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Lessons on improving the special teams in-season

Two of the top SHL coaches weigh in on how they’re shoring up the penalty kill and power play ahead of the playoffs.

EHC Biel-Bienne v Frolunda HC - Champions Hockey League Photo by RvS.Media/Robert Hradil/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens special teams aren’t working to the efficiency that is expected, they are just below the median, at 0.983 combined efficiency of the power play and penalty kill. In order to get to a better position than fourth in the North Division and have a successful playoff run, the special teams needs to get working.

One team in another league had the same problem and did something unusual when it had a week off due to COVID rescheduling in the SHL: they made a complete reset of the special teams. Habs defence prospect Mattias Norlinder’s Frölunda went to the extreme and brought the same kind of practices that are normally saved for the pre-season; playing without an opposing line on the power play.

“You practise like that sometimes,” Frölunda’s coach Roger Rönnberg explained. “You get to practise the shot, the pace in the passes, by taking away the defenders. We have done this all the seasons I have been here, but usually we do it very early in the pre-season.

“It is to practice the base. A golf player goes to the range and hits 10.000 shots without consequences in order to just find the right technique. Hockey players need that, too. In order to build that base, we practise without defenders.”

Rönnberg expands on the practice on the ice. “We let them shoot this time, you need to shoot to score a goal. The last couple of games it hasn’t been that way. You have to take the right kind of shots. It is one thing to shoot, it is a completely different thing to find the chances that you score on. That is the important thing. We want to build confidence and creativity, as well as set the foundation and structure. The guys needs to achieve things on the ice, we are here to help them. It is one thing to do it in practice, another to do it during a game.”

It is an interesting thing to hear a coach reset his power play in the middle of the season. With the shortened pre-season in the NHL, and with the Canadiens’ coaching change, the idea shouldn’t be too far away from Dominique Ducharme’s mind. With a long homestand coming up after the western road trip, there’s an opportunity for easy practices to hone the special teams and add a personal touch to the setup.

Speaking to Djurgården’s coach Robert Ohlsson, he explained that practising without an opponent is something you do with the penalty kill as well. “Memorization of a penalty kill, practising without an attacking line, is done when you want the basics to be set. Mainly the focus is on these things: synchronizing the movement of four players around prohibiting entry to your zone, going back into your zone, recovering after shots, and after defensive-zone faceoffs.”

The players really should work as a unit; everyone should know what they need to do. Again, this is something you do in the pre-season, but Mr. Ohlsson explains that if something isn’t working during the season, “You go back to the basics and practice more.”

While the setup seems easy to understand, the devil is in the details. The details that the coaches are looking for are “how the players place their skates in order to cover passing lanes and shooting lanes, and cut off the puck-holder,” Mr. Ohlsson explains. “Another detail is the stick, and the blade’s position in the box, to cut lanes and to take away passing though the box and shooting opportunities. You need to work on covering the rebound areas in front of the goal, and to control these areas at the time of the shot.”

Montreal’s penalty kill is still not one to rely upon. While the goals for are something to hold up as a success, the teams has taken far too many penalties taken, third most of in the league with 120 (behind Vancouver and Ottawa) and the worst penalty differential at -21. The penalty kill success is 76.2% which is currently in the bottom third of the NHL.

The four-on-five formation is small and falls into the lap of the goalkeeper, creating space for the opponent to set up its play. The players are getting frustrated, easily visible in Shea Weber’s reaction from a recent game versus the Calgary Flames.

The week at home in Montreal is a time for a reset; to get back to the basics, be that in regard to the power play or the penalty kill. If it is to speed up the passing, or to strengthen the penalty-killing box, there is no shame in going back to the drawing board. The coaches knows what they need to do, it is just time to do it.