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Powerless: Foundational cracks undermined the Canadiens’ power play

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In the second part of our series examining the Canadiens’ power play, we review the purpose of a man advantage, how the 1-3-1 became the preferred scheme around the league, and what was wrong with the Habs’ iteration.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

In the first part of our series examining the Montreal Canadiens’ power play, we’ve explored how a lack of stability — from a coaching, personnel, and strategy standpoint — hurt the Habs in the 2018-19 season. In this article, we go back to basics. What is the driving principle of any power-play scheme? Why have so many teams adopted the 1-3-1 formation that the Habs attempted to play last season? And most importantly, what do the Habs need to do from a tactical standpoint?

Power-play fundamentals

Irrespective of players and tactics, the biggest advantage for every power-play unit is the simple and obvious fact that they have an extra player. That extra player does two things:

  1. Gives the attacking team the ability to dictate the play and forces the defending team to react rather than initiate
  2. Gives each member of the attacking team more time and space on the ice

These two factors mean that, in this game of centimeters and milliseconds, the attacking team will always be able to stay ahead of the defending team and generate scoring chances if they execute properly. At the same time, any slight indecision or failure to execute can allow the defending team to nullify that advantage.

An effective power-play scheme uses their ability to dictate the play to create scenarios designed to maximize time and space for the player receiving the puck. Repeatedly finding the open man stretches the defensive scheme, forcing the penalty killers to constantly react to close gaps and lanes. Eventually, the pressure is too much and the defenders break down, leading to high-quality scoring chances.

What is the 1-3-1?

The most popular power-play scheme in our copycat league is the 1-3-1, and with good reason. A 1-3-1 consists of:

  • A net-front/goal-line player
  • Two players on the left and right half-wall/faceoff circles, respectively
  • A slot player
  • A point player

Of the two players on the left and right side, one is typically the playmaker and plays closer to the half-wall while the other is the one-time option and roams the faceoff circle.

With proper execution, the 1-3-1 offers a power-play unit:

  • Maximum lateral puck movement potential. The one-timer option is the farthest away from the playmaker
  • Up to four simultaneous quality shooting options. The playmaker, from his half-wall position, can pass to any of the other four friendly players on the ice for a quality scoring chance

Most importantly, the 1-3-1 forces the defenders into a situation where concretely taking away one option increases the threat posed by another option:

  • Shadowing the one-time option opens space for the slot man
  • Taking away the slot exposes either the cross-ice one-timer, the point one-timer, or leaves the net-front player one-on-one with the goaltender
  • Taking away the net-front option, or the point, opens gaps in the middle of the ice
  • Taking away all four passing lanes leaves the playmaker one-on-one with the goalie

The best 1-3-1 is a fluid one where all five players are constantly moving. In this example, Nikita Kucherov receives the puck at the half-wall. Immediately, he has two safe options: Victor Hedman at the point and Steven Stamkos, who has drifted high to open a cross ice passing lane. As Kucherov holds the puck for a second, both Damon Severson and Travis Zajac find themselves in no-man’s land. Severson is trying to guard against both a pass back to Hedman and one to Brayden Point in the slot, while Zajac is cheating towards Stamkos in order to remove the one-timer option.

Instead of staying still on the half-wall, Kucherov drifts deeper into the zone, seeing who will follow. Severson, seeing the pass to Point as the bigger threat, follows the Lightning playmaker, but Zajac doesn’t move because Stamkos has stayed high in the zone. Point drifts into a nearly empty slot, and Kucherov finds him with a simple saucer pass.

When Point receives the puck, there isn’t a defender capable of reaching him in a single motion. Severson and Andy Greene are facing the wrong direction, Zajac is flat-footed, and Ben Lovejoy is tied up with Yanni Gourde in front of the net. One-on-one in the slot with a Kevin Kinkaid who is deep in his net, Point makes no mistake.

The power of the 1-3-1 lies in how all of this was created by only three minor movements — Kucherov’s drift deeper into the zone, Stamkos’ decision to play higher, and Point’s recognition of the open space.

In this second example, Alex Ovechkin uses his reputation to create space for his teammates, who are savvy enough to recognize an opportunity when it arises.

Off a won faceoff, Lars Eller takes the puck at the half-boards. Ovechkin drifts back to the blueline, and seeing this, John Carlson sprints towards Ovechkin’s former spot, gaining body position on Mika Zibanejad and preventing him from reaching Tom Wilson in the slot.

Brady Skjei challenges Eller, perhaps seeking to take advantage of the fact that Eller is not Nicklas Backstrom. The Dane, however, quickly snaps a pass to Jakub Vrana, setting up a two-on-one down low.

One quick pass into the slot, and Wilson has about as easy of a scoring chance as he’ll ever get in this league.

Here, the Ovechkin-Carlson switch was enough to break the Rangers defensive scheme, and Skjei’s overaggression was the final nail in the coffin.

Why didn’t the Habs’ 1-3-1 work?

The problem, from a Canadiens standpoint, is that Kirk Muller’s 1-3-1 during the 2018-19 season looked nothing like the examples above. The Canadiens did not move their feet — with or without the puck. They did not challenge the defensive structure by identifying and exploiting space. They hesitated with the puck, needing to think about the next best course of action rather than simply executing what should have been ingrained into them during practice.

As a result, when they did score power-play goals, it was usually due to individual brilliance rather than tactical success.

Here, the goal is scored because Max Domi’s shot threads the needle. Yet, if we look at the play, the picture is a power play in disarray. Jonathan Drouin does well to draw the high Ottawa defender and slide a pass to an open Domi, but the pass is not in Domi’s wheelhouse, forcing the centre to take it on his backhand.

When Domi receives the pass, there are two players in the shooting lane. By the time he re-establishes a shooting position, there are four. Furthermore, neither Drouin (who is taking a wide turn at the blueline), Jeff Petry (who is nowhere near a shooting position), or Tomas Tatar (who has skated into a blocked passing lane) are viable options for Domi if he’s looking to create offence. Left with little other recourse but to shoot, Domi does. It just happens to go in.

In a similar example here against the Arizona Coyotes, Drouin taps the puck back to Petry off a won faceoff, who slides it over to Shea Weber for the one-timer. Yet, as Weber strikes the puck, there isn’t a single Canadien in a good position for a follow-up play if the captain’s slapshot doesn’t go in.

Drouin has gone for another wide turn, Domi is just getting set up on the right side as a potential one-timer option, and Brendan Gallagher is left as the only white shirt between four maroon ones. Even Weber’s shot selection is not optimal. There are no Canadiens offering a screen, Darcy Kuemper is set in the crease and facing the shooter, and there are two Coyotes fronting the shot. Fortunately for the Habs, Weber’s slapshot doesn’t care.

In our final example, the Canadiens gain the zone and lose the puck. But, thanks to aggressive forechecking by Andrew Shaw and Paul Byron, is able to win it back. As the puck is fished out of the corner and sent back to Petry, however, none of the Canadiens move to give the blueliner alternative options.

Domi goes to the front of the net but is boxed out by Nikita Zaitsev, Byron stays glued to Ron Hainsey, while Shaw sets himself up as a passing option but isn’t facing the net and hasn’t broken away from Zach Hyman. Again, Petry is forced to take what is theoretically a low-percentage shot. He’s only at the faceoff dot and the goaltender is set, sighted, and standing at the top of the crease. The goal results from a magnificent shot by Petry and a mistake by Frederik Andersen, who slightly loses his net.

The penalty is declined

The funny thing is that these power-play examples show that the Canadiens are not lacking for shooting talent. What they are lacking is any cohesive strategy to maximize the impact of that talent. Instead of being proactive in creating time and space, the Habs are sitting back and being responsive, watching both the puck carrier and the puck to determine what should be done next.

This passivity means that none of the five players on the ice understand their roles. Domi should be the playmaker, but Drouin has the puck most of the time. Weber is the obvious one-timer option, but why then does he reverse with the man at the blueline? Is Petry supposed to be a pivot man at the point, or is he a secondary one-timer option? The answers to these questions seemed to change on the fly depending on the puck carrier and the defensive alignment.

Last season, a popular refrain on this site was “can we just decline the penalty”. The Canadiens, by voluntarily yielding their greatest advantage on the power play — initiative —were doing just that.

In part three of our series, we’ll look at how much Shea Weber matters in an ideal 1-3-1 for the Montreal Canadiens, and we’ll start identifying players and units that would best complement the Habs’ greatest offensive weapon on the power play.