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Turning defense into offense against the Senators

Why the Habs can sustain good results despite poor possession numbers, and how they can turn Ottawa's aggressive forecheck scheme from strength to weakness.

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The most interesting thing about digging into advanced stats with the help of video is that it helps illustrate how teams go about producing their numbers. Yesterday, we found out how Ottawa attempts to increase its team save percentage by collapsing to the slot and giving up shots from the outside. Today, we'll be examining the free-wheeling Sens' aggressive forecheck and its effects on the Canadiens' possession numbers.

Focus 1: The roles of Ottawa forwards in the offensive zone

Milan Michalek (OTT9) has had excellent possession numbers against the Habs this season while playing mostly alongside Mark Stone and Kyle Turris. Here, he is Ottawa's F1 (first forward deep) on the forecheck and uses his speed to challenge Andrei Markov on a dump-in.

Dustin Tokarski comes out of his net and settles the puck down for Markov, who is under heavy pressure from Michalek. It doesn't help that the puck is on his backhand and that 79 can't look up-ice to identify passing options. In this situation, the defenseman can either go around the net with speed and hope that Michalek can't keep up, or "reverse" the puck by gently chipping it against the corner boards and trusting his defense partner to come pick it up.

Pressure forces smart people into making bad decisions. Instead of trying to beat Michalek with speed or by passing off, the usually level-headed Markov puts on the brakes right behind the goal line. Perhaps he was thinking that Michalek would swing around in front of the Montreal net, but Dave Cameron lets his players pursue, and so the Ottawa player calls Markov's bet and get his stick blade on the puck.

After a blunder, a moment of brilliance. Tapping into a mix of skill, experience and plain dumb luck, Markov repairs his mistake and steals the puck right back from Michalek, whose speed carries him way past Markov. The puck is now bouncing off the end board and Markov has his head down. He will have less than two seconds to look up, find the puck, corral the puck, read the play and decide what he wants to do.

...Or he can just do what every single minor hockey player has been taught to do at one point or another, which is to immediate slap the puck around the boards and make it someone else's problem. In a way, defensemen who routinely makes these kinds of plays are the most selfish type of hockey players. Instead of taking a hit to make a smart play up-ice, they instead take themselves out of harms way by giving up possession. They are also putting teammates in extremely awkward positions, as we will see in the next screenshot.

So the puck goes all the way around the zone to the feet of Max Pacioretty, who has no speed, no space and no teammates in a position to support him. Instead of trying to dump the puck out at the first sign of trouble, a strong possession team such as Detroit would have its defensemen buy some time down low so that its forwards can come back deep into the zone. Instead, what we have here is Desharnais and Subban along the boards instead of in the red box to support Pacioretty, and Dale Weise way out of the play, cheating. Maybe he's hoping that Pacioretty can cradle a bouncing puck on his backhand and then immediately whip it cross-ice (through three Ottawa sticks) so that he can go on a breakaway?

Essentially hung out to dry by his teammates, Pacioretty now runs into Karlsson, who's holding the line, and Mark Stone, the high F3 who is in good position to support OTT65 defensively. The NHL's leader in takeaways adds another to his tally.

Despite the chaos, the Habs actually do a really good job of getting into their D-zone coverage here. Michalek, who got the pass from Stone, is on his backhand and unable to cut in front of the net. Markov has Turris out front, and the forwards are in good position to cut off anything going to the point. Much better than the Senators' D-zone work.

Tokarski doesn't handle the initial backhand all that well and falls backwards. Turris get a whack at a rebound with the goalie sprawled out on the ice. But the puck stays out.

Turris chips the puck back to the point to Karlsson, and the Habs are once again in pretty good shape, all things considered. Pacioretty is coming in to block the shot, Desharnais and Weise cover their men, and Markov is fronting Stone in front of the goalie. Michalek is open, but won't be able to one-time a Karlsson pass, which means that Markov would have to time to take a step out, tie him up, and leave Stone for Subban.

This is where it gets crazy. Karlsson tries to force his slapper through and instead hits Pacioretty right in the shin pads. After botching a zone exit and being hemmed in the for three consecutive shot attempts against, the Canadiens have a breakaway going the other direction.

Is it just me, or does Pacioretty get a breakaway every time he plays against the Senators? He gets denied on this one, but you would expect him to score on 30-40% of those throughout the year.

There are four main takeaways from this sequence:

1) The Habs are not very good at creating puck support on the breakout, especially under heavy forecheck pressure.

2) They are, however, good at defensive zone coverage, even off of a turnover in their own end.

3) They tend to take shortcuts (Markov, Weise) which lead to them getting hemmed in and outshot (Michalek's backhand, Turris' rebound and Karlsson's point shot).

4) Once in a while, they get a lucky bounce and create a high-quality chance the other way.

If we assume that Michalek's, Turris' and Karlsson's shots had a 4%, 20% and 2% chance of going in the net respectively, and that Pacioretty's breakaway had a 30% chance of lighting the lamp, then is what the Habs are doing perhaps a viable long-term strategy for a team? Most likely not, but it does give you a sense of how some NHL teams can sustain higher-than expected PDOs despite (or as we now see, because) of poor possession metrics.

I'll let you decide for yourself, but in the meantime let's look at another clip:

Focus 2: Ottawa defensive transition

This play (which occurred on December 20th, 2014) starts out a little bit differently than the previous one. Gonchar has the puck below the goal line with Emelin out front and and the Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Gallagher line on the ice. Condra (OTT22) is the F1 and doing a good job of taking away time from Gonchar, but Legwand (OTT17, F3) and Greening (OTT14, F2) are already drifting too deep into the Montreal zone.

Gonchar knows he can't skate with Condra, but instead of rimming the puck hard, he gently chips it around the boards just past the left hashmarks, beating Ottawa's F1 and F2.

While Pacioretty was a sitting duck in the last clip, here he has time to make a small curl and picks up the puck as he gains speed. In addition, he has Alex Galchenyuk in close support, and Montreal is in very good shape to make a controlled zone exit. Ottawa's F3 is on the wrong side of the ice.

The Montreal forwards have built up speed across the neutral zone and are about to create a controlled zone entry. However, it is still only a three-on-three rush - not a prime scoring chance if each Ottawa player takes a Montreal forward. Jared Cowen (OTT2) recognizes the situation and motions Legwand to cover Galchenyuk.

For reasons unknown, Legwand completely ignores Cowen. He stays in no-man's land between Galchenyuk and Gallagher and begins to glide, turning a relatively innocuous three-on-three into a three-on-two. An instant later, Pacioretty fakes out Cody Ceci and slides the puck under OTT5's stick to Galchenyuk. Now we have a two-on-one. Cowen, who was originally on Gallagher, turns his attention to Galchenyuk.

Cowen uses his long reach to take away the Galchenyuk shot, but Legwand hasn't moved his feet since hitting the blueline and is in no position to defend Gallagher, who has an open net to shoot at off of the cross-slot feed.

Details matter. A savvy veteran move from Gonchar to beat the over-enthusiastic forecheckers, good speed and support from the Montreal forwards, and poor "sorting" from Ottawa on the backcheck turned a difficult breakout from Montreal into an easy tap-in.