The qualifying round that will whittle down 24 NHL clubs to the 16 that will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs will consist of best-of-five series this summer. It’s a format that magifies the importance of each game’s result, with a 1-0 lead becoming a major advantage. By entension, the importance of each goal increases in the series, with one timely goal, or failing to seize hold of the scoreboard when given the chance, possibly being the difference between moving on to face a new opponent and having your post-season end as quickly as it began.
It will therefore be crucial for teams to pounce on their power-play chances, and limit the opponents on their penalty kill. Referees aren’t as quick to hand out minors in playoff games, but special teams still often play their part. In last year’s conference quarter-finals, six of the eight series saw one club outperform the other on the man advantage, and five of them went in favour of the team with the more productive units.
The Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins have been putting work into getting their specialized combinations up to speed in time for the first game on August 1. A look at some of the underlying numbers could indicate which team is most likely to get their special teams to the desired level.
The two teams never really got their power plays going in the 2019-20 season. Pittsburgh was right around the one goal every five opportunities that typically serves as the league’s median level. Montreal’s power play climbed from right near the bottom at one stage, but was still far down the list in 22nd place overall.
The Penguins earned quite a few more chances than their play-in opponent (again close to the median number). Montreal ranked in the bottom three for power plays, getting few chances with an extra man and rarely making teams pay when they were granted one.
Montreal’s conversion rate is somewhat understandable given their roster. Several young players were finding their way in the league, and the team has no real top-end offensive stars to rack up points. Pittsburgh has less of an excuse given their star power. The Penguins’ ineffectiveness also contributed to their shocking elimination in four games last year, managing one power-play goal in the series versis the New York Islanders. A team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and several good wingers shouldn’t struggle for creativity.
It turns out that wasn’t Pittsburgh’s problem this year. The team was one of the NHL’s best at getting chances from the high-danger area around the crease, but was simply unable to put them in the net. Montreal, meanwhile, generated very few prime shots in their minutes, matching with their below-average conversion.
Two very different strategies are apparent when looking at where the shots were being taken from. Montreal relied on Shea Weber blasting pucks toward the net from near the blue line with very little effort spent on shooting from other areas. With a combined 10 goals on the power play from Weber in his past three seasons despite his ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun, there should be enough evidence to convince power-play coach Kirk Muller that another strategy is required. It’s fair to stay that sticking with that same plan isn’t going to see a major improvment in the qualifier.
Pittsburgh makes a consciuous effort to not only get shots from in close, but their blue-liners fire from closer to the middle of the ice. That forces opposition defenders to get in the goalie’s sight line when attempting to block those shots, which is likely leading to more rebounds for the forwards in front.
One thing this plan doesn’t do is force the goaltender to move from one post to the other in his crease. For many of the shots he faces he’ll be best served just staying square in his net and only adjusting to pucks spilling to the side. That could help explain why so few of those point-blank shots are finding the target; the goalie is sitting there waiting for them.
Even if there may be a flaw in Pittsburgh’s strategy, it’s more likely to click than Montreal’s plan of shots from one long-range spot. For that reason, you would expect the Penguins to be most likely to find success on the power play in the qualifier.
It won’t just be a matter of the teams deploying their strategies in the offensive zone. They’ll also be using these final days of training camp to craft the four-man penalty-kill units.
The Penguins were better at preventing teams from scoring on power plays than they were at scoring on their own. Their 82.1% kill rate was near the top of the Eastern Conference, only a few percentage points behind the leading Boston Bruins. The disciplined Columbus Blue Jackets were the only team heading to the Toronto hub that allowed fewer goals.
Montreal has issues in this odd-man situation as well, ranking 19th in the league at 78.7%. They were penalized quite often, and not particularly good at rescuing their players from the box unscathed.
Once again, the underlying numbers show the Penguins were better in this special-teams situation than the actual number of goals suggests. Opposing teams weren’t generating a lot of shots and rebound chances from right in front. Their penalty-kill percentage should probably have been even higher than it was.
Montreal’s defence struggled to contain the best forwards of the teams they faced in net-front situations. Only the defensively challenged New York Rangers were worse at preventing close-range shots among post-season teams — though it is a substantial margin.
Ironically, the Penguins found their success by setting up their opponents to shoot from the same middle-of-the-ice position they prefer on their own power play. What they did much better than their rivals was keep players from getting to rebounds and accepting short passes at the top of the crease. The goaltenders really on had to focus on stopping shots coming from their right side.
Montreal’s forwards did a commendable job of keeping points shots to the perimeter, as defenceman were limited to shots from right inside the blue line. The breakdown came on the left side of the zone, where Habs defencemen were unable to keep their checks from getting sticks on pucks in tight. Those shots were coming from much closer to goal than the ones Pittsburgh allowed, and they also weren’t limited to a single side of the ice. Carey Price was forced to expect a shot coming from his glove side, with a good possibility of ones coming from directly in front or to his right as well.
The standard special-teams percentages give Pittsburgh the edge, and delving deeper into the situation only extends that advantage. The Penguins have a better power-play strategy, and we’ve already established that they have the better forwards in this matchup to capitalize on it.
If Montreal wants to generate offence while up a man, they’ll need to incorporate the forwards more, and move Weber into a more dangerous position closer to the net. It would be a significant change — maybe too big a shift to make in a short training camp, and that’s if the team even recognizes the need to make it. If they go with the status quo, the Habs’ only hope is that a more direct bomb from Weber being forced to the middle of the zone will be more effective than his shot from close to the boards.
Comparing the heatmaps of the Penguins’s power play and Canadiens’ penalty kill, it seems there could be a major amount of shots coming from the left side of the crease. Pittsburgh deploys its forwards to get shots from that area, and Montreal has no answer for them.
It’s no secret that the left side of Montreal’s defence isn’t at a contending level. It’s by far the weakest position of the entire roster, and why a prospect who hasn’t played a single NHL game has been one of the main talking points of the NHL restart. The lack of quality options is clearly hurting them on the penalty kill, and there also isn’t much coming from a left-handed shooter at the point on the power play.
The defensive situation is going to contribute to the disparity in special-teams play between Montreal and Pittsburgh. In the final positional breakdown in this series, we’ll investigate how the blue lines match up at even strength.