Micro Analysis: Ben Chiarot is not earning his keep on the penalty kill

Signed specifically to help out in front of the net, the defenceman is contributing to one of the league’s worst penalty kills.

Penalty Kill

If last night felt like an uphill battle for the Montreal Canadiens, it’s because it kind of was. This is exactly the type of game the Sharks wish to play: they take advantage of lenient officiating to impose themselves physically, and when the penalties do come, they fall on the other team’s side. It enables them to rely on their dangerous power play to get them ahead. They then just have to clog the neutral zone for the rest of the game.

But this is no excuse for the incredibly poor showing from the penalty-killers in this game — and since the start of the season. There have been many culprits in the multiple goals scored against the Habs when a men down, but on Thursday, a large portion of the blame falls on Ben Chiarot.

He was brought in to be the net-front guy on the penalty kill, to clear the crease from intruders, but in his approach to man-handle opponents, he sometimes forgets to take away their most important tool: their stick.

It’s a lot more important to neutralize a player’s ability to make a play on the puck than to shove him away from the goalie. NHLers are used to making plays while off-balance. They don’t care if one of their skate is up in the air, or even if their lying on the ice. As long as their stick is free, they can act and create.

On the second power-play goal the Sharks scored, it was the forwards who couldn’t prevent the pass to Brent Burns. That said, Burns’s ability to reposition in an instant and shoot off the pass is almost unparalleled among defencemen, so it’s should be expected that he’ll get a few shots.

Carey Price sees his release and blocks it.

Now, Chiarot is a step late to act on his net-front man. When he does get there, he raises both hands to cross-check the 6’2”, 215-pound Tomas Hertl, when a stick-lift or block would have better prevented the play. He could have also moved into the cross-crease passing lane that is so often utilized by power-plays around the league, which is how the goal was ultimately scored.

On the first power play goal San Jose scored, Chiarot left his feet trying to stop a cross-crease pass. The man-wall he attempts can be effective, but it wasn’t timed properly to clog the passing lane, and left him face down on the ice.

From this position, he couldn’t stop the net-drive from Kevin Labanc. Labanc, even after also falling to the ice, still managed to get the puck to the other side of the ice through the net-front confusion. It started the passing play that left the Habs’ disorganized defence chasing. Paul Byron missed a cross-ice pass, and it led to the goal.

Chiarot simply needs to use his stick more in his defensive game. Brenden Dillon on the other side of the ice gave him a good example of how to defend in tight scrums around the blue paint.

This is a sequence similar to the Sharks’ second goal of the game. The main difference is that Dillon (#4) stands closer to his goalie and places his stick on the puck. He prevents cross-crease puck movement and can attempt to clear the puck from his position. By not playing the body, he lets Nick Suzuki try to bang a rebound in, but it doesn’t really matter as his goalie is in a position to block any shot.

The objective of the penalty kill should be to prevent cross-ice passes in any way possible. As long as shots come predictably from one side of the ice, the goalie can easily do his job. The closer to the net the cross-ice movement is, the harder it is for the goalie to make a save. Price hasn’t been as sharp as we’ve seen before, but defenders are not helping him by allowing such passes to occur.

San Jose’s neutral-zone trap

The Sharks neutralized the Habs’ rush very effectively after getting the lead. They don’t sit back and wait for you like many other formations around the league, but remain aggressive and continue to shut down breakouts at their inception. If the other team’s execution isn’t perfect — and Montreal’s was far from perfect in transition — the Sharks continuously create turnovers between blue lines.

In the clip below, the Habs’ fourth line is on the ice. They aren’t the fastest trio on the team, but they also face mostly the role players of the Sharks. Still, it’s quite striking how San Jose manages to disrupt transitions. They do it by shadowing movement.

Sharks players all gap up close to Habs players as they attempt to move the puck out of the zone. The forecheckers also aim to deny passes to the middle of the ice, which prevents speedy zone exits from centremen circling low to support the defence.

The puck is moved along the boards to wingers who have come to a stop on the walls, waiting for a pass. It slows down the breakout and gives time for the Sharks’ forechecking forwards to get back in the neutral zone and install a defensive box that will await the attack and force dump-ins against superior numbers.

A lead in hockey can be an exceptional advantage if a team has a strong neutral-zone forecheck. It can be quite discouraging and frustrating for the opponent to try to create any kind of sustained attack when they continuously have to work extra hard and quick to find openings. It’s what we saw happen last night.

Canadiens’ offensive system

Montreal isn’t a very creative team in the offensive zone. They move pucks to the point and fire them down with two men in the shooting lane. The higher skater looks to tip the puck, while the lower one aims to find a rebound.

The shots fired from the blue line are all low-danger scoring chances, even with players in the shooting lane. The advantage of the system is that it is simple and creates net-front chaos, which can turn into rebounds, high-danger scoring chances, and, with enough volume, goals. Unfortunately, the Habs shot 37 times at the net, but didn’t get the puck to rebound their way enough last night, scoring their two goals mostly off the rush.

It’s impossible to expect the team to override their entire strategy to look for more passes to the slot from the wall or behind the goal line, like the Tampa Bay Lightning do, but a little tweak to the aim of the defenders could bring some interesting results.

Instead of aiming everything at the net, why not aim off of it at times? It seems counter-productive, but in reality bringing a little unexpected element to the offence could help the team generate a few more goals.

The St. Louis Blues’ first goal of their game against the Habs a week ago is a good example of the scoring chance a shot rebounding off the end boards can create. Alex Pietrangelo shot wide of the net with Jaden Schwartz standing at the far post instead of the near one. Schwartz caught the puck as it rebounded off the back board and put it in.

The Habs are already a dominant five-on-five team, but some little tricks like this one could help them keep their conversion rate high.

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