And the Habs want to win.
The Canadiens may have sent Poehling down on Thursday as they appear to have gotten good news regarding injuries, but it was not due to his performance.
The NHL environment can also be more conducive to making the strengths of a prospect like him shine. Players are in better position, and that cuts down the time needed to make decisions.
To take advantage of his better surrounding support, the centreman-converted-winger has to be as engaged as his teammates. It proved to be a problem the first time he came up, but last night he consistently matched the energy level of those on the ice with him.
It started on breakouts. Those two sequences specifically stood out:
In the first one, Poehling anticipated the behind-the-net rim from Cale Fleury, and moved low to pick it up. He knew Riley Barber would then be open in the middle of the ice. He had but a second to reach for the puck, peek right to find his teammate’s stick, and send the pass off before a forechecker plastered him to the boards. By keeping his hands high on his stick, the rookie managed the retrieval and the pass in one swift motion, then absorbed contact so the puck could exit the zone after a long defensive presence.
On the second breakout, Poehling also had to bypass the forecheck. He didn’t have a direct lane to Nate Thompson, so he lobbed the puck into space for his centreman to skate into. Thompson also made another great play deflecting the puck up to Barber.
Poehling’s passing ability has been the subject of many articles on EOTP over the past two years. The two passes above were different, but equally difficult.
Perhaps his best feed of the night came on a two-on-two with Brendan Gallagher. Now, I’m not sure what Thomas Chabot attempted to do on the sequence. He looked hypnotized by the puck. He closed on Poehling too aggressively, letting Gallagher fly wide of him.
The credit also has to partly be given to Poehling. He never turned his head toward his teammate and gave no indication with his body movement that he was going to send the puck over. The saucer pass flew off his stick without any warning to land perfectly on the blade of Gallagher.
It probably would have been best for the rookie to stick around to help #11 after he missed on the breakaway. The net flyby was understandable, however, considering he was at the end of his shift.
Poehling chose other instances to display his gritty side. While his passing ability will be how generates most of his offence, the rest will come from effective close-quarters battles. I captured a few of those last night:
His puck-protection abilities and net-drives aren’t perfect yet. He could get lower on his skates, move away from traffic better, and shuffle the puck a bit less to avoid being swarmed and pinned to the boards. But his ability to fight back-pressure continues to improve. He will learn to use his 6’2” frame better and better with practice and in-game repetitions.
A few good elements that Poehling already displays (and that you should watch for in the video above):
- He wins inside positioning, putting his body between the puck and the defender, or between the net and the defender;
- He pushes away from the boards to create space for himself;
- His head turns constantly to scan for open space to cut back into or open teammates;
- He holds on to the puck when he can and there’s no play to be made;
- He reloads to the high slot when the play moves away from him.
This last point prevents odd-man rushes against on turnovers, helps him analyze where to pressure next, and makes him a shooting option.
Lastly, let’s highlight Poehling’s setup of the Weber cannon:
He first passed to Barber, but the defence collapsed on the winger and he lost the puck. So Poehling moved to steal the puck back, and dangled an opponent to get to the slot.
I’m not completely sure if the next play was fully planned, and it’s also possible that sending the puck more quickly to Weber would have been the better choice, but the overall sequence remained impressive.
Poehling lifted his head up upon beating a first defender. He saw Weber open for a pass, but first froze another defender by faking a shot. The defender went down. Poehling, again, held off on the pass. He brought the puck one last time to his forehand, and then slid it to the back foot of Weber, in perfect position for the biggest one-timer possible.
The whole play didn’t take much more than a second; another example of the speed at which Poehling can process and manipulate his environment.
The rookie played less than 10 minutes last night. We should wait for him to chain a few games with the same high level of play before declaring that he has made a case for himself to be ready for the NHL full-time. But if anything, it was good to see the once dominant college centreman show what has made him successful in the past. It’s the kind of performance to build on.